Houston Texans: Reading Between the Lines of Rick Smith's MMQB Guest Column

Jake LangenkampCorrespondent IIIJuly 11, 2011

HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 23:  Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy chats with Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith before the start of the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans on September 23, 2007 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Bob Levey/Getty Images

For years, head coach Gary Kubiak was blamed for the mediocrity of the Houston Texans.  Lately though, general manager Rick Smith has taken a fair amount of criticism for the Texans' poor performance, and not just from the fans.

Last month, former Texans running back Ahman Green did a radio interview in which he stated that Smith asked him if he was playing hurt.  Green went on to say that he had been warned about Smith by other players in the league.  Shortly after, former Texans safety Marcus Coleman voiced criticism of Smith as well.

That prompted Lance Zierlein, a local radio show host and blogger for the Chronicle, to give some advice to Smith on how to fix his image.  He suggested specifically that Smith take a more active role in the media to prove that he is not a puppet GM to Gary Kubiak as has been suggested, and to also attempt to clean up his image.

It seems as if Smith may have taken the advice.  Smith was the latest of guest writers for Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated while King is taking vacation.  You can find the entire column written by Smith here.

I must admit that I fully expected to see the same ho-hum rhetoric from Smith before reading the article.  Smith definitely has the gift for speaking a lot of words without really saying anything, which is a great skill to have as an NFL executive but it certainly isn’t entertaining for fans.

“I can say with complete conviction that nothing has tested this organization's resolve more than regressing in the 2010 season after making steady progress in our first four seasons with coach Gary Kubiak.
We improved from 6-10 in 2006 to a pair of 8-8 seasons in '07 and '08, followed by a 9-7 campaign in '09 that not only marked the franchise's first winning season, but also took us to the brink of our first playoff appearance.”

OK, this is what I was expecting.  Laud the positives in any situation, and ignore the bad.  Just a few paragraphs in, and I was in danger of not finishing the article.

“The obvious expectation was a playoff run in 2010, and most experts agreed. So when the reality of a 6-10 record and a defensive ranking of 30th slaps you in the face on the last day of the season, all you want to do is get back to work and get back on the right track as soon as possible.”

Wow.  He’s not telling the average Texans fan anything they don’t already know, but that amount of accountability is not what I was expecting.  I did not expect to see “6-10," “defensive ranking of 30th" or anything similar anywhere near Smith’s nationally circulated piece.  He talked about the elephant in the room.

Next, Smith had this to say about the newly hired defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips:

“We hired Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator on Jan. 5, three days after the 2010 regular season ended. Wade has a history here in Houston and is a rock star. People in Houston love him and he has that 'thing' about him that disarms you and makes you feel comfortable immediately.

Besides that, he is a pretty damn good football coach. We retained Bill Kollar to continue his work with the defensive line and rounded out the staff with a pair of good coaches in Vance Joseph and Reggie Herring, who will coach the defensive backs and linebackers, respectively.”

Smith, Kubiak and owner Bob McNair have been trying desperately to sell the “Wade is the savior of the defense” notion to Houston fans all offseason.  Smith, though, showed his lack of media savvy by painting him as a larger-than-life character, a “rock star” as he referred to him.

Phillips was just fired as the head coach of probably the most visual franchise in football for a lack of ability to instill discipline, enthusiasm and accountability.  He probably is not going to be able to sell Phillips as a rock star to the average national fan who has been inundated with Cowboys coverage that would suggest the opposite.

“We ran a 4-3 base defense in 2010 and Wade runs a base 3-4. That means a change in philosophy. We immediately had to switch defensive gears in our draft preparations.

After meeting with Wade and Gary and watching film, I flew to Mobile, Ala., for Senior Bowl practices and convened a meeting with our college scouts. I instructed them on the new position specifics and characteristics we would now be looking for in our new defensive scheme.”

Maybe Smith misspoke, but I have a serious problem with this statement.  Smith watched film with Phillips in order to learn what Wade likes/needs from a personnel standpoint, cool.  Why, however, would Smith brief the scouts on what Phillips needs?

It might be splitting hairs, but Smith admitted that he had just begun learning what types of players were necessary himself.  He felt that confident in his ability to convey that to the scouts instead of Phillips just briefing them himself?  Seems like a risky version of the telephone game to me.

“When I say no contact, I mean NO CONTACT! No offseason program, no OTAs or minicamps to teach, no rehab for players with offseason surgeries or injuries, no negotiations with our players or any new free agents. They were locked out, and we were locked in.”

The verbiage that Smith chose here is very interesting to me, “we were locked in."  One might construe that as not as supportive of the owners as Gary Kubiak suggested in contradiction to the NFL Coaches Association.  No big deal, just found it slightly fascinating.

As for the uncertainty of the unique offseason:

“What if an impasse is granted and the lockout is lifted before the draft? What will the free agency rules be? What system would we operate under? Would we go back to 2010 free agency rules in which a player needed six seasons to become a free agent?

Would our players with four years of service be free agents? What is the salary cap situation and what will the salary cap be? Will there be a salary cap?”

It might seem a given, but considering the lack of faith in Smith, it is nice to see that he thought about all of these possibilities and supposedly had contingency plans in place for each possibility.  I’m taking nothing for granted at this point, and it reassured me a bit.

He then used actual facts in the form of Phillips’ track record as a coordinator to further justify his hiring:

“To illustrate my point, look at each of his last four stops as a defensive coordinator. Denver (1989), Buffalo (1995), Atlanta (2002) and San Diego (2004) all improved dramatically on defense. More importantly, each went from having a .500 or losing record before his arrival to being a playoff team his first season at the helm. I don't think those are coincidences. Wade can teach his system quickly and get guys to play at a high level fast.

Couple that with the fact that our leaders on defense have played a lot of football together and are smart players. Guys like DeMeco Ryans, Mario Williams, Brian Cushing and Antonio Smith, who has some experience in this type of system, will get their teammates on the same page in a hurry.”

This is the material he should have used from the get-go to sell Wade Phillips as the solution.  As I myself tried to point out before, Phillips may be a mediocre to above-average head coach, but he’s a great defensive coordinator.  Packaging him as a rock star, though, distracts from that fact.

What is more notable here though is the praise for his players.  Smith took a beating from Green and Coleman, and players listen to each other.  Smith seems to be making an effort to publicly commend his players, something that he hasn’t regularly done in the past.  Maybe he took Zierlein’s advice?

Lastly, Smith has a dual message about free agency.  On one hand, he has this to say:

“Our lists are ready to go. We have our guys targeted and identified. I am sure the other 31 clubs do too.

Teams are going to be aggressive. The typical courting process of free agency will be expedited. If you are interested in a player, you had better not wait too long to show it.”

But almost in contrast, he says this:

“As chaotic as that sounds, discipline will be the rule of the day. Chaos theory states that behind the seeming madness there is order. Teams that maintain that order will put themselves in the best possible position to have a chance to sign the players they are interested in. There has to be a balance, however, between understanding the urgency to fill needs, recruiting players you are interested in, and writing and signing good deals.

There will be the temptation to rush and do a bad deal or walk away from a deal prematurely, and that is going to happen in some cases. We have to remain conscious of that. We are going to be aggressive, but we are going to maintain the right approach.”

I take that to mean he is hedging his bets.  He wants the Texans fan to salivate over the possibility of signing Nnamdi Asomugha or Jonathan Joseph, but wants them to be prepared for the possibility that a marquee free-agent signing won’t happen.

In the end, I see Smith’s article as a step in the right direction.  I still don’t feel completely comfortable with him as a general manager, but he is showing the ability to learn and grow as a front-office executive on several levels.

By writing this article, he made the effort to increase his exposure to local and national-level fans.  He also made a decent attempt to sell the team as a viable playoff contender, while at the same time praising the players who will ultimately be responsible for the team’s ability to make that happen.

It’s also noteworthy that on the same day that this column was published, Smith was a guest on Zierlein’s radio show, Lance being the very person who suggested he increase his exposure to the public.  Even though he stumbled a few times during the piece, he appears to be trying to improve.

What do you think though?  Did this repair your opinion of Smith at all, make it worse or was it a non-event for you?  Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter (@JakeBRB).


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