Do Nice Guys Finish Last — Even In The God-Awful AFC South?

Earlier in the week I opined that Houston Texans owner (and right-wing sugar daddy) Bob McNair was not wrong in passing over the Ray Rice opportunity. I gave several arguments, one of which was that hiring someone who was in the middle of a domestic-violence controversy would be wrong on “principle.”

John Nova Lomax (formerly of the Houston Press and now writing for Texas Monthly) writes (I am paraphrasing loosely here) “to hell with your principles“:

To their credit, I guess, Texans brass are aware of the team’s irrelevance and ineptitude, as head coach Bill O’Brien famously said on HBO’s behind-the-scenes reality show Hard Knocks this summer:

Let’s be honest with each other. This place has no respect in the league, just so you guys are all aware of that. This organization is 96-126. [Actually, it was 90-122 at the time and is now 91-126.] Thirty games below .500. Turn your TV on. Nobody talks about the Houston Texans because nobody thinks we’re gonna win. And the disrespect that they show our quarterbacks? I’m tired of that, too. Because both those kids can play. They just need a chance and one of them is going to get it. Enough is enough. Every player that is out there — all 90 players — are players that I want for the 2015 season. When you f—— guys show up to practice tomorrow, they better be ready to f—— go.

Stirring words, indeed. And about half of them true, right up until he started talking about how both Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer could play winning football at this level. So even the head coach acknowledges that the Texans are woeful, pitiful, forgettable. But why do the Texans, who sell out every single-game in their football-mad mid-major market, continue to perennially stink?

Well, there is one statistic in which the Texans lead the NFL. Unfortunately, this tally is not chalked up on the field.

The Texans lead the league in players not getting arrested. Only one Texan has been arrested over the last five years, and that player (rookie Brandon Ivory) was an undrafted free agent who never even made it to his first Texans training camp, because he was cut from the team a few days after his arrest for first-degree burglary charges in Alabama.

This is no accident. The choirboy Texans are very much the deliberate creation of owner Bob McNair and his braintrust.

Three years ago, McNair and general manager Rick Smith were riding high on the hog. As November rolled into December 2012, the Texans were coming off two overtime victories in five days and sported the NFL’s best record at 10-1.  Back then, McNair and Smith were keen evangelize the world with their message that Leo Durocher had been wrong. Nice guys didn’t always finish last.

McNair said there were three types of guys who were “unacceptable” as Texans draft picks: Those with a pattern of domestic violence (“People who do that are just a bully. Bullies are usually not courageous when they’re facing someone as strong as they are”); substance abusers (“That can become a habit, and they might bring that habit with them. I’m not talking about someone who smoked marijuana. I’m talking about a persistent user of drugs. We take them off the list”); and guys with no respect for authority (“We have a very strong chain of command. Our coaches don’t want to have a debate with a player every time they tell him to do something”).

…continuing…

All of which is well and good if you are staffing an operating room, investment bank, or air traffic control tower, but the NFL is none of those things. The NFL is insane. These guys risk paralysis, crippled knees, and debilitating brain injuries play after play, year after year. Every player in the league knows they are potentially one violent collision away from being wheeled off on a cart and breathing through a tube for the rest of their life, that all those helmet-to-helmet hits might one day in the not-too-distant future leave them unable to recognize their wives and children.

How many well-adjusted young men want to risk that? Yes, the fact the Texans are able to stock a full roster every year shows that there are some, but as losing seasons plague the Texans, it appears ever more apparent that their policy of passing up the troubled (who are often also the hungriest) players is simply not working. That maybe cranky old Leo Durocher had been right after all.

This is not to say that the Texans should be out there trying to spring Aaron Hernandez and slot him in at tight end, or that they should dust off Ray Rice and line him up behind Mallett and Hoyer. But think about it: Former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor enthusiastically waved most of McNair’s red flags through his whole career, and yet to call him a game-changing player sells him short. He didn’t just alter individual games, but the very way defensive football was played across the entire sport.

To boil down JNL’s argument to its core: character does not contribute to value in professional football in the same way that it does in other professions; and by privileging it above other concerns, the Houston Texans are fundamentally failing to measure the value of their prospects.

One thing that I am surprised that JNL did not mention is the effect that college football programs plays here. It is trite to note that college football is essentially the minor league for the NFL (albeit one dependent upon undercompensated labor). When college football programs invest in and reward players (and coaches!) who don’t respect the rules, their classmates (particularly women) and sometime, the law — then a disproportionate amount of the potential recruits for a professional football team are going to have “character” issues. This leaves owners like McNair scrambling to hire the best of a bad bunch.

One issue that JNL does point out, albeit obliquely, is that “troubled” players are often the “hungriest.” To flesh this out : players who have always had success on-and-off-the-field have a sense of complacency that tends to prevent them from achieving true NFL excellence. Case-in-point for this would be RG III.

Lomax notes in his article the comparison that John McClain made (and Whitney Mercilus re-tweeted) between the Astros and the Texans. It’s not entirely clear what McClain’s point was in making the comparison, but a reasonable sports fan might point out that the Astros have done exceptionally well in part because they have embraced the Gospel of Moneyball. Jeff Luhnow’s passion for analytics is exceeded only by Dork Elvis himself.

If the Astros and the Rockets can both put decent teams on the field by using cold statistical logic, then the Texans might want to consider doing the same. Although Bill Belichick is definitely evil, his keen grasp of football analytics is probably a better explanation for the Patriots’ success than spying and ball-tampering.

When Bill O’Brien (a member of Bellichik’s coaching tree) was brought on as headcoach, the expectation generally was that he would follow these analytical methods. While some of the draft picks of late have been inspired, the game-day evidence heretofore has not been overly-encouraging.

In the final analysis, I can forgive the Texans organization for caring about “character,” even if it is pointless. I will not forgive them, however, if they remain skeptical of analytical methods that other teams are already using to crush the Texans.

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