Sitting in a Toyota Camry parked in a Kroger parking lot isn’t exactly the ideal place for a nervous breakdown.
Mario Williams would be the #1 pick of the 2006 NFL Draft.
That was the news that came over the Houston airwaves on the eve of the 2006 NFL Draft, much to the dismay of a 22-year-old who just moved his entire life from Chicago one month earlier to sell football fans on the virtue of jumping back on the Texans bandwagon thanks to the upcoming number one pick in the draft. Suffice it to say, adding Mario Williams wasn’t the bait I expected to lure them in.
Understanding it from a football perspective is one thing. And I did. But understanding it from a fan’s perspective is entirely different.
The previous day, general manager Charley Casserly gathered all non-football employees into the team auditorium to explain the team’s decision with the first pick. This wasn’t something I expected given the fact football decisions are made independently of business decisions, but nonetheless, there we sat, listening to a Super Bowl winning general manager explaining the team’s pre-draft process and machinations. For a football nerd like myself who played the game and grew up devouring everything related to the game, I was in heaven.
Just two months earlier, I had received a job offer from the team as I worked a post-graduate internship in the business department for my hometown Chicago Bulls, a dream in and of itself. As I mulled similar offers from other NBA teams and the newly received Texans’ offer, I had trouble making a final decision given each one of them involved moving far away from home. That night, at a dinner event to celebrate the conclusion of the internship program for my class, Bulls Executive Vice President of Business Operations Steve Schanwald pulled me aside to congratulate me on my offers and impart some sage advice. When someone in my position is given any piece of advice from a giant in the world of sports business, you listen. When I told him about my decision-making issues, he simply said, “Jeff, it’s the NFL. I love the NBA, but it’s the NFL! Plus, they have the number one pick with an extremely marketable player coming.” Those marketable players? Heisman Trophy winner USC’s Reggie Bush or hometown hero and National Championship quarterback of the Texas Longhorns Vince Young. That was it. This only confirmed the way I was thinking. It was done. I was moving to Houston.
So as I sat there two months later, listening to Casserly deflect questions from staff about Young and Bush while at the same time speaking about the importance of finding a pass rusher to help the team attack Peyton Manning for the duration of his career in the AFC South, the hope I had for being able to sell a marketable star to a dejected fan base was drifting away. Casserly’s football logic was sound. North Carolina State’s Mario Williams was an unbelievably productive college player who blew up the combine and fit the mold of a prototypical NFL defensive end, but suffered from one huge negative: He wasn’t Bush or Young.
Bush was the most exciting player to come out of college football in my lifetime. Coming off a historic run with USC that culminated in a Heisman Trophy (despite what the record books say). Although there were doubts about whether he could be an every-down running back, there was no question that if used correctly, he could be an explosive offensive weapon at any level. But for as much potential as Bush had, he couldn’t hold a candle in Texans’ fans minds to Young. Young wasn’t just a potential superstar to Texans fans. He was a mythical hometown figure that could restore gridiron order to the city and bring the Texans their first taste of glory. The only image fans had in their head of Vince Young was the Texas quarterback dashing for the winning Rose Bowl score to clinch a national title over Bush’s Trojans. That’s all they cared about. Fans didn’t want to hear the questions NFL personnel had about Young’s ability to understand complex schemes, play under center, or how his unorthodox throwing motion might limit him. None of that mattered. The Texans just extended former #1 pick David Carr for three seasons. Young was the answer to all that ailed the fan base. The media was pushing for it too. Local media wanted the story of the hometown hero coming home. Even Skip Bayless said not drafting Vince Young would be an unforgivable decision. That should have been the warning sign right there.
The Texans’ Saturday Draft Day party following the previous day’s announcement was more funeral than festival. Fans were perplexed and angry. The boos from inside Reliant Stadium could be heard all the way at Radio City Music Hall where the pick was officially announced by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. They kept going throughout the 2006 season. Bush was part of a rejuvenated Saints team that went to the NFC Championship Game following the 2005 devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Young’s questionable statistical production didn’t matter to fans or those that voted for 2006 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. His Week 14 39-yard touchdown dash in overtime at a Reliant Stadium chock full of Vince Young fans sporting the enemies’ colors was a gut punch to those who felt conflicted between their love of team and city. Imagine being on the phone with angry fans after that game. That was me and a number of others in the Texans’ front office. But that was the low point.
Bush had his moments winning a Super Bowl with the Saints before bouncing around to four other teams, rushing for 1,000 yards twice. But the doubts about his ability as an every-down back were real as his career has served as more of a cautionary tale for running back evaluation. Young also had his moments, including a playoff appearance in the 2007 season, but they were fewer and farther between than even Bush’s. The pre-draft concerns about Young were true. After his first two seasons, he would start only 22 more games in the NFL as he struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness. Williams, on the other hand, validated the team’s choice. While not a future Hall of Famer (unless he has a late-career rejuvenation), Williams’s performance with the Texans justified his selection. Although the Texans didn’t make the playoffs until his final season with the team, their performance under head coach Gary Kubiak stabilized and Williams made two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team. Before the 2012 season, Williams signed the most lucrative contract for a defensive player in NFL history, at the time. With the Bills, Williams garnered two more Pro Bowl nods and had a sensational 14.5 sack, first-team All-Pro season.
The moral of this story? There is a reason fans aren’t in NFL front offices. Popularity doesn’t matter. Evaluation does. The best way for an NFL team to market itself is to win. Making winning decisions on draft day means being bold, seeing the big picture, and blocking out the noise. In an age where immediacy isn’t only desired by fans, it is demanded. Patience isn’t part of most fans’ vocabulary. But it needs to be. Development and improvement take time.
The foundation for future Texans’ success started during that 2006 NFL Draft. Not only was Williams selected, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans (despite the team’s efforts to trade up and snag Memphis RB DeAngelo Williams), Pro Bowl tight end Owen Daniels, and stalwart offensive tackle Eric Winston were added. Only Denver (QB Jay Cutler, EDGE Elvis Dumervil, WR Brandon Marshall) and New Orleans (Bush, OG Jahri Evans, S Roman Harper, OT Zach Strief, WR Marques Colston) had more successful drafts in terms of average approximate value (via Pro-Football-Reference.com) per pick. A draft isn’t made in one pick. A team’s future isn’t dictated by one decision, but instead a series of decisions that assembles the puzzle. Houston fans in 2006 had trouble hearing that. That day was about one decision. A decision that ultimately proved all of the doubters wrong. A victory for evaluation over popularity.