The Houston Texans are talented.
I don’t buy that they are a finesse team or that they are soft, two criticisms some attach to them.
But as they count down to their opener Sept. 11 against the Colts, I do question their collective personality.
It’s a team loaded with nice, mellow guys. General manager Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak are quite calm. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Rick Denison are low-key.
There are significant guys on the roster who can flip switches on Sunday and become mean, but what’s the overriding, default persona?
It’s a team of nice guys.
A 53-man roster needs to be more diverse than that, just like your office or mine. I’m of the opinion they need a jerk, a rabble rouser, a pest.
Dr. Bryan L. Bonner is an associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Utah and an associate editor of the journal "Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice." I asked him about my locker room theory.
“That’s an interesting question,” Bonner said. “Research supports the idea that for groups to be successful that they need some level of ‘functional conflict,’ and that without it they become stagnant and team members don’t ask one another the questions or make the challenges that they need to in order for the group to reach new levels of performance.
“Having some difficult people in the group CAN help the group, but only if the conflict is about the task and not about the personalities of the people involved -- that is, it has to be about the game or the effort or the approach, etc. and can’t get personal to be helpful, otherwise the environment can get toxic. I’d say you might benefit from having an SOB or two in this situation.”
I’m not advocating arrests or fights, just more pop, more pulse, more functional conflict.
Bernard Pollard brought some of that, and it had a good early effect on the team. But once it became clear he was not a multidimensional safety, the personality didn’t matter so much because the play wasn’t good enough. He’s gone now. Some teammates say defensive end Antonio Smith fits the bill.
The word that best describes the guy I think the Texans need is one not suited for print here, but I used it while visiting with the Texans during training camp, and they picked up on it as I broached the subject. We substitute “jerk” the rest of the way here.
Many disagreed with my assessment:
Receiver Kevin Walter: “This is football, you’ve got to know when to turn the switch on. I can be standing here talking to you and be a nice guy, but when I go out there, I’m not so nice. I know how to become a [jerk], excuse me for saying that, when the game lights turn on.
“You have to play with a passion, you have to play with a swagger, you have to play with a lot of intensity. You can’t just be a nice guy, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ That’s not football. I think we do have that, nice guys who know how to turn the switch on.”
J.J. Watt: “I don’t really think it’s necessary. I think what you need is a guy who’s like that on the field. You almost want 22 guys who are like that on the field. But I’ll take myself as an example. Once I step off the field, I am a soft-spoken guy. I’m not going to start any fights. Once I step between those lines I am a whole different guy.”
Running back Arian Foster: “Nobody is as nice as you think he is.”
Not all the Texans think the status quo is good enough, or that the status quo is what we think it is.
“I don’t disagree with that, I think you do need those guys, I think we have them,” outside linebacker Connor Barwin said. “But I am going to let you guys figure out who fits that bill. I don’t think you need guys out getting in trouble or starting fights. You need guys who are tough and we have guys who show their toughness out here every day.”
Just one player really subscribed to my theory.
But if you find one and he’s Andre Johnson, that’s pretty significant.
Johnson is certainly low-key, but he has a mean streak -- see his pummeling of Cortland Finnegan last year if you want to see game-day attitude. Johnson is a leader by example who will speak up when he feels he needs to.
But, he told me, he believes the team does need more than that.
He emphasized he was not questioning management or the coaching staff, and doesn’t care to meddle in their work. But he used the same word I did, and said he’d welcome a couple teammates who wear the label.
“Everybody has their own opinion,” he said. “In my opinion, you have to have those [jerk] guys. Every team has them. I think you have to have a few of them. You have some guys that are [jerks] but when they get on that field, they play big for your team.
“Antonio Smith is one. On offense, I don’t think we really have any. In my opinion, we can win without one but it would be nice to have one. You would like to have like a [jerk] lineman. I think it’s more a thing for O-linemen or D-linemen, linebacker, those are the guys you want to have [jerks].”
So Johnson wouldn’t mind having an offensive lineman in the lineup who was kind of a surly jerk?
“No, not at all,” Johnson said.
He agreed that team personality is a piece of the puzzle, and the Texans may not have enough different pieces. Like me, he’s not looking for anyone who’s on the news for the wrong reasons, and he thinks that’s a big part of the reason the team tends to steer away from anyone who might fill the role.
There is a danger there, sure, but Rick Smith and Kubiak need to have faith in their ability to judge it.
The Colts are a different kind of team, policed by a controlling quarterback and his minions. Peyton Manning fills the role as needed. The Jaguars are heading the nice direction and don’t necessarily have someone who wears the label. The Titans added defensive tackle Shaun Smith, in part, because he is the sort of guy we’re talking about.
In Houston, Kubiak disagreed with the idea that the Texans need more spice in their locker room or on their coaching roster.
“I don’t know that I am low-key every day or Wade is low-key every day,” Kubiak said. “What it boils down to is you’ve got a job to do whether you are a coach or a player. If you’re a guy who doesn’t scream and holler and you do the job right, then you’re going to stick around in this business.
“If you scream and holler and you do a [lousy] job, you’re not going to stick around in this business. I don’t think that’s a deciding factor. ... I’ve seen people get it done in a lot of ways.”
Maybe I am off. Maybe I overrate the jerk factor.
This team of nice guys may well break through and finally get to the playoffs.
But I’d sure like to see what it's like with a [jerk].