Lance Zierlein

I'm here to fix the red-zone woes for the Texans

The Texans were much better in the red zone in 2017. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Is there anything worse than not being able to finish something that you really want to finish? It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. It’s happened to you before. Just think about it. Let me give some examples and see if any of these sound familiar.

  1. Jumping up to dunk the ball (choose 8 foot goal or 10 foot goal or Nerf goal according to your athletic abilities) and having the rim block your dunk.

  2. Starting a sneeze and then having it abruptly stop.

  3. Having someone at your table say “No thank you, just the check” when the waiter asks if you want dessert.

  4. Being in the middle of passionate moment with your wife and then having your kids bang on the locked door demanding to know what mom is doing and preventing things from… finishing.

  5. Getting hung up in the red zone and settling for field goals (or interceptions, or missed field goals).

Look, I’ve experienced all five of those if I can count the Texans red zone inadequacies as my own source of aggravation for “not finishing”. All of them suck, but probably #4 and #5 suck the hardest.

Texans Gross in the Red Area

There is no way you can hear about how bad the Texans are in the red area and not have some type of joke bubbling up in your head about a rash. However, we are talking about the spot also known as the red zone which is everything from the opponent’s 20-yard line and in.

Last season, Deshaun Watson was incredible in that most important area of the field. That’s the money zone and Watson cashed all the checks last season. Granted, it was a limited sample size, but his rate of 13 passing TDs on just 27 attempts inside the 20-yard line in 2017, was unmatched by any quarterbacks with Wentz coming the closest on touchdowns per percentage of attempts with 24 TDs on 59 attempts.

This season? The Texans are next to last in the NFL scoring a touchdown on just 36% of their trips inside the red zone. That’s it! That’s the equivalent of them falling on the ground before they even get to the basket to try and dunk. That’s like realizing you left your wallet at home in the middle of the meal before they even offer you dessert. That’s like zipping yourself up in your own pants before the romance starts.

Fix-A-Flat

The Texans red zone offense has a big flat tire and it’s time to fix it. So let’s diagnose the problems. Let’s start off with the quarterback. Patrick Mahomes is so good near the goal line because he has an absolute rocket launcher for an arm, so he can fit throws into the tightest of spaces. Watson doesn’t have that same ability, so he can’t just sit and wait for guys to get open.

The Texans need Watson to make pre-snap reads on where he wants to go with the football based upon coverage and matchup. Once he starts doing that, he can begin to target who he wants to throw to before he even snaps the ball which will allow him to throw with much better anticipation. Throwing with anticipation is the key to success in tight quarters.

Secondly, and most importantly, Bill O’Brien absolutely, positively MUST do a better job with not only his play-calling, but his play design near the goal line. Remember that first touchdown where Keke Coutee caught the flip toss on the jet sweep action and scored a touchdown? Yeah, me too. It was awesome. So where did that play or a counter to that play go?

Misdirection, counters, and quick-hitting plays are the way of the world now. Hell, go turn on a Chiefs game and watch how “instant” their goal line offense is. They hit you as quickly as possible before you know who has the ball and where it is headed. Speed headed in all directions keep defenses guessing and on their heels. Let’s see if the Texans can figure this out and stop making Houston such a Factory of Field Goals.

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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