The Houston Texans enter their 10th draft in franchise history with yet another enormous task in front of them. However, even a great draft wouldn't get this team what it takes to make a deep, meaningful playoff run.
Playoffs. It's what every Texans fan wants. It's what everyone on the on the field, on the sideline, and at Reliant Park wants.
For the Texans, it's been a long nine years. Through two regimes, each who have plenty of time to succeed, they've yet to make the playoffs. The closest they've come was at the end of 2009, when they were in the mix until the end of the last week's slate of games.
Looking at how the Texans do business on and off the field, it seems there's a bit of disconnect between their idea of building a winner and - actually building a winner. People who say Bob McNair doesn't care about winning just aren't paying enough attention. He wants to win. He knows winning would mean even more profit.
An obvious problem I see right now, is that the Texans are building to make the playoffs. They're not building to go deep in the playoffs. They're not working to build a championship team... but even that has failed to this point.
You have to adjust on the fly to succeed in any business environment. The NFL is no different. There's an interesting contradiction that spans the entire NFL. It's run by extremely stubborn, type-A personalities both on the field and off. Guys who don't like change. Guys who like doing things their way, and no other way... but the only way to win consistently is to be open to change, and being ahead of the curve for that change.
The Texans have their way of doing things, and despite their lack of success, they're certainly not all bad practices. They are conservative in free agency. They don't like to sign 30+ year old players to big contracts, with notable exceptions. They avoid players with character issues. The list goes on.
All that is fine and good, but the current Texans are being built to make the playoffs, and that's about the end of it. Look at the current roster, or even the team that barely missed the playoffs in 2009. Say they win a wild card spot in the AFC Playoffs. Okay, now what? The team isn't physical enough to beat Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or maybe even the New YorK Jets in a playoff situation. Oh sure, they came within a couple of snaps of beating both the Ravens and Jets last season, but those teams have proven that the playoffs are a different realm for them.
Can we look at the current Texans - or again, even the 2009 Texans - and say "you know, this team is really going to kick up the intensity and focus in the playoffs." Eh, I would guess not. Players talk about how much they love Gary Kubiak, and how they'd go to the mat for him - but the team doesn't back up those assertions with results on the field, similar to the Houston Rockets proclamation of their love for Rick Adelman, who they loved so much that they lost at home to Sacramento during a critical stretch late in the season.
Perhaps Wade Phillips coming in as the defensive coordinator will begin to turn the tide for Houston. His defenses are physical and intimidating, despite Wade's own persona. But in Dallas, Jerry Jones (for all his faults) would stop at nothing to get the players Wade needed to make that defense succeed. In Houston, we know for sure that at least the guys with character concerns are off the table, but more importantly - the current team's draft evaluators have been awful on the defensive side. Simply awful.
Ah yes, character issues. The Texans have a policy about guys with character issues, and they are pretty consistent with it. One of the most irritatingly repetitive things I hear Texans fans say is "The Texans need to get some guys with attitude! They need some bad dudes in there instead of a bunch of nice guys."
Two important things here. First, there's a huge difference between character issues and maturity issues. Of course, it's hard to tell when maturity issues may turn into character issues. When evaluating college-aged players who have been the big man on campus, and have people throwing offers of money, sex ,cars, etc, at them - you have to expect a fair amount of maturity issues there. We were all that age once, and some of these guys have probably done better than we would have in that situation.
Secondly, attitude has nothing to do with getting some "bad dudes" or guys who have had some character issues. On-field attitude is what you want. DeMarcus Ware is about the most unhinged, fiery guy in the world on the playing field. Same with Ndamukong Suh. Off the field? Ware is shockingly gentle. No problems there. Suh hasn't had any issues either, but even off the field he seems like he'd tear your face off... that's fine by me as long as he doesn't actually take the step of tearing someone's face off.
On the field, the Texans simply aren't physical enough. We may be in for a bit of a sea change there on the defensive side, as stated previously because of Wade Phillips. However, his alleged confidence in Shaun Cody as a nose tackle in his 3-4 is a bad sign, if you ask me. I'm hoping that's still a smokescreen, and that the Texans are going to go after a road-grader at the NT position in the draft or free agency.
People like John McClain would counter that with "Wade likes undersized tackles like Jay Ratliff, he doesn't want a wide body!" My response to that is simple. The Cowboys also have DeMarcus Ware. Do the Texans have anyone even remotely approaching the outer rings of the universe of DeMarcus Ware as a rush linebacker? No, they do not. Not even close.
You want to win in the current AFC? You want to go DEEP into the AFC playoffs? You've got to line up against Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger and you've got to bust them in the face. Leave them bloody. Leave them gasping for breath. Perhaps Wade's defense will send the Texans on that path, but it's not going to happen in one offseason. It starts with a change in philosophy. Not just in the coach's meeting rooms, but in the front office. Get guys who are killers... on the field. Don't worry about maturity issues, these guys are young and you have to give them a chance to grow up. If a guy is beating his girlfriend or robbing stores, then yes - for the love of God, keep them off the draft board. But don't confuse the two.
On offense, the Texans have already taken significant steps forward in this department. They became a physically-dominating force when running the ball. Whereas Steve Slaton was a speedy finesse runner, Arian Foster is a smart, physical runner with excellent field vision. The offensive line has grown in to one of the best run-blocking units in the league, though they could get better. Vonta Leach has given the Texans an additional dimension of offensive physicality, but he may not return in 2011.
When Texans owner Bob McNair and general manager Rick Smith talk about how they are in the business of winning championships, it rings hollow. I get the distinct impression - and I don't think I'm going out on a limb here - that for this organization, making the playoffs and losing in that first playoff appearance would be considered a major victory, and a huge step forward for the organization. Publicly, they wouldn't acknowledge that. Ever. But it's what their actions reflect.
Baby steps don't cut it in the NFL. The way the Texans are currently built, sure - maybe they COULD make the playoffs next year with a more physical defense and more consistent offense. But then what? Another season goes by. Maybe another wild card. Then another. Suddenly, Andre Johnson is 35. Mario Williams has even more injury issues. DeMeco Ryans blows out another knee, or an ankle. Matt Schaub backslides. You get the picture.
The Texans need to change their philosophy. Fans will be over the moon with a playoff appearance, but a playoff team is just an also-ran unless they're equipped to go further.