When Win Now Mode Goes Wrong

Rick Smith and Bob McNair
Rick Smith and Bob McNair

You've probably heard the phrase "win-now mode" used when TV and radio pundits talk about the Texans off-season plans and their chances of returning to the playoffs next season. Owner Bob McNair has also used the phrase several times during press conferences to announce the decision to fire Gary Kubiak and hire Bill O'Brien. I understand how McNair and other members of the organization would believe that they're still close, they are just one season removed from the best record in franchise history, but holding on to "win-now mode" for too long can have devastating consequences.

You can't build a successful team if you're not honestly evaluating the talent currently on the roster. The Texans had a very good run of success recently but that was then, the team now has a very different look. Despite finishing with two fewer wins in 2011 than 2012, I like many other fans believe that the 2011 version of the Texans was their best team in franchise history. Since that season ended with a loss at Baltimore, the Texans have lost Eric Winston, Mike Brisiel, Connor Barwin, DeMeco Ryans, Glover Quin, James Casey, Mario Williams, Owen Daniels, Antonio Smith, and others. Not just players, but starters and key contributors. Making matters worse, they haven't fully replaced the production of any of those players. Realizing that, how can the Texans organization or any fan still say with a straight face that they're in "win-now mode"? By not accepting the current state of the team, they further delay the things that need to be done to make the Texans a real contender again.

It's easy to pin the majority of blame for the 2-14 season on Matt Schaub and bad quarterback play but the problems run much deeper than just that position. The Texans got poor play out of their left guard and right tackle nearly all season and even Duane Brown had a down year by his standard. Also on offense the Texans go into 2014 with questions at running back and tight end with the departure of Ben Tate, Owen Daniels, and Arian Foster coming off back surgery and likely reaching the end of his prime. On the defensive side of the ball the Texans only have 1 starter worthy player on the defensive line, have holes at inside and outside linebacker (because I'm ready to give up on Brooks Reed), and more holes in the secondary with needs at safety and the nickel corner spot. Draft whoever you want at quarterback, doesn't matter if it's Bridgewater, Manziel, or Bortles; a rookie quarterback doesn't immediately make this team a contender. Teams don't go 2-14 because they have a problem at one position, the Texans have big issues across the board and are closer to having to rebuild than they are to being a contender.

Its tough to sell rebuilding to the fans so I'm not surprised that the Texans organization has promoted being in "win-now mode", but it's a dangerous line to walk. Rebuilding doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be terrible for three or four years however, the process can be very quick if done right. What it does mean is that they need to adjust their approach on how to improve the team during the off-season. Signing older (29+) veteran free-agents for anything other than cheap depth is foolish. They're already facing cap difficulties so adding on players that would basically be a band-aid covering a bullet wound would be a mistake. Hypothetically if the Texans went out and signed a veteran offensive tackle, defensive tackle, and inside linebacker, how much better would that make the Texans next year? My guess would be just marginally, not like there are many if any impact players left on the market, if they could even afford them anyway. Would improving to 6-10 or 7-9 or 8-8 in that scenario be worth putting yourself further into salary cap hell? By holding on too long and continuing to chase something that isn't obtainable, all they'll end up accomplishing is making their salary cap problem worse and make the rebuilding process that much more difficult.

You don't have to look very far to see a recent example of this, just look at the mess the Houston Astros got into toward the end of Drayton McLane's time as owner. Coming off their best two years in franchise history in 2004 and 2005, the Astros continued to operate like a contender despite obvious warning signs that they were in decline. Going into the 2006 season Craig Biggio was 40-years-old, Jeff Bagwell's career was over, Roger Clemens was only committing to pitch half a season, and their minor league system was barren, yet Drayton McLane kept making the same "we want to be champions" speech anytime he was given a chance to speak to the media. The rules in baseball are a little different so them operating in a blindly optimistic fashion made it worse than it would have in football. In baseball teams actually lose draft picks when they sign notable free-agents, which isn't the case in the NFL. The Astros finished 82-80 in 2006, further evidence that they were a mediocre team in decline, but they continued to foolishly chase contender status. In the next several years the Astros signed free-agents like Preston Wilson, Carlos Lee, and Woody Williams that cost them draft picks while also trading away players from their already shallow talent pool in the minor leagues for players like Jason Jennings and Miguel Tejada. None of those players made a significant difference in the win-loss column but they all helped to turn an already bad situation into the Astros picking first in the MLB draft for three straight seasons.

What did the Astros get in return for ruining their future? Before they hit rock bottom in 2011 and had no choice but to rebuild, the Astros over four seasons (2007-2010) had a combined 309-338 record, zero playoff appearances, and finished fourth or worst in their division in three of those four seasons. "Time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again." (True Detective reference, boom!) Hopefully the Texans will learn from the Astros well documented mistakes.

The Denver Broncos are a good example of a team that truly is in "win-now mode". They realize that their window to win a title is very short, probably a max of two more years. After the next two years (going into the 2016 season), Peyton Manning will be 40-years-old so why not load up with free-agents and back load their contracts to take your best shot now? When Peyton Manning leaves, the Broncos will likely be forced to rebuild anyway so dealing with cap issues in 2016 won't be a big deal for them. If they're forced to cut or trade away veterans after Manning leaves, no harm, they were likely going to be rebuilding anyway. That situation is "win-now mode," not the current situation of the Texans.