Let’s take a trip back in time to April 29, 2006. We are in the Radio City Music Hall in New York City for the 71st National Football League Draft. After finishing the 2005 NFL season with 2 wins and 15 losses, the Houston Texans—led by the unfeared triumvirate of quarterback David Carr, running back Domanick Williams, and wide receiver Andre Johnson—are selecting first overall in the NFL draft.
Running back Reggie Bush has just finished a historic three year career at the University of Southern California. In just 14 career starts, Bush finished tenth all time in Division 1 NCAA football with 6,541 all purpose yards; comprised of 3,169 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground, 1,301 yards and 13 touchdowns receiving, 1,522 yards and 1 touchdown on kickoff returns, and 559 yards and 3 touchdowns on punt returns. And if statistics aren’t your thing, Bush quite literally was doing things on the football field none of us had ever seen before. I was attending undergrad in the PAC-12 at the time and probably watched 90% of Bush’s games in person or on television. I was there; I know what I saw, but if you don’t believe me, watch these highlights.
Going into the NFL Draft, Houston Texans fans wanted Reggie Bush. Most members of the media assumed the Texans picking Reggie Bush would be all but a formality. Even opposing franchises assumed Bush was off the proverbial table. But to the surprise of almost everyone, the Houston Texans drafted North Carolina State Defensive End Mario Williams with the first pick in the NFL draft. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Silver wrote at the time that the Texans “shocked the NFL world” by drafting Williams over Bush. Okay, back in the time machine and back to reality.
Despite eventually putting up impressive numbers in Houston, Mario Williams’ career as a Texans pass rusher was seemingly over before it even started. Much of the Houston fan base, as well as the rest of the National Football League, thought it was a tragic mistake that Williams went first overall, and his play during his 2006 rookie campaign was probably significantly influenced by that dominant perception. During his rookie season, Williams finished with just 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks—not the production one would like from the number one selection in the draft. Compounding Williams’ poor 2006 statistics were the successes experienced by Reggie Bush during his first season with the New Orleans Saints, who drafted him second overall. Bush rushed for 565 yards and 6 touchdowns; tallied 742 yards receiving and 2 touchdowns; and accumulated 216 punt return yards with 1 touchdown. Through one season, Bush—the people’s choice for the number one pick—continued on with his hyper-productive, super-versatile USC ways; Williams, meanwhile, looked like a slow pass rusher struggling to live up to the admittedly unfair hype of being controversially selected #1.
In fairness to Mario Williams, his worst year in Houston was his rookie season. Williams proceeded to rally off a 14 sack season in his sophomore campaign; followed by a 12 sack season; a 9 sack season; and then 13.5 total sacks in the following two injury-riddled seasons with the Texans. And as it turned out, Bush’s spectacular rookie numbers were by far his best in New Orleans. His annual production decreased year after year for the Saints before moving on to successfully revitalize his career and reinvent himself as an every down back with the Miami Dolphins.
The Houston Texans shockingly choosing Mario Williams over Reggie Bush should serve as a case study in how to handle a number one pick in the NFL draft. Effectively no one besides the Texans front office believed that Williams should have went first overall. In turn, Williams became viewed as a disappointing draft pick; consequently, he put up disappointing production during his rookie season. There is something qualitative to be said for drafting the player that your fans want—that your fans will welcome unconditionally. Mario Williams never had that support, and it probably adversely affected his tenure in Houston.
This is not to say that the front offices of NFL franchise should be handcuffed by their respective fan bases. To be sure, fans are important, but they are hardly the biggest revenue generator for an NFL team. While every NFL team makes millions in ticket revenue every season, NFL teams each make over $100 million in television revenue every season, and that number will continue to increase as league-wide television deals are renegotiated in 2014 and beyond. In other words, drafting a player the fans do not necessarily want will hardly bankrupt a franchise. That said, the drafted player—especially a player taken first overall—will be keenly aware of his perceived worth by fans and the media, and at least anecdotally, initial player production is directly correlative with perceived worth.
Eight years after receiving the first pick in the 2006 draft, the Houston Texans again have the number one selection in 2014. And with apologies to the competent Case Keenum, the Houston Texans need to draft a franchise quarterback first overall. While reports on draft preferences should be taken with the tiniest grain of salt in early February, multiple sources have leaked the Texans alleged interest in just two quarterbacks: Blake Bortles of the University of Central Florida and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M University.
Bortles is a big, impressive athlete with an NFL caliber arm. He also has a legitimate resume: winning the Conference USA title in 2010; and being named MVP of both the 2010 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and the 2013 Fiesta Bowl. But his competition is Johnny Football! A Texas native. An AP Player of the Year Award winner. The winner of the Manning Award—any time a quarterback wins an award named after a Manning, one has to take notice. A Davy O’Brien Award winner. And most impressive of all, winner of the Heisman Trophy.
If you are a Houston Texans fan, do you want your team to draft the local kid that won the Heisman and became one of the most exciting and complete college quarterbacks of all time, or Blake Bortles of Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl fame? The answer is self-evident. The fans want Johnny Football.
The Houston Texans already made the mistake of drafting Mario Williams over the fan favorite Reggie Bush in 2006, and Williams’ production likely suffered as a result. Albert Einstein purportedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Don’t make the same mistake again, Houston. Give the people what they want, and draft Johnny Manziel.
You’ll make hundreds of millions of dollars either way.