John P. Lopez – Graveyard of the Greats: It’s not just fans who deserve better from the Texans

Dec 20, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) during warmups before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Graveyard of the Greats: It’s not just fans who deserve better from the Texans

At its core, the J.J. Watt story is a sad one.

Heartbreaking, really. And like most heartbreaking stories, it was totally preventable.

It’s a story of, “yeah, but.” It’s a story of the much-deserved payoff that never came, a story of sacrifice and determination fulfilled only with individual accolades and personal triumph.

For some athletes, that might be enough.

They’d never say it out loud, but for some, the games are played for money and individual honors. They want to hear you chant their names. They want to see their jerseys retired, their names plastered on rings of honor, and, if they’re lucky, maybe someday even wear a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio.

But for J.J., there always will be an emptiness behind the smiles.

The Texans should have done better. They should have done more. They should have seen a once-in-a-generation player and treated him accordingly. And sadly, while the football world fetes and toasts Watt this week — deservedly heaping praise on maybe the best to ever do it – the sad reality is, his is not the only Texans career that fell short of what it deserved.

Sure, lots of great players never win a Super Bowl. It happens. It happens all over, all the time.

But the Texans have failed a multitude of players who played the game at the highest level and, with the right environment, could have and should have at least played for a conference championship, if not more.

J.J. Watt earned five Pro Bowl appearances, five All-Pro awards, was named to the NFL’s all-2010s team, and won three Defensive Player Of The Year awards. He also was the Walter Payton Man Of The Year and, for a roughly three-year stretch, impacted and changed games as much as any elite quarterback in the league.

But he was just the best of many Texans the organization failed. Brian Cushing was Rookie Of The Year and a Pro Bowler. DeMeco Ryans also was Rookie Of The Year and a two-time Pro Bowler as a Texan. Arian Foster was a four-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro running back. Jonathan Joseph was named to two Pro Bowls as a Texan. Andre Johnson, who figures to be a Hall of Famer like Watt, earned seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro awards. DeAndre Hopkins was a four-time Pro Bowler as a Texan and was named All-Pro three times. Duane Brown, as a Texan, earned four Pro Bowls and an All-Pro. And tight end Owen Daniels twice was a Pro Bowler as a Texan.

The most telling thing of all when it comes to the above-mentioned Texans’ greats? Most of their careers overlapped. This is an organization that may not be very talented now, but from 2011 through 2019 it had a multitude of Pro Bowl players and a deep roster. But instead of taking those final, bold steps to acquire pieces that could make a difference, it settled comfortably into being a very good team coached by a very below-average coach.

It never was about talent with the Texans. It was about that “culture” they like to talk about and never equipping this team with the right coaches, front-office leadership, and a commitment to winning more than a commitment to image.

The Texans must collectively look themselves in the mirror today and realize it’s been systemic failures, not bad luck. It’s been listening to false prophets, not real football people. It’s been the organization being more worried about what people might think, than what it takes to win. Just win.

As an organization, the Texans, in a sense, always have enjoyed playing dress-up. They package and frame players in certain ways that promote a high-integrity, high-performance image. But when it came to surrounding truly great players with the means to play for championships, they consistently have fallen short.

For every Cushing, DeMeco, and Andre, there were safe picks and acquisitions by former GMs like Charley Casserly and Rick Smith. For every J-Joe, J.J., and Arian, the organization often proved to be too patient with decent quarterbacks like Matt Schaub rather than having the urgency to reach another level. And for every Hopkins, Duane Brown, and J.J., there was hesitance to fire middling coaches like Bill O’Brien and con men like Jack Easterby.

In the grandest of ironies, the last time J.J. Watt walked off the NRG Stadium field, he was consoling the only true franchise quarterback this team ever had – Deshaun Watson. In a viral video clip, Watt told Watson, “We wasted one of your years.”

As great as he was, as much as he did for the team and community, the coldest truth about J.J. Watt’s retirement is the Texans never did enough. They let him down. They wasted his years. They let a lot of players down. They should have done more.

J.J. Watt was on the winning team in a playoff game just four times in 10 years with the Texans. He never even played in a conference championship game. None of them did.

Keep in mind; it wasn’t Deshaun Watson’s personal scandal that led him to ask to be traded after the 2020 season. He saw what happened to J.J.’s career. He watched Duane Brown get traded. He saw DeAndre Hopkins get traded. He didn’t want to be a part of the likes of O’Brien and Easterby. And he asked out.

Whether it was misguided leadership or simple incompetence, the only thing we know about J.J. Watt’s career falling short is there will be another one. If the Texans ever are lucky enough to have another J.J. Watt, until they are bolder, more committed, more willing to take chances and be less patient with underperforming coaches and GMs, there will be another. And what a waste it will be.

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