By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
If there was a professional football hell last fall, it probably had a 77054 ZIP code.
We all lived the Houston Texans' 2-14 season in 2013, that death spiral of Matt Schaub interceptions and season-ending injuries, the eventual termination of Head Coach Gary Kubiak and the head-scratching retention of General Manager Rick Smith.
Indeed, in 2013, Football Lucifer set up shop on Kirby, cackled in the face of every battle-red-clad Houstonian and didn't leave until his work was done.
Now comes 2014, and with it, a new hope. Whether that hope brings the best of things, as Andy Dufresne contended, remains to be seen.
While the Texans spent the better part of March and April purging and backfilling chunks of last season's roster by sifting through the bargain bin of free agency, it's really on May 8, the first night of the NFL draft, that the rebuilding process of new Head Coach Bill O'Brien begins in full force.
On that night, barring a trade, the Texans will begin the proceedings by making the No. 1 overall selection, in the process adding another face of the franchise to J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson. More important, they're likely charting the course for the emotional well-being of every football-loving Houstonian for the next five years.
Hope can be a little scary.
Futility does have its privileges in the National Football League, and when a team has the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the importance of getting it right cannot be understated.
The Texans know this. They've been here twice before.
Back in 2002, as a brand-new expansion franchise, the Texans were awarded the top overall pick before ever playing a game. In an effort to fill the most important position in team sports, they selected what they hoped would be a franchise quarterback in David Carr. As it turned out, Carr was barely an NFL quarterback, let alone an elite one.
So hundreds of sacks and dozens of losses later, in 2006, the Texans were right back where they had started, picking first in the draft again. That year, in the face of massive pressure to replace Carr with local hero Vince Young or to draft a playmaker like Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, the Texans opted for defense, taking defensive end Mario Williams, who gave them six years of largely capable play before leaving for Buffalo in 2012.
The man behind both of those selections was Charley Casserly, the Texans' first-ever general manager, who was with the team from inception into the summer of 2006 and who now works as an analyst for the NFL Network.
Casserly knows what Smith and O'Brien are going through, as this 2014 decision of whom to select bears stark similarities to the decision that faced Casserly and then-new Head Coach Kubiak in 2006, with South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney playing Williams's role of "superhero defensive freak" and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel playing Young's role of "Texas-bred, potential franchise quarterback."
Do you go with the defensive game changer in Clowney, pairing him with J.J. Watt, or do you roll the dice with a quarterback like Manziel, whose diminutive stature and fast-paced lifestyle cloud an otherwise mind-blowing highlight reel and résumé?
In the minds of most draft pundits, the safe play is Clowney, but in Casserly's mind, he actually faced a much easier choice in 2006 than Smith and O'Brien do on May 8.
"I think [deciding on Clowney] is a tougher decision than [selecting] Mario Williams. I think Mario Williams to me was a much clearer decision than what the Texans are facing here, because in our building there were no questions about Mario Williams's work ethic and his commitment to the game. There are questions about Clowney in that area," opined Casserly.
Indeed, if there is a criticism of Clowney, it's that he took plays off last season, that he was biding his time and marking off the days until he could announce his intentions to enter the NFL draft. Hell, he promptly announced he was leaving school while still in uniform on the field at the end of his bowl game.
So yeah, Clowney was ready to get on with his pro career.
For what it's worth, Casserly disagrees with the criticism of Clowney's effort level.
"Clowney's a very talented player and makes a lot of very athletic plays that are rare plays, so you see Pro Bowl potential in him. I didn't find a problem with his effort; I don't think the guy dogged it," said Casserly.
The Texans' most glaring need, however, is at quarterback, where the decidedly average results of the Matt Schaub era hammered home the need for a difference maker at that position, something the Texans have never had in the 12 seasons of their existence.
The big names are Manziel, Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles. Casserly, however, is not bullish on this year's crop of signal callers — not as potential No. 1 overall picks, at least.
"[The Texans] are looking for a quarterback, and you'd like for there to be a guy who is jumping off the screen for you, and there's just not," Casserly lamented. "The quarterbacks in this class, all of them have parts but none of them is a complete player. None of them is a Top 10 player."
But need at the quarterback position can make otherwise rational men do very irrational things. And for all of his flaws, some more perceived than actual, the mystique of Manziel may be too much to pass up.
The Heisman winner might be the most intriguing potential first-round quarterback in the history of the draft. "Manziel is a whole other discussion. Your [offensive coordinator] is gonna have to design an offense for what he can do and live with what he can't do," Casserly surmised.
Yes, there's Manziel's unique, devil-may-care style of play. There's also the fact that you could just as easily envision Manziel getting stuck in Cabo on his bye week as you could hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Johnny Manziel Experience would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "ride or die."
Option No. 3 for the Texans would be to trade back in the first round with a team that's in love with Clowney or one of the quarterbacks and collect some extra draft picks, a plan that might make the most pragmatic sense but would make draft night one big popcorn fart for Texans fans.
Trading back, at this point, would be like having your buddy's bachelor party get switched at the last minute from Las Vegas to Cleveland.
Trading back brings one other hangup — it's not easy to do. It takes two to tango, and finding a trade partner is easier said than done, even in this day and age when the No. 1 overall pick doesn't bring nearly the financial burden that it did before the new rookie wage scale was enacted in 2011.
"We never got one offer for either No. 1 pick, and we shopped it," said Casserly.
Peyton Manning in 1998, Michael Vick in 2001, Cam Newton in 2011. There was no decision-making going on with any of those picks. The main concern for the teams choosing them was spelling their names right on the card that was sent up to the commissioner to announce the pick.
This isn't one of those years. Nobody truly stands out; everyone has flaws. The decisions in this draft are complex — choosing whether to go with Clowney or a quarterback, and if it's a quarterback, which one will it be?
No pressure, Bill and Rick. It's just your jobs, and the emotional well-being of the entire city of Houston, on the line.
If this is what hope looks like, maybe Andy Dufresne's buddy Red had a more poignant take:
"Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."