What J.J. Watt’s Departure Says About the Texans

Watt asked for—and was granted—his release on Friday. That might have been inevitable no matter who was running the Texans, but a second franchise icon asking for his release says something more about an organization trying to imitate the Patriots, but lacking the pieces to make it work.
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When discussing J.J. Watt’s release from the Texans on Friday, it’s important to acknowledge both the reality of the situation and its greater context.

The reality is that Watt was almost certainly not playing for the Texans in 2021, regardless of whether the team was coached by David Culley, Bill O’Brien or Vince Lombardi. His cap number was exceptionally high for a 32-year-old edge rusher, no matter how talented or legendary that player was. It was possible, but doubtful, that Houston could have netted a significant draft selection for him.

The greater context is that Watt approached the McNair family and asked to be let go. This is significant because the franchise’s two most important players, Watt and Deshaun Watson, have expressed their desire to leave Houston in recent weeks. In the previous days leading up to this unceremonious news dump, the Texans have also spent time jettisoning loyal, hard-working staffers from personnel to public relations to equipment management who do not fit into this nebulous culture being crafted by a former chaplain and the former de facto general manager of the Patriots.

I think if most of us try, we can see what the Texans are envisioning here. By tossing out everyone who is unwilling to swim upstream, or who merely expresses a contrary opinion, they are left with only a malleable lump of clay that they can fold to their liking. It’s a long-term bet on the power of collective will vs. the power of individual talent, which, if you’ve caught any of the last few Super Bowls, is a dicey proposition at best. Those who want to make excuses for Jack Easterby and Cal McNair will compare this to something like Bill Belichick releasing Ty Law; this happens in healthy organizations, too, they’ll say. Indeed, being a little unsentimental and calculating when it comes to depreciating assets is part of a franchise’s blueprint for long-term success.

J.J. Watt, with his back to the camera, between plays

This may seem like an admiral way for this to end. For Watt—who is arguably the most important player in franchise history and whose philanthropic work with the city has forever engrained him to the area and its fans—to release a nice video that presents this as an amicable and mutual parting of ways. And who can blame him if he doesn’t want to stick around for whatever is on the other side of this teardown, after watching even Tom Brady win a ring in a new uniform. But Friday is yet another in a sequence of days when we have all watched the Texans’ leadership group slowly squeeze the soul out of the organization.

The Texans are, like so many other teams, unwittingly cosplaying as an organization they’d like to imitate without any of the requisite foundational success, experience or relative cachet that is important for all of this to work. The Texans assume that they are one of 32 teams and that, regardless of their outward appearance, they’ll have access to players. And if they get players who all believe and think the same thing, they will somehow become, like the Patriots, something greater than the sum of its parts.

But anyone imitating the Patriots’ outward coldness and pragmatism should be careful not to forget that to build something dynastic, you must have a coach and quarterback so dialed in and maniacal that football consumes every last thought in their head. Bill Belichick visits with military black ops for ideas on how to better his football team. Brady eliminated every last strand of refined sugar from his diet and stretches for 14 hours a day to make himself a better quarterback. Players can sense the expertise, the connections and the sacrifice on the other end and willingly submit to New England’s vibe, even if it has the reputation of being a bit unfeeling.

In Houston, what has happened under this current regime so far that has inspired an ounce of similar confidence? That DeAndre Hopkins–for–David Johnson trade? What is keeping any player not desperately in need of one last chance on the roster from calling their agent and asking for an escape hatch? Maybe the Texans believe that in order to create something truly lasting, they have to strip a piece to its bare bones and recreate it from scratch. New ideas, even if the rest of the league is pointing and laughing.

Let’s all wish them the best of luck with that. There is a difference between being a rebel contrarian with a plan outside of the norm and being a franchise trying to fit in a costume that is a few sizes too big.