Ageism, The Texans And The Success Cycle

Winning the battle starts with admitting your system has a short-term flaw.

On March 4th, 2007, the Houston Texans took a strike against their status quo. Faced with a horrendous running back platoon situation last year that included names like Wali Lundy and Samkon Gado, an offseason plan that had them sending two second round picks to Atlanta for Matt Schaub, and a draft that was very weak in late running back depth (check the third round and later names out for yourself, yikes) they decided to sign Green Bay Packer running back Ahman Green. Green was head and shoulders above the rest of the names in the market in terms of talent, asides from perhaps Jamal Lewis, who didn't have the receiving skills to fit head coach Gary Kubiak's system. Of course, it was well-known even at this point that Green had durability concerns, as well as a recent past of fumble concerns, but that didn't deter GM Rick Smith from signing him to a $23 million contract with $6.5 million in guarantees. Green didn't see out the end of his contract, and was never able to stay healthy enough to justify his time in Houston. Green came into the 2007 season at the age of 30 years old.

A year earlier, Smith had tried to give David Carr a new weapon with the acquisition of Eric Moulds. Moulds was given 4 years, $14 million, and a $5 million dollar signing bonus after being acquired in a trade from the Bills. He lasted one season with the Texans, and managed to prove Buffalo right that he was done as a productive receiver. At the time of the trade, Moulds was 32 years old, and made it to 33 by training camp. Mark Bruener, Ephraim Salaam, N.D. Kalu, Jeb Putzier, Sam Cowart, Mike Flanagan. These guys all brought varying levels of success to the table, but as a whole, didn't impact the team much. Smith struck gold by signing Kevin Walter away from the Bengals for a modest sum, and hit again when he found Andre Davis to create a terrific special teams unit. He has a knack for finding guys like this. Joel Dreessen was another that would come later. They were all under 30 when they signed with the Texans.

Despite having the 10th most valuable sports franchise in the world according to Forbes, the Texans really don't assault free agency very hard. This year they walked away with only Neil Rackers and Wade Smith, and while they gave out a big contract to Antonio Smith last year and Jacques Reeves the year before, they both fit certain criteria: way under 30, not a top of the line player, and they were both good character guys. Guys you can count on to stick around for a few years. 

And that was a fine philosophy. In 2006 and 2007. When the Texans didn't have the core in place to merit the supporting pieces. Andre Johnson was there, of course, but with no "proven" quarterback, only the beginning seeds of young talent, and a team deprived of depth from years of Charlie Casserly's patented "salt the earth" draft strategy, there was very much a merit to staying away from guys like Moulds and Green. Even if they did work out, it wasn't going to get the Texans very far, although at least in the NFL it's a more defensible strategy since a mid-first round pick is worth more than an early one. 

Rick Smith seems to have taken the results of those moves and concluded that a) building from within is the right thing to do and b) young free agents are better than old ones. These are two lessons that are absolutely true, and I think the Texans are a highly competent organization with a solid player acquisition strategy at this point. However, the extreme that the Texans have taken those two philosophies to is a step too far, in my view.

In 2008, the Texans established that when they could keep Schaub under center, they had the makings of a good offense. There was tweaking to be done along the offensive line and with the running backs, of course, but between Schaub, Johnson, Walter, and Owen Daniels, the team had enough weapons in the passing game to keep things interesting. The defense had two core pieces in Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, while the rest of the unit was largely suspect. However, the team had a chance to make the playoffs with the right amount of attention paid toward squeezing maximum value out of the positions they had. They hit a home run with Brian Cushing, and Antonio Smith paid dividends in pass rush even if he didn't notch the sack numbers the Texans were probably hoping for.

Unfortunately, the team went 9-7 and just barely missed the playoffs. Part of that was the regression of Steve Slaton and how that involved Chris Brown more, part of that was the utter funk that got into Kris Brown, part of it was Dunta Robinson's implosion. These things happen to teams in the NFL. Players get hurt and players lose steps. Thats why depth is the most important thing an NFL team can create. But to willingly go into a season with Dominique Barber and John Busing as the safeties is a self-inflicted wound that the front office created solely because of an unwillingness to go old to fix a position. The venerable Darren Sharper, one of the best ballhawking safeties in the NFL, was available and the Texans were only casually rumored as a suitor in the "Oh this looks like a fit," way. He signed with the Saints, they won the Super Bowl. The Texans were fortunate enough to come up with Bernard Pollard, but they still played essentially 9-on-11 for the season between poor safety play and Shaun Cody, who is a solid backup but not an exceptional upgrade over anyone north of Travis Johnson.

And this didn't have to happen. I'd hardly call Bob McNair cheap, but the Texans had their shot at many different players who could have put them over the top in the last two offseasons. No, they weren't going to sign Albert Haynesworth, but they could've ponied up a little extra for Bart Scott. They could've made room for Matt Birk, or signed a Rocky Bernard or a Jovan Haye to fill the gap at nose tackle in the 2009 offseason. Between OJ Atogwe, Ryan Clark, Nick Collins, Sean Jones, and Sharper, there were a ton of chances to fill safety this offseason. In fact, there is still a chance with Jarrad Page unhappy in Kansas City. Nothing doing so far. John Henderson gets released and would be a perfect fit in the middle in Houston, and I'd be surprised if he even got a phone call. They couldn't get a deal done with Leigh Bodden, and now they're going to be forced to start a rookie corner next to a second-year corner. The Texans have built the foundation and structure of a good suburban house, but instead of springing for good windows, they're using ones made out of recycled liquor bottles.

Once you build your core, you don't need to keep throwing unproven guys out there. Maybe Dominique Barber is going to eventually be a good NFL safety. I wouldn't bet on it, but lets say he will. There's nothing wrong with having him learn how to play safety for a year or two behind a Sharper. History provides us all sorts of famous examples of free agent acquisitions putting a team over the top, and recent playoff teams have tended to wind up with one or two veteran starters. Hell, the Patriots practically made a living out of patching up their defense with guys like Rodney Harrison and Junior Seau, and they seemed to do alright for themselves over the course of the decade.

Instead, it seems like the Texans applied their lessons from Green and Moulds' follies too far. Free agent Aaron Schobel desperately wants to play in his home city, and while he might not be an upgrade on Smith at his age, you can never have enough help rushing the passer. Despite what you might have heard, all the Texans continue to say is that they are evaluating the situation, not that they are interested. If it's anything like their recent evaluations of similarly old players, I think the diagnosis is "we're better off with our young guys." I'm not wild about Schobel or anything, he's a luxury piece for the Texans in my estimation. That said, it sure would be nice to see the Texans realize that great NFL cores like the one they've created don't have a very long shelf life, and act accordingly when it comes to patching their holes.

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