Pallilo's View: Smith and O'Brien will likely get another chance at mediocrity

Texans GM Rick Smith appears to have a job for life. Why? Bob Levey/Getty Images

Texans at Titans Sunday. Who’s stoked?!?

As they play out the 2017 string the Texans are a balanced team. The offense is bad, the defense is bad, and for what feels like the 17th year in a row, the special teams are bad. But be fair: the Texans are not a garbage organization. Barring them winning four of their remaining six games this will be a losing season, just their second in the last seven years. Garbage organizations don’t produce those results. It is accurate to note that the last two years when the Texans won the AFC South the division was a dung heap, but the Texans sat atop the heap. They had their share of stink but were obviously not awful. The Jaguars and Titans were awful for years. The Colts are awful now. The Texans had the crash and burn 2-14 2013, but that’s their only fetid stink bomb season in the last decade.

Alas, the standard shouldn’t be avoiding years-long doormat status, but building sustained excellence. Rick Smith has his GM Seemingly For Life position for more than a decade. He has never come close to building a roster that set up for even three or four years of high quality football. Head Coach Bill O’Brien went 9-7, 9-7, 9-7, and will finish worse this season. Smith is mediocre. O’Brien has been mediocre, and since the saying is a fish rots from the head first (not true) let’s go to the top. Bob McNair has been a mediocre owner.

Let’s cover the list of current NFL GMs with longer tenure than Rick Smith:

Jerry Jones with the Cowboys and Mike Brown with the Bengals. They own their teams! Jerry’s two playoff wins in the last 20 years would not have him as GM anywhere else. Neither would Brown’s zero playoff wins in the last quarter century.

The Patriots’ Bill Belichick, a tad more accomplished than Smith. Likewise the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert, Saints’ Mickey Loomis, Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome, and Packers’ Ted Thompson. All have General Manager of a Super Bowl Champ on the curriculum vitae.

The Vikings’ Rick Spielman is the only GM with a similarly average resume, who got his current post before Smith got his. And Spielman’s Vikes have reached an NFC Championship game, and this season are 9-2 and playing a backup quarterback by the name of Case Keenum.

Rick Smith has not been lousy but has never been within striking distance of really good. In some job aspects he’s been woeful but we’re talking about the overall here. I frame this subject this way: if at the point of hiring Smith you could as MATTER OF FACT have told Bob McNair…11 years from now here is what your franchise will have accomplished, and here is where your franchise will you still hire Smith? If Bob’s answer would have been yes, well, back to the rotting fish analogy.

Now to O’Brien. If it’s either O’Brien or Smith to me O’Brien would be the clear keep. His track record is mediocre, but it’s only about 1/3 as long. If I told you, again, as MATTER OF FACT, that either Smith or O’Brien will ascend to being widely considered one of the seven or eight best at his job in the NFL who would you go with?

There are some damning things about O’Brien’s tenure. The offense is his baby. During the three year quarterback carousel (in no small part O’Brien’s doing) the offense got worse year to year to year. The Texans’ ranking in total offense O’Brien’s first three years:  17th, 19th, 29th. So doesn’t it seem reasonable to conclude that O’Brien’s offense taking off with DeShaun Watson says a lot more about Watson’s gifts than it does O’Brien’s? Watson goes down and the Texans offense immediately reverts to wretched. Hey, that can happen when you lose a franchise QB--see the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. But O’Brien certainly can’t be credited with getting more out of less. O’Brien’s game and clock management have often left plenty to be desired, though that’s true of many head coaches, some way more accomplished. In all likelihood O’Brien only has a playoff win to his name because the Raiders’ Derek Carr was out with a broken leg and the Texans got to face Matt McGloin. The year prior, one of the most embarrassing home playoff losses in NFL history, 30-0 vs. the Chiefs. But for all that, O’Brien has some positives. His Texans play hard. And while that’s kind of the players’ job, it’s no given.

I laugh at the idea that O’Brien should get a contract extension this offseason. The notion that it would be unfair to have to deal with “lame duck” status, for four million dollars plus next season….give me a break! If players treat him like a substitute teacher because he’s in the last year of his deal, then O’Brien lacks the leadership qualities I actually think he has. The man commands a room. Can he command a really good football team? Hasn’t yet. Next year should be show us pudding with proof in it, or move along.

Presuming both O’Brien and Smith are back they have an off-season both challenging and with opportunity. The draft outlook is bad with the Browns having both the Texans first and second round picks. The Texans have two third rounders plus a compensatory pick at the end of the third round. The round in which Smith has been routinely inept. Well, maybe he’s due. But free agency is what will define the Texans’ offseason.  They are in their best salary cap position in years. With the no-brainer release of Brian Cushing they should have 50 mil+ to spend. They definitely need at least two offensive linemen and can sorely use secondary upgrades at corner and safety. How many holes can they plug during one free agency spending spree?

Of course, everything just covered isn’t worth 98 cents if DeShaun Watson isn’t fully recovered and then stays that way next season.

Can the Rick Smith/Bill O’Brien tandem turn the Texans 180 degrees positively next season? We’ll probably get to find out.

BUZZER BEATERS  1. Jimbo Fisher a fine hire for A&M, but assures nothing with regard to top 15 program stature.  2. We are going to wake up Christmas morning with the Rockets 25-6.  3. Best cookies:  Bronze-macadamia nut  Silver-pfeffernusse  Gold-Italian almond.


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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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