The myth of parity in the NFL, the notion that any team can win against any other team on any given Sunday, has been debunked. More than ever, there are many, many teams who could not beat this year’s frontrunners (the Patriots and the Packers), on any Sunday, Monday, or Thursday and regardless of whether the game were played in Boston, Green Bay, Houston, or Timbuktu.
It is widely understood that the demise of parity has coincided with the increasing importance of the quarterback position. Also widely understood is that there are only two elite QBs, and maybe another 10 semi-elite QBs, in the NFL, if by “elite QB” you mean one who can take his team to the Super Bowl even if the rest of the team is ordinary (Brady and Rogers), and by “semi-elite QB” you mean one who can take his team to the Super Bowl if the rest of the team is pretty good and pretty lucky. A classic non-elite, non semi-elite QB is Andy Dalton, who cannot take even a very good team beyond the first week of the playoffs. There is no comparable problem in any other major pro sport, which suggests football has much less margin for error in addressing it.
The other reason why parity is dead, which the public has been slower to recognize, is that there is a comparable hierarchy among General Managers. There are maybe a half-dozen elite or semi-elite GMs – guys who can consistently come up with a playoff-caliber roster, whether by drafting, trading, or picking up free agents. The recipe for acquiring a good QB is for a team to be very talented (having a GM who performs shrewd drafting, trading, and pickups) or very lucky. The luckiest team in NFL history is the Indianapolis Colts, who just happened, as the league’s worst team in 2 seasons that were 14 years apart, to get the #1 pick in the draft in the year when the elite Peyton Manning entered the draft (1998), and the #1pick in the year when the semi-elite Andrew Luck entered the draft (2012). Of course there are those rude enough to suggest that it takes more than mere ineptitude to finish last in the NFL.
The hapless Houston Texans have never had even a semi-elite QB, and their GM for the latest 9 years has been the decidedly non-elite Rick Smith. During Mr. Smith’s tenure, the Texans have progressed from a feckless expansion team (2002) to a feckless older team. The Texans’ Head Coach, Bill O’Brien, is only in his second season at the helm, and many are inclined to blame the team’s sorry state upon the talent level of the team’s roster, rather than upon O’Brien’s coaching.
So, what to do? For the Texans, there is only one pathway to progress: identify and hire an elite (or at least, semi-elite) GM, and try not to win any more games this season. Without a really good GM, the probability of acquiring an elite or semi-elite QB is low. No NFL team in its right mind would trade away or release an elite or even a semi-elite QB, meaning the only way to fix your QB situation is through the draft, and there are only two ways to do that: (i) improve your draft standing by losing the rest of your games this season; and (ii) bet the farm, like trading away your best player (J. J. Watt) in exchange for a vast improvement in your inventory of draft picks and, possibly, a pickup of better non-QB players from the other team(s). Yes, Watt might be the best player in the league, but he is not the league’s most valuable player, as witnessed not only by the MVP voting but by the fact that the Texans, who were a playoff team during the year Watt was drafted (2011), are now on track to be a 3 & 13 team in Watt’s 5th year, despite Watt’s great talent.
Yes, there is no assurance that the best QB prospect in the draft will be a Peyton Manning rather than a Ryan Leaf (#2 in the Manning draft, and a total bust). But there is no alternative. Drafting and trading are always a gamble, sometimes an extreme gamble, but, if you must gamble, why not at least hire a really good gambler to play your hand? Would you trust a Rick Smith to be the one negotiating the trading of a J. J. Watt?