Since arriving in Houston to take over the role as general manager of the Texans back in June of 2006, Rick Smith has overseen and faced two drastic nadirs that would have probably resulted in termination for most general managers after the first one, and almost certainly would have after the second one.
The first was following the 2010 season. That year, a Texans team that was coming off a 9-7 finish in 2009, including four straight wins to close out the season, was widely expected to make its first ever playoff appearance, and instead they plunged to 6-10 with a defense from which you had to avert your eyes to keep from vomiting.
Instead of capping everybody that offseason, owner Bob McNair decided to bring back head coach Gary Kubiak and Smith, and their solution was to hire Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator and spend heavy in free agency. That strategy (along with drafting some kid out of Wisconsin) resulted in back to back double digit win seasons and a couple of playoff wins. Things looked like they were going in the right direction.
Then 2013 happened. In a season that saw everything from Matt Schaub forgetting how to play football to Ed Reed existing here for half the season to the head coach having an actual stroke on the field, the Texans finished 2-14. Rock bottom. Miraculously, Rick Smith survived that debacle, somehow (presumably) persuading McNair that the issue was the head coach and that a good roster, eight years in the making, could possibly go 2-14.
Honestly, typing those first four paragraphs already make the exercise I went through to generate data for this post feel so futile, as if Rick Smith is going ANYWHERE. He was given a four year extension shortly after merely SIGNING Brock Osweiler. (I guess how Osweiler actually PLAYED didn't really matter. Imagine if he'd actually been good, Smith might have gotten a lifetime contract!) However, if the Texans' brass, on the cusp of what could be a glorious decade or so of Deshaun Watson, are about to wage war behind the scenes (as many in the national media contend they are), I think there is some much needed data that needs to be injected into the debate on whether Rick Smith should oversee the Deshaun Watson Era.
In short, yes, despite Smith being the one to trade up and draft Watson, I believe that — GASP! —- someone else should take the GM baton from here.
Judging a general manager is a little different than judging a head coach. Head football coach in the NFL is a position that becomes entirely about wins and losses after a very short honeymoon. Bill O'Brien has, by no means, been a great head football coach. As of today, he is exactly .500, 31-31 overall as an NFL head coach. However, if the most important employee in NRG Stadium is Deshaun Watson — and make no mistake, it's not even close, he IS the most important Texans employee —- then EVERY decision that is made, especially in his developmental phase, should be made in HIS best interests.
I think keeping Bill O'Brien, who architected and called plays for an offense that averaged well over 30 points a game with Watson under center for six starts, is in the young quarterback's best interests. By the way, you know who else does? Deshaun Watson, that's who....
And Watson isn't alone in his stance, there are numerous other players who back O'Brien. Watson is just the one whose vote, if it were an election, would count the most.
This brings us to the other half of our NRG Stadium Wrestlemania main event, and that's Smith, who is on the cusp of surviving another monumental nadir, his third with this team in a decade or so. This team is 4-10 right now, and the injury excuses are flying around like bottle rockets at a July 4th picnic, not so much from O'Brien or Smith, but from apologists for either side. That's all well and good, but the fact that injury excuses are necessary for anybody is far more an indictment on the team's lack of depth and the rickety construction of the roster, and THAT falls on Smith.
The overpaid, leaky secondary... the lack of second and third tier talent to fill out competent special teams... the complete sham of an offensive line that's been trotted out there all year.
Smith... Smith... Smith.
Back to my previous point about assessing and grading general managers. Judging a general manager is a more nuanced debate than judging a head coach. Except in extreme cases (very great and piss poor), the quality of draft classes, the quality of free agents signings, the overall roster constriction strategy — those are largely subjective things where a majority of the topical material falls into a gray area where a case can be made for either side, for or against the GM.
That said, there reaches a point where, like head coaches, general managers can be judged by the quantitative accomplishment of the organization on his watch. Rick Smith is past this point. No current NFL general manager has been around longer and overseen less organizational accomplishment than Rick Smith. By any measurement, the Texans have been a below average outfit with Smith overseeing personnel.
Rick Smith came here in June of 2006, so the draft and free agency were already in the books when he got here. (One way to tell that the 2006 draft class didn't belong to Smith is that it was one of the best in team history.) Smith's apologists will tell you that the 6-10 regular season in 2006 really shouldn't count on Smith's ledger, since he didn't REALLY get to put his indelible stamp on the team until the following offseason. (You know, the one where they took Amobi Okoye with their first pick of the 2007 draft.)
To that, I say "Fine." The fact of the matter is that the starting point for judging Smith doesn't really matter. The organization ranked somewhere in the lower half of the league any way you slice performance. So how do I quantify this? Well, let me count the ways...
REGULAR SEASON WINNING PERCENTAGE
Up to and including this weekend's games, the Texans are 86-88 since 2007, a winning percentage of .494, good enough for 19th in the NFL. Every team below the Texans since 2007 has changed general managers AT LEAST twice in that timeframe. Eight teams above the Texans have the same general manager that they had when Smith was hired. Five have won Super Bowls (New England, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore), two have a GM who actually OWNS the team (Dallas, Cincinnati), and the other is Minnesota, who is 11-3 with a Texans castoff at quarterback this season.
DOUBLE DIGIT WIN SEASONS
Since 2007, the Texans have had just two regular seasons in which they won ten or more games. Only Washington, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cleveland, the Rams — all one apiece — and the Bills (zero) have had fewer. (For the record, I don't see ten wins as some arbitrary point to make Smith look bad. Most 10-6 teams are generally thought to be good football teams, and Brock Osweiler's going 9-7 last season invalidated 9-7 as an inflection point where you can say "Hey, 9-7 teams are good!")
POST SEASON PERFORMANCE
Since the 2007 season, the Texans have won three playoff games, all at home — two wins over Cincinnati, led by Andy Dalton (winless in the postseason in his career), and one win last season over Oakland led by Connor Cook, who might be working at Dairy Queen right now, for all I know. The average margin of loss in their four playoff elimination games is 17 points. In that time frame, the Texans are one of 14 teams who haven't made it past the divisional round. Eighteen teams have made it past the divisional round. (Yes, the Texans being ranked 19th in categories under Rick Smith is a trend.)
So how do we take all of the Texans' performance since 2007, regular season and postseason, and blend it in a way that (a) properly reflects the importance of making the postseason, (b) properly reflects the fact that they made the postseason a couple times on the back of an incredibly weak division, and (c) properly reflects the necessity of ADVANCING in the postseason. Well, here is the scoring system I came up with:
Qualifying for a wild card ... 1 point
Winning division w/ no bye ... 2 points
Winning division w/ bye ... 3 points
Double digit wins ... 1 point
Wild card round win ... 1 point
Divisional round win ... 2 points
Conference title win ... 3 points
Super Bowl win ... 5 points
So, without further ado, here we go. Since the start of the 2007 season through the end of the 2016 postseason, here are the rankings, with the number of Super Bowl wins in parentheses. The teams in BOLD all have the same general managers in place as they did the day the Texans hired Smith:
1. New England (2) ... 72 points
2. Green Bay (1) ... 46 points
3T. Seattle (1) ... 40 points
3T. Pittsburgh (1) ... 40 points
5. Denver (1) ... 34 points
6T. New York Giants (2) ... 33 points
6T. Baltimore (1) ... 33 points
8. Indianapolis ... 30 points
9. New Orleans (1) ... 23 points
10T. San Francisco ... 22 points
10T. Atlanta ... 22 points
12. Arizona ... 21 points
13. Carolina ... 20 points
14. Dallas ... 16 points
15. LA Chargers ... 15 points
16T. Minnesota ... 14 points
16T. Cincinnati ... 14 points
18T. Philadelphia ... 13 points
18T. HOUSTON ... 13 points
20. Kansas City ... 12 points
21. New York Jets ... 10 points
22. Chicago ... 7 points
23T. Tennessee ... 6 points
23T. Washington ... 6 points
25T. Miami ... 5 points
25T. Detroit ... 5 points
27T. Jacksonville ... 3 points
27T. Tampa Bay ... 3 points
29. Oakland ... 2 points
30. Cleveland ... 1 point
31T. Buffalo ... 0 points
31T. LA Rams ... 0 points
NOTE: Again, this scoring system is for the period of the beginning of 2007 through the postseason of last year in 2016, in case you're wondering why the 10-win Rams of 2017 or the 10-win division champion Jaguars don't have numbers reflecting their accomplishments this season.
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Any way you slice it, whether it's by something as easily quantifiable as winning percentage or as nuanced as my well-reasoned Scoring System Of Franchise Accomplishment (we will call it the SOFA, for short), the Texans under Rick Smith are, generally speaking, the 19th best team in football over that time. Winning percentage? NINETEENTH. Playoff accomplishment? Eighteen teams have gone further in the playoffs. Sean's SOFA method? Tied for EIGHTEENTH (putting them in the top nineteen, yay!). This is over a TEN season sample with Smith constructing the roster, a ten-year window where I give Smith a pass for a 6-10 season for which he was in the building at the beginning of his employment with the team.
And again, we must point out that eight general managers from around the league are still in place from the day Smith was hired — five Super Bowl winners, two actual owners who double as GM, and one GM whose team is 11-3 with Case Keenum at quarterback. Accepting Smith's level of performance, especially at the expense of O'Brien coaching Watson, would be a demoralizing acceptance of mediocrity.
No further witnesses, your honor.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.