A few weeks ago, my family and I visited what I consider to be the best kid's amusement park in the country, Legoland, in California. As our wonderful time there came to a close and we gathered our belongings to head back to our temporary quarters in Hermosa Beach, I asked my oldest son, Robert, "Are you ready to go?"
Robert responded as I think any 8-year-old would. "No, dad," he said. "I want to go back on the rollercoaster!" I quickly informed him it was a rhetorical question and to help his mother gather the bags and stroller for his younger sister and brother. Confused, he asked what a rhetorical question was and I told him it is a question that needs no answer. He thought for a moment, shrugged his shoulders and followed my instructions.
The question I asked Robert is one I have had to answer every day this offseason, and it brings to mind the simple question every NFL fan has heard for years: Are you ready for some football? The question Hank Williams Jr. belts out before every Monday Night Football game is rhetorical too, but I'm sure an emphatic "Yes!" just entered your mind.
There is no doubt the NFL labor situation has created some anxiety for many of you, just as it has for me and the men and women I work with here in Houston. It has been an unpredictable summer, to be sure. I am confident, however, that we have intelligent, well-meaning participants at the negotiating table on both sides who understand the significance of our game and the sanctity of the institution of the National Football League. They are working diligently on a collective bargaining agreement that will continue to grow our game and provide the quality product on the field that you have come to enjoy, appreciate and celebrate. There are many complex issues and details to be worked through. It is a tough, arduous process. But they are up for the challenge and have the collective goal of seeing a full 2011 season played out.
That is the League level... the macro level... the global view. I'd like to give you an inside look today at how we have handled this offseason at the Club level... the micro level... the local view. I will share with you from a management and personnel standpoint our thought process, the issues specific to our team and issues facing every other NFL team. I am not a betting man, but I would wager that every other NFL team has the same concerns or have had the same conversations that we have, and have made similar plans in preparing for the end of the lockout and a return to football.
The labor issue has made this offseason more interesting and challenging than any other I've been a part of in my six years as general manager of the Texans and my 16 years overall in the NFL. After a hard, honest, thorough assessment of why our 2010 team fell short of our goals, we developed and put a plan in motion to address our issues. As we self-scouted, made changes on our coaching staff, changed our defensive scheme, evaluated draft prospects and prepared for free agency, we did so in the shadow of a potential labor dispute and work stoppage.
I can say with complete conviction that nothing has tested this organization's resolve more than regressing in the 2010 season after making steady progress in our first four seasons with coach Gary Kubiak. We improved from 6-10 in 2006 to a pair of 8-8 seasons in '07 and '08, followed by a 9-7 campaign in '09 that not only marked the franchise's first winning season, but also took us to the brink of our first playoff appearance.
The obvious expectation was a playoff run in 2010, and most experts agreed. So when the reality of a 6-10 record and a defensive ranking of 30th slaps you in the face on the last day of the season, all you want to do is get back to work and get back on the right track as soon as possible.
Forget sleep. Forget rest. Fix the problem. Kickoff weekend was nine months away yet there was a real sense of urgency. There was urgency to get better for our owner, Bob McNair, and his wife, Janice, who deserve a winner; for our fans and the city of Houston, who have shown unwavering support selling out every home game in our franchise's history; and most importantly, for ourselves: the players, coaches, scouts and football and business operations folks who work countless hours before, during, and after the season with one goal in mind -- To Win!
The Winds of Change
We hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator on Jan. 5, three days after the 2010 regular season ended. Wade has a history here in Houston and is a rock star. People in Houston love him and he has that 'thing' about him that disarms you and makes you feel comfortable immediately. Besides that, he is a pretty damn good football coach. We retained Bill Kollar to continue his work with the defensive line and rounded out the staff with a pair of good coaches in Vance Joseph and Reggie Herring, who will coach the defensive backs and linebackers, respectively.
We ran a 4-3 base defense in 2010 and Wade runs a base 3-4. That means a change in philosophy. We immediately had to switch defensive gears in our draft preparations. After meeting with Wade and Gary and watching film, I flew to Mobile, Ala., for Senior Bowl practices and convened a meeting with our college scouts. I instructed them on the new position specifics and characteristics we would now be looking for in our new defensive scheme. As we developed our plan of attack for free agency and continued our draft prep, our task became infinitely more complicated in March, when the lockout rules prohibited us from contact with our players and restricted us from signing any new players or conducting any football related business.
When I say no contact, I mean NO CONTACT! No offseason program, no OTAs or minicamps to teach, no rehab for players with offseason surgeries or injuries, no negotiations with our players or any new free agents. They were locked out, and we were locked in. Thanks in large part to our vice president of football administration, Chris Olsen, we successfully negotiated extensions for our Pro Bowl tight end, Owen Daniels, defensive tackle Shaun Cody and valuable backup running back Derrick Ward before the lockout. We were able to put a check mark by a few of our ever-growing list of 'to-do' items.
While every team's approach is different and needs are specific, we all face the same circumstances. For the first time, NFL teams were going into a draft without having an opportunity to fill holes via free agency. There was a lockout. There were court cases and injunctive orders.
What if an impasse is granted and the lockout is lifted before the draft? What will the free agency rules be? What system would we operate under? Would we go back to 2010 free agency rules in which a player needed six seasons to become a free agent? Would our players with four years of service be free agents? What is the salary cap situation and what will the salary cap be? Will there be a salary cap?
All of those variables are what teams have had to process, plan for and plan through. The situation was and remains very fluid and that requires flexibility and multiple contingency plans. It means contingency plans within contingency plans on top of contingency plans. As we in Houston worked through all the potential scenarios, we developed plans for each. As each possible scenario is eliminated, we home in on the remaining possible outcomes.
Teams had to adjust on day two of the NFL draft, when there was a temporary lift of the lockout. While we were unable to execute any player transactions, we at least had a chance to lay eyes on our players, check on them and their families, and talk a little ball with them. We were able to connect Geoff Kaplan, our head athletic trainer, with our injured players and assess how rehab progressions were going. And then just like that, the lockout was back in place.
Time Waits For No Man
The clock is ticking. The potential free agency window is shrinking. The time to negotiate rookie deals is shrinking. The time to prepare our team is shrinking.
I believe balance is important and that we all need time to balance the things we consider important in our lives to stay productive. Taking time to spend with family and recharge is part of that. We gave our staff some time off but they were on a 24-hour return to work notice. They couldn't go far, and had to keep their Blackberries close. We got our time off and now we are ready for some ball.
While I was writing this, I learned that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an injunction that prevents the lower courts from blocking the lockout. An hour later, the NFL and NFLPA issued a joint statement saying that negotiation is the best way to resolve the situation and have a full NFL season.
One of the biggest concerns I hear from our fans is that we changed our defense and we are going to suffer because we have not had a chance to work with our players during the lockout. Teams that have changed coaches, teams that have new quarterbacks or that are unsettled at the quarterback position all face similar challenges. I have heard the sentiment that our product won't be as good in light of these challenges. Don't buy it (especially here in Houston!).
From an outside perspective, changing coordinators in this environment could be considered a detriment. In my opinion, that risk is mitigated by Wade's ability to install a system, teach it and get players up to speed quickly. His success in his first year as coordinator with teams is attributable to his ability to teach and free his players up to maximize their potential in his defense.
To illustrate my point, look at each of his last four stops as a defensive coordinator. Denver (1989), Buffalo (1995), Atlanta (2002) and San Diego (2004) all improved dramatically on defense. More importantly, each went from having a .500 or losing record before his arrival to being a playoff team his first season at the helm. I don't think those are coincidences. Wade can teach his system quickly and get guys to play at a high level fast.
Couple that with the fact that our leaders on defense have played a lot of football together and are smart players. Guys like DeMeco Ryans, Mario Williams, Brian Cushing and Antonio Smith, who has some experience in this type of system, will get their teammates on the same page in a hurry.
While the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we cannot be complacent on offense. Our offense has performed among the NFL's best each of the last three seasons. Our entire offensive line is coming back and I thought it performed at a high level last year. Our quarterback, Matt Schaub, has emerged as a leader, and the NFL reigning rushing champion, Arian Foster, along with Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson, who is arguably the best wide receiver in the game, are all weapons who can make plays with the ball in their hands.
The only opportunity we have had so far to better our team via player acquisition has been the 2011 Draft and we feel really good about what we were able to accomplish and the players we added over those three days. It takes several years to really determine if a draft is successful, but I like our group a lot. I have a 'scout's creed' in my office that defines what we look for. It reads, "I am looking for tough, smart, physical players with discipline that are competitive and passionate about the game of football."
I tried to condense everything I look for in a football player in one statement to help our scouts identify our kind of guys. They did a great job with that this year. That statement defines J.J. Watt, Brooks Reed, Brandon Harris, Roc Carmichael, Shiloh Keo, Taylor Yates, Derek Newton, and Cheta Ozougwu. I am really excited to watch these men develop and help our team.
As I mentioned before, we were able to get a few players signed before the lockout began -- as did some other teams -- but there are still players from our roster last year who we would like to re-sign. The unique thing about this year's free agency period is that all negotiations will happen concurrently, or close to it. Players you want to re-sign on your team, unrestricted free agents from other teams, college free agents and street free agents; all of those negotiations could be going on simultaneously. It's going to be fun! Long hours are a part of this business and 18- and 20-hour days are not uncommon at various times of the year. I may not make it home for a few days and I am OK with that. In fact, I am looking forward to it.
Our lists are ready to go. We have our guys targeted and identified. I am sure the other 31 clubs do too. Teams are going to be aggressive. The typical courting process of free agency will be expedited. If you are interested in a player, you had better not wait too long to show it.
There are going to be logistical challenges: How much time do we have for free agency? Do we have time for a visit? When can we get the physical set up? Is his wife going to come? Does she want to see houses?
As chaotic as that sounds, discipline will be the rule of the day. Chaos theory states that behind the seeming madness there is order. Teams that maintain that order will put themselves in the best possible position to have a chance to sign the players they are interested in. There has to be a balance, however, between understanding the urgency to fill needs, recruiting players you are interested in, and writing and signing good deals. There will be the temptation to rush and do a bad deal or walk away from a deal prematurely, and that is going to happen in some cases. We have to remain conscious of that. We are going to be aggressive, but we are going to maintain the right approach.
Another important issue we have spent countless hours on relates to how we acclimate our players back into our program from a football conditioning and physical standpoint. I think the teams that do a good job of assessing where their players are physically and progressing them along in a manner that reduces injury risk are going to be the teams that have early success in the season.
How quickly can we assess and then assimilate our players into a plan that gives our team the best chance to compete at an accelerated rate? Not only do you have to have a plan for free agency, contract negotiations and player acquisition, but also you have to have your strength and conditioning staff, athletic training staff and coaching staffs ready and on the same page.
I think on average we will see about 75-85 percent of the players in excellent physical condition. There will be about 10-15 percent who will be close, and about 5-10 percent who aren't in good condition. That can be problematic in a training camp environment, and it will be a challenge to manage. If we use those percentages for conversation sake, teams will have to get the 20-or-so percent of players who are not in condition up to speed slowly. That could in turn overtax the 80-or-so percent of players who do report in shape and potentially subject them to overwork and increase risk of injury. Soft tissue injuries and pulls are going to be a major issue if teams are not smart and don't work through this unique situation with some flexibility.
Once we get to camp, each day will be more valuable than the last and losing time due to injury will be something teams can ill-afford. Our saving grace is that every team will have to manage the same set of issues and concerns in varying degrees. We also have the heat to contend with here in Houston. These are considerations we have discussed, debated, and will continue to talk about to come up with the right plan and adjust as we go. Flexibility, remember?
I mentioned the sanctity of the institution of the National Football League. The NFL is a cherished piece of the fabric of this country. We love football. We love watching it. We love playing it. We love working to create a product that lives up to its history.
One of the greatest things about the sport for me is that it is full of life's lessons. As with anything of value, you sometimes have to experience some discomfort to understand true worth and not take it for granted. My hope is that this lockout forces all of us who love and value the game to have a newfound and even greater reverence and appreciation for all that it means to us individually and collectively.
I am looking forward to Hank Williams Jr.'s question, "Are you ready for some football?" I suspect it won't be as rhetorical as it used to be and we can all answer with sincerity...Yes!
1. I think we will play a full NFL season in 2011.
2. I think the Texans will make the playoffs this year.
3. I think the city of Houston gets a bad rap. It is a wonderful place to live. We have all the elements and diversity of a big city but you never meet a stranger.
4. I think the game of golf is like the game of life. It's all about practice. Whether you are talking about meditation, yoga, a sport, public speaking or a musical performance, it is all about how consistent you are in your practice. Here's hoping my game will improve after my kids have gone off to college and I have time to actually do that. It is pretty lousy now.
5. I think raising a family and being a father is the most important responsibility a man can take on.
6. I think Mike Florio has carved himself a nice little place of relevance in the NFL. I remember when it was almost taboo to admit to reading a "blog." I would venture to guess that his site is one of the most commonly visited sites across the league. Good for him for seeing the future and capitalizing on his gifts and talents.
7. I think Michael Bernard Beckwith, the leader and founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City, Calif., is one of the most dynamic men walking the planet! I had a chance to visit with him and share a meal. Boy, I enjoyed the fellowship. His insights and revelations about himself and what life is all about are powerful.
8. I think the fact that Peter King sometimes sits on a train and knocks this column out in less than 24 hours is incredible, especially considering it took me three days.
9. I think Evan Koch is one of the most talented young PR guys in our business and I would like to thank him for helping me put this together so quickly.
10. I think I love my wife. No wait, that was a movie. And certainly not the kind of movie to send a shout out to her with (sorry, honey, I do love you).