For many, 2020 will not go down as one of the better years. Global pandemic, political-type stuff, all sorts of things like that made for a really rough year. Included in that vast litany of 2020 pain was the rapid decline and fall of the Houston Texans. The calendar year 2020 started out well enough, with the comeback win against the Buffalo Bills. Then came the blown 24-point lead at Kansas City. Little did the Texans know that those would be the “good old days”.
To recap…no…to summarize the fate of the 2020 team is painful enough, but to wit:
- The team decided that it would be best to dual-hat Bill O’Brien as GM and Head Coach;
- Jack Easterby was given even more say in football operations and personnel decisions;
- The squad proceeded to trade key offensive weapon DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth round pick in return for declining RB David Johnson, a second and a fourth round pick;
- The Texans outbid themselves to sign players like Eric Murray as well as enact cap-busting contract extensions for Whitney Mercilus and Laremy Tunsil;
- The team only drafted five players;
- COVID-19 threw everything out of whack, leaving the team with no preseason and a bastardized training camp;
- The Texans started three games under .500 for the third time in the BO’B era;
- BO’B was sacked after that start morphed into 0-4;
- Jack Easterby became the acting general manager;
- The team refused to trade assets like Will Fuller, who were lost for nothing at the end of the season (Fuller losing the last 5 games of the year to a drug-related suspension make that failure all the more painful);
- The team got a career year out of Deshaun Watson and a fully-healthy season out of JJ Watt, and still finished 4-12;
The litany of pain can go on and on. All that to say, all of the bills the Texans racked up for the 2019 season came due in 2020, and the team paid dearly (and is still paying for at the time of this writing). In retrospect, it is hard to see how things would not lead to the inevitable, appropriate labeling of 2020 Texans. Perhaps it was necessary for the team to suffer the pain, going through hell to get to a better paradise. Yet, did it have to be this way?
One way that the team might have avoided the pain it suffered is if the team refused to offer, and BO’B refused to accept, the dual-hatted position of GM/HC. Each job is tough enough by itself. However, to do both successfully is all but impossible. Better coaches than BO’B did that job (think Andy Reid in Philadelphia) and they did not repeat those actions in future jobs.
Putting BO’B in that position was just asking for trouble. Granted, no coach, especially one like BO’B, will ever turn down the chance for more control/power over personnel decisions (cue the obligatory “If they want you to cook the dinner, they should at least let you shop for some of the groceries” line). Still, the strengths of BO’B’s coaching (passion, players’ type coach) would be significant liabilities in the GM side, where business and money decisions can get in the way of good player-coach bonds. In the first quarter of the 2020 season, it played out just as many feared. By Week 4, internal strife and player bickering were at such a level that BO’B could not rally the team. His temper and angst did much to exacerbate the situation, and ultimately led to his dismissal.
Suppose that BO’B had the foresight to say “No, let me be a head coach”? Then what? The Texans would be in the market for a GM once again. The flat structure of 2019 would be the default, but the squad could not operate like that for long, especially with the looming contract decisions of Watson, Tunsil and trying to reload the draft stockpile and team depth. Does Easterby make the big move to immediately become GM? Possible, as he took over the role when BO’B was fired. Yet, such an immediate power grab does not fit into the Easterby modus operandi. He is likely not the next GM.
Would the Texans make another play for Caserio? Given that the squad would finally hire him in 2021, it is likely he would still be the top target for 2020. Then again, New England still had him under contract. The bad blood between Easterby and the New England Patriots may not have abated, and New England would likely press the Texans for some form of draft compensation. Perhaps the Texans would pay that compensation (they didn’t seem to value draft picks at that time). At the very least, a dedicated personnel man, a la Caserio or some other possible New England alum, would be making the calls, and would likely have avoided such deals as the Hopkins trade. Perhaps the Texans do hire an outside entity as GM, but it would likely have to be someone that Easterby and BO’B could live with, a tough order. The limited draft capital for the 2020 team is not likely to yield many game changers for the squad, regardless of who is making the picks.
Speaking of which, what if the Texans did not make that particular Hopkins deal? Even two years after the fact, the deal is still regarded among one of the worst in league history. Hopkins was not making any secret of his desire to obtain a new contract to pay him significantly more money, a move the Texans were not going to make with two years remaining on his current deal. Still, while he had battled injuries, he also gave huge effort on the field and gave Houston one of the best offensive weapons in the game. Yet, Hopkins’ lifestyle and circle of friends ran afoul of the morals of Easterby, as big a “sin” as any could commit on the Texans at that time.
If Hopkins had not been moved, then what? It is likely that Hopkins would still suit up for the team, and continue to be the top target for the evolving Watson. Hopkins’ all-around game, especially in possession, would have been huge for the Texans in the difficult early stretch of games. For example, a chain-mover like Hopkins might have made enough of a difference to give Houston its first win of the season at Pittsburgh, a game that it lead at halftime. The following game against Minnesota, where a Fuller end-zone drop sealed the loss, Hopkins is likely to grab that one, at least sending the game into OT and giving Houston a legit chance to win. Given how he would perform in Arizona with Kyler Murray, it is reasonable to expect Hopkins to have another All-Pro type season for Houston.
If the team does not make that move, then the squad is still short two draft picks and at RB. Perhaps without the false promise of David Johnson, the team might have resigned Carlos Hyde. For the all the grief that fans gave him (think “CHUM”, which is short for “Carlos Hyde Up the Middle”), Hyde could at least power through a less-than-stellar offensive line, and he did muster over 1,000 yards in 2019. Given the struggles of the Texans’ run game in 2020, perhaps someone like Hyde could at least help with a run game that sorely needed it. Granted, if BO’B was still coaching after Week 4, would Watson have had the numbers he did when the team went to a near full-time spread offense? Difficult to say, but a back like Hyde was a better fit for the team then a washed-up Johnson.
Ultimately, the 2020 season was going to be brutal no matter who called the shots at GM and/or HC. This accounts for the world-altering variable that was COVID. Still, the roster construction for 2020 was so ill-fated that a couple of superstars like Watson and Watt could do little to overcome those limitations. Better personnel management might have kept some key pieces on the roster, like Hopkins, DJ Reader and yes, Hyde, which, in-turn, could have salvaged a few wins. If BO’B had not let himself be dual-crowned, it is possible that he is not sacked so quickly in the 2020 season. Yet, the ceiling for the 2020 team is likely capped at 8-9 wins. Going from double-digit division clinching seasons to barely .500 would not sit all that well with the fanbase or the franchise leadership. O’Brien might very well be cut loose if the team didn’t make the playoffs, especially with Easterby continuing to pull the strings behind the curtain.
Even with the expanded playoffs for 2020-21, the Texans likely finish out of the running. Regardless of finish, the Miami Dolphins still end up with two high round picks from the team, hindering the cap-strapped Texans from making any significant off-field improvements. However, that depressing fact would only get folded into the rest of the off-season. The off-field drama that awaited in the 2021 off-season for this team in this timeline, between the status of Hopkins, Watt, BO’B, Easterby and the off-field actions of Watson, would have been a telenovela for the ages. Certainly would draw a lot more viewers than what the Texans put on the field that year.