There was a time when the Texans were sitting pretty at 2-0, en route to winning their third straight AFC South Championship. Fourteen consecutive losses later, the team all too quickly found itself possessing the league’s worst record and entering full-on rebuilding mode this offseason. As with the vast majority of such imploding teams in today’s NFL, an extremely large percentage of the blame is shared between poor quarterback play and bad coaching. This fact rings true here, as the Texans have been in “Quarterback Purgatory” since they began trotting out Matt Schaub in 2007. Despite his obvious deficiencies (lack of mobility, bad decision making, inaccuracy, to list a few), Houston hoped they could build enough talent around the game’s most important position to compensate for the obvious drop-off in ability between Schaub and the Texans’ top AFC competitors (Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco).
However, the harsh reality of the situation is that the Texans roughly had a 0% chance of winning a Super Bowl with Schaub at the helm. It’s seemingly a nice idea to accrue superior talent around a lesser quarterback, assuming his surroundings will help him develop, and hoping he’ll limit mistakes, but that strategy is outdated. You simply cannot hide your quarterback anymore in the modern pass-first game. It’s a quarterback-driven league.
I’ve long stated that there are three things a team needs to do in today’s NFL in order to WIN a Super Bowl: in order of importance, (1) They have to have a [good] quarterback; (2) They have to be able to get to [pressure] the opposing quarterbacks; and (3) They have to be able to protect their quarterback. The common denominator: quarterbacks. The success a team has of achieving its ultimate goal (winning a Super Bowl) is largely dependent on how its own quarterback performs. Accordingly, there hasn’t been one Super Bowl winning QB in the last decade that was considered “below average” at the time. Eli Manning and Joe Flacco were the “worst” quarterbacks during that 10-year span to win rings, but even then, those two were playing the best football of their careers, and their teams could not have won without their quarterbacks’ routinely clutch performances throughout the playoffs. The others: Tom Brady (2), Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger (2), and Russell Wilson. The recent list makes the main requirement to winning it all pretty self-explanatory.
Yet, despite all this, the Texans have decided that Ryan Fitzpatrick puts their team in the best position to win a Super Bowl. When the team signed the journeyman backup QB, I initially applauded the move; Fitzpatrick (31) is the ideal veteran clipboard holder and possible stopgap starting option to teach (Havard education) and groom a rookie, franchise quarterback until he’s ready. And with rumors spreading that the Texans were interested in trading away the #1 overall pick, I figured that was the plan. After all, the consensus top prospect was South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney, and the team had to figure they could move down a few spots, while receiving some valuable draft picks from whichever team decided to trade up to grab the “once-in-a-decade athlete,” and then the Texans could select the top-rated quarterback on its board…
That didn’t happen.
Houston took Clowney with the first overall pick. And in doing so, the Houston Texans blatantly ignored some very obvious caution signs, and in my opinion, took the biggest risk of the 2014 NFL Draft. The importance (necessity) of having a very good quarterback is stated above, and the Texans passed on a chance to acquire franchise quarterback in order to select a defensive player with numerous question marks. The best way I can sum up the risks involved with Clowney is by posing this question:
When was the last time the NUMBER ONE OVERALL PICK not only had major work ethic concerns, but was coming off a miserable 3-sack season, and was being forced to change positions in the pros?
Let’s break it down:
Work Ethic – When I watched film cut-ups on Clowney, it was easy to see his supreme athleticism and elite ability, but aside from SportsCenter Top-10 esque splash plays, I was relatively underwhelmed as a whole with the tape of his senior season. Clowney was relatively inconsistent from a numbers standpoint, recording a sack in only 16/36 games he played in college. During his senior season tape, it seemed as though he gave minimal hustle when the play was designed to go in a different direction away from him, and his effort fending off double teams left a lot to be desired. Moreover, he struggled with conditioning early in the season, constantly subbing out. This led to analysts typically pointing to injuries to provide an excuse for Clowney. However, after critics countered with the notion that stars generally have motivation to play hard and battle through injuries, supporters desperately claimed that he was just looking out for his future. In other words, he played conservatively and did not give maximum effort because he did not want to risk getting injured. This argument is unfounded because it centers on Clowney playing football with “money on his mind,” which begs the question:
“If Clowney didn’t try his hardest because ‘millions of dollars were on the line,’ then how are we supposed to assume his poor work ethic will change when he’s already pocketed the millions?”
3-Sack Season – I realize sacks don’t tell the whole story. But Clowney did not record many QB pressures, knock-downs or other relevant pass rushing stats either. In sum, he’s coming off his worst season.
Position Change – At the next level, Clowney will be converting from his college position, a 4-3 defensive end in a 3-point stance (with his hand in the ground), to a stand-up outside linebacker in Romeo Crennel’s 3-4 base front. Clowney could surely excel in this new role, but it’s something he’s largely unfamiliar with and will have to adjust to.
To be clear, I am not calling Clowney a bust, nor am I underestimating his natural ability. His lethal combination of quickness, strength and overall natural athleticism is uncanny. His burst is tremendous, and he’s a smooth mover that can make playing the position look easy. Based on natural athletic ability, Clowney has the potential to be a dominant pass rusher for years to come. I wouldn’t ever argue otherwise.
Rather, my stance is more along the lines that Clowney was not the best pick for this team. When justifying the selection, a lot of fans and experts tend to use the word “upside.” However, this is a bad argument for several reasons, particularly because “upside” in this sense is incorrectly judged based on a per individual PLAYER standpoint as opposed to a TEAM standpoint. In other words, although it’s likely true Clowney has the most INDIVIDUAL UPSIDE of any player in this year’s draft class, that doesn’t mean he provides the most upside to his TEAM. I’d argue that when a team has the #1 overall pick, they aren’t looking for the player with the most individual upside as a player judged solely by his position. Or else, by that logic, taking a kicker with seemingly unlimited upside would make sense first overall. On the contrary, teams in that unfortunate position are obviously looking to acquire the biggest difference maker – the player who will have the greatest impact on the team’s success – AKA the player who gives the TEAM the highest upside.
Therefore, the fact that Clowney’s sky-high individual upside is not relevant compared to what he could offer his team (how he can help them win). In that regard, taking Clowney, or any defensive player for that matter, first overall in the modern NFL is presumptively foolish.
Non-quarterbacks, especially defensive players, simply cannot make a large enough impact to turn a team around. Houston should have known this better than any team. After all, the NFL’s best defensive player (by far), J.J. Watt plays for the Texans. And despite another healthy and spectacular season from Watt, the Texans nevertheless possessed the league’s worst record.
Think about that: the Texans already have the BEST defender in the NFL, and they were still the league’s WORST team last season. So the best solution is to draft another defensive player? Highly doubtful. Even if Clowney is HALF the player Watt is (which, judging by Watt’s greatness alone, is very unlikely), the Texans are right where they left off: a talented team without a quarterback, which in my opinion, means they haven’t increased their chances of winning of a Super Bowl by even a minute fraction of a percent. To get a better sense of why a potential franchise quarterback’s upside generally outweighs a defensive player’s, let’s examine the best-case scenarios of the Texans taking a signal caller or Clowney:
Best-Case for Clowney: He excels immediately, giving the Texans two excellent pass rushers. Houston’s defense is improved, but they still have Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Not only do they have to win a division that has Andrew Luck, (Good “luck” with that), but he’ll likely have to out-duel Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and somebody like Big Ben in the AFC playoffs to make it to the Super Bowl, in which case he’ll have to beat one of the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, or Drew Brees. Optimally speaking, as a result of the team’s revamped defense, and because Fitzpatrick played well enough to compete for the playoffs, the Texans surprise everyone and finish 8-8. However, not only did Clowney set the team back one year from finding its franchise quarterback, this middle-of-the-pack finish gives Houston a mid-first round pick, putting the team in far worse position to acquire one. In essence, the team would be stuck in quarterback purgatory, yet again.
Best-Case for Top QB: The Texans take the top-rated quarterback on their draft board, be it Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, or Johnny Manziel. Ryan Fitzpatrick starts initially as one of the young guns learns under him, waiting for his opportunity to play. Or one of the rookies wins the job outright. Either way, the franchise quarterback develops under Fitzpatrick and Bill O’Brien, and the talented offense has something to look forward to. Under this scenario, WR Andre Johnson doesn’t hold out because he believes the Texans aren’t contenders with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. Once the rookie steps on the field, he’s helped tremendously by a very nice supporting cast – two physically gifted and natural pluckers at WR in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, a well-rounded running game featuring Arian Foster, and one of the game’s best blindside protectors in LT Duane Brown. The rookie QB ignites a spark in the offense, making the team competitive. And the defense is improved nonetheless because Brian Cushing returns healthy. Knowing that Houston wanted to take one of the three quarterbacks, the team even could have traded down with a pass-rush-needy team like Atlanta (6th overall), who would have been more than happy to give up next year’s first round pick to swap five spots. Even though the Texans don’t win the division in 2014, they are set up for a hopeful future and at least have a chance to win a Super Bowl in the foreseeable future because they have a legitimate quarterback.
This theory is not to say that a QB should taken first every year, because some draft classes do not have any legitimate potential franchise quarterbacks in them. However, that absence was not the case this year; Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel all fit the bill of quarterbacks worth developing in hopes of becoming a franchise passer. With ideal size and a nice arm Bortles is the most raw of the three, but he possesses the most long-term upside as a pocket passer. Bridgewater’s smallish frame and hands are concerning, but he is the most NFL-ready of three, having played in an NFL-based offense with command of audibles at the line of scrimmage. Manziel’s improvisation and unconventional style will frustrate both coaches and defenses, but he’s the hometown hero that Texans’ owner Bob McNair wanted. In my opinion, all three quarterbacks would have made more sense than Clowney, because even if the quarterbacks flame out, the more chances a team takes on the game’s most essential position, the better its chances of hitting.
And until it does, its chances of achieving the ultimate goal are next to zero, regardless of how stacked the team is around its quarterback. Therefore, in my view, teams that selected one of the three first round quarterbacks (Jacksonville, Cleveland, Minnesota) are all closer to WINNING a Super Bowl than the Texans are, at least currently. That doesn’t mean they will be better, but in theory, they are certainly further along the path toward winning a Super Bowl.
SIDE NOTE: Sadly enough, I likely wouldn’t even be writing this column if the Vikings hadn’t wisely jumped traded back into the first round to steal Bridgewater merely one pick away from falling to Houston’s second round pick at 33 overall. That would have been a dream scenario. However, the Vikings spoiled this potential plan. Minnesota took advantage while the Texans sat back and waited. It’s not like they couldn’t see it coming though. It was well-known that Seattle desperately wanted Flordia DT Dominique Easley (if I knew it, you can bet the 31 other teams did as well), so once New England nabbed him, the Seahawks were looking to trade the pick. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned here: “If you want something in life, reach out and grab it.” However, it’s worth noting that had the Texans really coveted Bridgewater, they likely would have understood the situation enough to prevent that trade from occurring, trading moving up in front of Seattle/Minnesota. Either way, my opinion (and the result) remains the same.
Now, as a result, the most important job on the field, and unfortunately the team’s ultimate fate, is left in the hands of either Ryan Fitzpatrick or 5th round developmental project, Tom Savage (Pitt.). While no one knows whether Clowney will be a stud or a dud (he’ll likely fall somewhere in between), the one thing I am confident in is that the Texans will never win a Super Bowl without a good quarterback.
And since Clowney does not play quarterback, the Texans did not take the player that gives them the best chance to win a Super Bowl.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This opinion column was not intended berate the Houston Texans in any way. I worked for the Texans two summers ago, and I’m 100% sure they are among the highest class, most well-run organizations in the NFL. While I disagree with the front office’s decision in this case, my opinion on team’s personnel moves is comparatively uninformed, and I will be rooting for Clowney to prove me wrong, bringing my second favorite NFL team a Super Bowl victory.