At 2-10, the Texans win nothing by winning. They win plenty by losing, securing the highest possible selections in each of the seven rounds of the 2022 draft.
And so, to little surprise, the Texans will be trotting out a rookie quarterback with an 0-6 record as the starter in 2021 for the final five games, with coach David Culley saying that Davis Mills gives the Texans “the best chance to win.”
Culley is right. At this point, it’s not about winning games. It’s about winning the draft. All they have to do is keep losing.
Along the way, they simply have to say nothing to suggest they’re not trying to win. It’s also helpful, frankly, to get the media to push the notion that, no, they’re not hoping to lose.
Enter Adam Schefter of ESPN.com, who passes along from unnamed sources (three guesses as to their identity aren’t needed) that the Texans simply hope to evaluate Mills in order to decide whether to use a high draft pick on a quarterback or a defensive end. If Mills “thrives” as the headline to the item from Schefter indicates, the Texans are more likely to go with a pass rusher like Aiden Hutchinson from Michigan or Kayvon Thibodeaux from Oregon. If Mills “struggles,” the Texans will be far more inclined to acquire a new quarterback.
Not mentioned in the article is the obvious connection between Mills playing well (and the Texans in turn winning games) and Houston plunging on the draft board. The best-case scenario for the Texans would be for Mills to show that he can be the starter, but for the team to otherwise not win any more games.
The article also points out that G.M. Nick Caserio is in full-blown “evaluate everyone” mode. Spreading that message now will make it seem less conspicuous if/when other starters get benched for younger players, under the guise of evaluation. That’s how tanking happens, and until the NFL addresses it with a new procedure for awarding the top picks in the draft, the temptation to tank won’t dissipate.
It’s another issue with which the league will have to struggle as legalized gambling proliferates. The NFL tries to push the notion that every team tries to win every game it plays. The deeper a team gets into a lost season, the more ridiculous that notion becomes.
Whether those high picks are used or whether they’re traded, they can help a team in ways far more meaningful and lasting than a one-season difference between 2-15, 3-14, 4-13, and 5-12 ever would. Look at what the 49ers gave up to move from No. 12 to No. 3 earlier this year. Throw in whatever the Texans manage to get for quarterback Deshaun Watson, and the Texans could be at the dawn of building a nucleus of young players that could make the team better than it’s ever been.
The chances of doing just that become enhanced by hoping that Mills keeps playing like he did earlier this year, and by “evaluating” other young backups who are backups on one of the worst rosters in football for a reason.
This isn’t a criticism of the Texans’ effort to tank, or of their effort to conceal it. The current system invites both. The bigger question is whether and when the system will change — and, if so, what it will become.