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    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      People who know me know that, even though I live in New York, I'm a die-hard Houston Texans fan. In fact, the Texans are the last Houston-based team I still follow closely, which is ironic because the Texans came to town after I had already moved out.

      But people probably don't know where I get my Texans info. One piece of required reading for any Texans fan over the last five years has been Steph Stradley's blog on the Chronicle. Steph has great perspective and, because she was a fan first and media second, her analysis is outside the box (or more appropriately outside the hash marks?).

      I'm excited to talk to Steph about her non-linear career and why JJ Watt wasn't the #1 player on the Top 100 of 2013. Steph, welcome, and thanks for joining us! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you started blogging for the Texans -- it's a great story!
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Hmmm. This is hard to explain. Was a big Houston Oilers fan. Distraught about their departure, I never thought Houston would have another team and was very excited when Los Angeles goofed up, and Bob McNair created the Texans.

      I bought season tickets, attended various events. When they had the Ultimate Texans Fan contest their first year, I showed up....6 weeks after giving birth. I was a semi-finalist that year, and a finalist the next 4 years until I won it in 2006.

      The finalists got to run out onto the field with the T-E-X-A-N-S flags. If you won, you got a trip to the Super Bowl, and I went to the one in 2007 in Miami.

      While all this stuff was going on, I wanted to find good info about team. Back then, the best info could be found at message boards, and I hung out at the official one. Eventually because I was a reasonable human, they were kind enough to invite me to be a volunteer moderator.

      I was moderating the message board the night that the Texans announced they were taking Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. Pandemonium.

      After that, the only thing you could read about the Texans was how stupid they were. And maybe that was the case, but after hearing that a few million times, I was more interested in finding out about all the new draft picks (good ones in 2006), and the new coaching staff.

      And couldn't find that info anywhere.

      I got more aware of blogs being a way of communicating a point of view and moderating sensible conversations, so I decided I wanted to write a blog for the Houston Chronicle. At the time, they had a very good Astros-only blog but did not have a Texans blog.

      So I started doing that, then more people started to read it. Including the folks at AOL who at the time were just starting a new blog called FanHouse. I wrote for them between 2006 until it was sold, and got to know a ton of very good writers there and learned more about blogging.

      So that's how it happened. Mostly because I was mad and couldn't find stuff I wanted to read. Which is how a lot of bloggers start blogging.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      I've heard this from a lot of bloggers and it's precisely why I like your story -- because you wanted something to exist, so, rather than wait around you created it.

      If there's one common motif I see in your blogging, it's that you like to stay positive. I remember reading you quite a bit after the dreadful 2010 season where most Texans fans wanted to fire Gary Kubiak and blow the whole thing up -- something, that in hindsight, most reasonable people would agree would have been a bad idea. At the time, you were cautioning fans that Coach Kubiak was a strong football mind and that the Texans had some really bad luck plus some very correctible flaws. You turned out to be right.

      Do you think that "staying positive," more than just being good for the soul, can actually produce better football analysis?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Funny how perception is different. I didn't think I was terribly positive that year. Maybe in comparison to the fan feeling in general. I do think that fans in general tend to be too high after wins (ignoring the worrisome) and too low after losses (ignoring what actually is good).

      In 2010 I felt resigned to their fate in the off-season. They kept the same bad defensive coordinator. They had the same bad defensive backs coach. They had one of the youngest secondaries in the NFL with no leadership on the backend and needing to start a rookie corner with no vet mentorship.

      You could see during camp that this was likely going to end poorly.

      That being said, the offensive was VERY good that year, just not good enough to deal with a catastrophically horrible defense. If they fired Gary Kubiak, they would have been starting over on offense + trying to fix the defense too.

      That was a team that didn't quit on Kubiak--they just weren't good enough on defense to be competitive.

      So my thought was, why not just fix the defense? And that's what they did. The defense has been very good for the last two years, and they still have a lot of young players who have things to learn.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      The funny thing is, while I'm no Frank Bush fan, I think the guy kind of got a raw deal. He wasn't working with a whole ton of of talent and injuries to Connor Barwin/Demeco Ryans didn't help.

      But, I think you bring up an interesting point about fans -- as you put it, we tend to ignore the worrisome as well as some of the good.

      You've got a really good sense of the Texans fans pulse. So, what are Texans fans worrying about too much and what areas of concern are we perhaps neglecting?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      No. No. No. Infinity no. Frank Bush did not get a raw deal. His defenses were always among the worst in the league, not just the injury year.

      If you have an offensive-minded head coach, you need an EXPERIENCED defensive coordinator that you can trust calling and constructing the defense. Frank Bush, and Richard Smith before him were not those guys.

      When you have a guy like Wade Phillips, you can trust yourself to go get quality free agents like Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning, for example. AND you have a coordinator that quality free agents want to work under. AND you have a coordinator who has a specific philosophy and scheme, and can find guys who fit what he wants to do and develop them properly. Hello, J.J. Watt!

      I don't like to over-stereotype what fans think because sometimes the only fans who you hear from are the disgruntled ones. If you are ungruntled, then you are likely happy and living your life and not calling talk shows or leaving snarky comments on social media.

      I think some fans are overly focused on the concept of "Matt Schaub can't win a Super Bowl" types of thoughts. And generally, all fanbases have that feeling about their quarterbacks until they win one.

      Think the Ravens Super Bowl is an example of how that is a crock. Joe Flacco had a TERRIBLE regular season. Worst than Matt Schaub's season, which was likely his worst one despite winning 12 regular season games. Joe Flacco has never thrown for 4000 yards, which shouldn't be a bench mark of a good quarterback but has become one because 4000 yard quarterbacks have become more usual.

      The Ravens won the Super Bowl because 1. They got healthy at the right time, especially when some of their competitors got unhealthy; 2. They had experience in tough situations before and finally broke through; 3. They got lucky in key spots and made their own luck.

      Some people who haven't watched the Texans much think that 2012 was "Same Old Schaub." But it wasn't. That was by far his worst regular season, particularly down the stretch. Don't know if that is because he was coming off injury or the start of his inevitable decline or or because he was pressing or because a number of key parts of the offense were either inexperienced and/or hurt.

      Schaub is getting an entire offseason this year compared to last. Will be interesting whether with more weapons, the Texans will have a bounce back year on offense, because 2012, despite the regular season record, was Schaub-Kubiaks' worst offensive year.

      More details on that here: http://blog.chron.com/texan...

      I think concerns about right tackle, and right tackle working with right guard are legitimate concerns. It is the main thing I will be watching in camp. I think the right side of the line was the most significant factor in the fall-off of the offense in 2012. It hurt pass protection and the run game.

      It was amazing that they were as effective as they were, but you could tell at times that they tried to protect that group some with conservative play calling. Schaub at the beginning of the year was getting hit way too much.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      Ha. Nothing like a little Frank Bush PTSD!

      I want to get back to Wade Phillips, but let me shift gears back to you for a moment.

      Going from fan to full fledged media member (is this a fair characterization?) has probably given you a different perspective than most, for lack of a better term, "pure-bred" football writers. As a very limited example, you were quoting KC Joyner, Football Outsiders and more recently PFF before they were mainstream.

      Are there parts of the game -- or of the broader football "stories" -- that the fan in you still notices that the expert in you might not? Are the facets of the game or the story that fan pick ups on that "experts" miss?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      I think that the best fans don't want homer points of view. And I sometimes think locally, it is easy to get caught in a group think point of view or to lose a bit of perspective relative to the rest of the league.

      I sought out analytic writers such as KC, FO, PFF, etc because numbers don't have biases. And those folks look at the league as a whole. And, back when the Texans were terrible, they didn't provide the typical pot stirring columnist view of variation of "the Texans suck."

      I knew they sucked, everybody knew the Texans sucked. I had no interest in reading amateur Don Rickles, I just wanted to know why and how they could get better.

      When I work with league wide analytic writers, it is a good pairing because since I pay so much attention to the team, I often can figure out why the numbers are saying what they are saying...whether it is a personnel, scheme, coaching reason.

      I know old-school writers feel odd about fan as media or fan as analyst. To me, I just think it puts your biases out in the open. Sometimes traditional media members say that they don't root for a team, they just root for good stories.

      Personally, I don't want good stories. I want no news at all because usually no news is good news if a team is winning....no injuries, no nonsense, just football.

      It can be odd at times wearing different hats. On game day, I attend as a fan because that is much more fun. In training camp, I put on boring old practical clothes, and attend as media.

      I think the benefit that I can have as a fan analyst is that I care about this stuff beyond a job. As humans, we filter information every day because if you remembered every sensory moment in your life you would go insane.

      One of my filters since before the franchise started was just paying close attention to what was happening with the Texans and taking every opportunity to see what they were doing up close. So one of the benefits I can bring to writing about the team is just that I've paid more attention than what is sensible to do. Enthusiasm.

      I also have the perspective of what fans are looking for in their team coverage because I am a fan. Filling unmet niches of coverage.

      I think traditional media tends to focus their coverage towards casual fans while ignoring hard core fans and fantasy football players. I tend to think that you shouldn't underestimate the intellect or interest of NFL fans because the amount of info fans want about the off-season and in-season feels infinite.

      And I also think at least for me what works is that I love the Texans fan base and respect them, and my readership knows I want to get them the best information on all things Texans, even if it is stuff that none of us want to hear or whether they might happen to disagree with it.

      My favorite blog posts are the ones where I'm just researching a question but have no idea what the results are going to say.

       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      You mentioned the Oilers above and how non-awesome it was when Ebeneezer Scr -- excuse me -- Bud Adams took the team out of Houston. The Oilers left town when I started high school which was a real bummer, because I'm not sure you can fully appreciate a sport as sophisticated as football when you're 12 or 13. So I started rooting for the Texans almost out of spite against Bud.

      Correct me if I'm wrong, but ever since JJ Watt returned the INT for a touchdown against, it feels like Houston has moved on from the Oilers. It finally feels cool to root for the Texans.

      Your thoughts? Is Houston finally ready to move on from the Oilers?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      I don't think it was ever a move on from the Oilers thing. They were always separate things.

      I just think that Oilers fans just appreciate how good it is to have football back in Houston where it belongs. The NFL did everything in its power to get the 32nd team in Los Angeles. And because Bob McNair has some actual social skills and a big fat pile of money, he was able to get things done.

      I will always be mad at Bud Adams. Always. Always. Always. No matter what happens with the Texans. And how much he wants to make amends. It was a hideous time after the Oilers left and before the Texans existed because just hating different teams in the NFL isn't the same as having a true rooting interest.

      Personally, I think the coolest fans I know are the ones that have been Day 1 fans. But there's always room for fans who were practical enough to not want to pay to watch bad football.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      I grew up a diehard Rockets/Astros fan, and I've been with the Texans hard core since the beginning. We've had a lot of stars pass through town -- Killer B's, Warren Moon, Barkley, Andre Johnson, Arian Foster, Cushing -- but I can only remember ONE player who truly captivated Houston, and that was Hakeem.

      Until last season.

      You've blogged about this before calling him the most Texany Texan, http://blog.chron.com/texan..., but how do you explain Houston's infatuation with JJ Watt -- because I suspect it goes beyond the on-field production.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Ahem. Earl "The Tyler Rose" Campbell.

      I mean, c'mon. Oversight, I'm sure.

      As for J.J. Watt, every fan base loves production + remembering what it is like to be a fan and doing fan-positive off the field things.

      There's plenty of athletes with amazing athletic gifts. And there's plenty of try-hard guys. And there's plenty of guys who try to be fan-friendly. To get a guy that does all three things very well is rare, and I feel privileged to see it.

      And Texans fans are sooooo overdue hungry for good things done the right way with good results.

      J.J. Watt went to the perfect team for him. He has a defensive coordinator who lets him attack the ball and gives him freedom not just to react. And we get to see something amazing.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      OK -- the other #34 is a big oversight.

      (Funny story on Earl Campbell, a friend of mine's family moved into Earl Campbell's old house. Very modest home except for one cool feature -- at the bottom of the pool, there was a mosaic of a Tyler Rose and a number 34.)

      Would it be fair to say that the other biggest star in Houston right now is Wade Phillips? Even though Houston LOVES its own natives, Gary Kubiak is like the coach you bring home to meet the parents. Wade has such a big personality (which wasn't exactly typical of the Texans regime until now).

      Give us a sense of the Wade Phillips love in Houston.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Given how terrible the Texans defense was for years, it is like water to a person dying of thirst in the desert.

      The Bum-Wade connection is cool too. Gary Kubiak was a ball boy for Bum. I mean, seriously, that stuff doesn't happen.

      Extra bonus? Wade getting fired by the Cowboys and coming to Houston has coincided with the Texans undisputedly being the best team in the state. Any time you can stick it to Jerrah, an angel gets his wings.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      Before we take some replies from the audience, can you give us a sense of Texans tailgating. I've been to games in the Northeast, and I think it's a shame that we use the word tailgating to describe what goes on before a Jets/Giants game and what goes on before a Texans game. There should be TWO different words.

      I've tried to describe if before and take pictures, but you simply can't capture it with a picture and I've had trouble doing it with words.

      You're a big tailgater -- explain the culture and some of the wacky things that go on outside of Reliant before game day.
       
    • mburke

      Added by: Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Do you think the Texans are underestimating any of their AFC South Rivals? Or is the AFC South really that bad?
       
    • Yoni Pollak

      Added by: Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Hi Steph, long time reader twitter follower and reader. I'm sure you know there are a lot of Kubiak haters out there. If the Texans (going into the playoffs reasonably healthy) are again a 1-win and out team (or worse), do Texans fans have a legitimate reason to call for Kubiak to be gone?
       
    • P D

      Added by: Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      With your legal background, you probably have an informed take on the Aaron Hernandez situation.
      I hope I'm not disrespecting it as a football story when we're talking about cold-blooded murder, but what're your opinions on the case so far?
      Thanks.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Nope. Texans don't underestimate anyone. Whether their fans do has a lot to do with their reasoning ability and level of natural worriness.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Doesn't matter what fans think about Kubiak. If that mattered, he would have been gone in 2010. Legitimate, not legitimate is the wrong question--all choices have positives and negatives, and of course you need to know what your practical alternatives are.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Aaron Hernandez's lawyer said in the bail hearing, that this was "just a circumstantial case." Wha? If the DA can prove the things he said, that is a metric bleepton of evidence, far more evidence than is found in most criminal cases.

      My prediction? This case is going to trial because the prosecutor has no incentive to plead it. Hernandez is in bad, bad trouble. Yeah, he can hire a good lawyer, and can afford the best experts, but jurors aren't dumb and the lawyer just deals with the facts as he finds them.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Ugh, I goofed up with replies. This is the reply to Zach about tailgating.

      The Texans were an expansion team. They knew they were likely going to suck for a while. They can't control win-losses numbers but they can certainly control tailgating. So they decided early on to encourage it.

      I'm not sure that Texans fans even get how much better Texans tailgating is than some other stadiums, just because the rules allow basic things they should allow but some teams don't like their fans as much.

      Reliant Stadium is surrounded by parking lots. So it is the perfect place to tailgate. Even better, Houstonians appreciate food and it is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with varied food culture. The Houston Rodeo is a big deal, and the rodeo cookoff means that a lot of folks have done communal cooking and partying for years.

      In other words, everything is bigger in Texas. Especially our tailgating. (But inexplicably not in Dallas. Their rules discourage it. Jerrah obviously takes his team's fans for granted).
       
    • RJ

      Added by: Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Hi Steph, it kills me every time the Texans are in striking distance and they don't simply throw the fade to Andre...I just don't get it...I see Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson connecting on these every other week...What am I missing here?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      When OC Rick Dennison came to the Texans, he said that he wanted the offensive line to impose its will deep in the redzone and run the ball in because they could. And there is no doubt that Arian Foster gets a ton of carries in those situations. So whether the ball goes to Foster or AJ, I guess doesn't matter unless you have one or the other on your fantasy team.

      But your larger point is well taken. From slightly further than typical Foster range, hard to forget this ball: http://www.nfl.com/videos/n...

      But that throw likely capitalized on a mistake by the defense. Usually AJ gets much more attention, and as he gets closer to the goal line, they have less room to get him the ball. He gets all sorts of crazy coverage when the field is shrunk.

      Will say in practice, Schaub and AJ make that throw and catch regularly. I will ask Schaub his thoughts on the fade in games because I'm not sure it's been asked in a public setting. I'm guessing the answer is that he is doing the play as called and reading the defense....the predictable answer.
       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      I'm glad that someone asked that question and even happier with Steph's response -- because it's not like it's a throw that's not in Matt's arsenal. The two knocks on Schaub is that he doesn't have a PLUS arm and he isn't fast. But he's got GREAT (not just good) touch, accuracy and decision making.

      Steph, I'd be curious to hear if he thinks it will be different with Hopkins lined up opposite Andre.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      One of the reasons I like going to offseason camp stuff is 1. Your off-season often dictates what is possible in the regular season; 2. I don't trust the camp news cycle. The news business wants news, and most of what is coming out of camp is not news, it's just learning, practicing, passing time. Often reports will super hype guys or crush them, and often the truth is in the middle. I want to see with my own eyes, over time what these guys look like, not just hear about a few flashy or down days or whatever happened to catch a writer's attention.

      That paragraph is meant as a precursor to this: I do not think the positive reports about DeAndre Hopkins are hype. I think his skill sets are perfect for this offense. I think he's in a great situation given that he doesn't have to be the 1A option of the offense but can learn from the best. I think what I've seen in him during minicamp/OTAs are some special skills.

      How does that translate? Here's my post on realistic expectations for Hopkins: http://blog.chron.com/texan... The short version is more about framing the question rather than knowing the answer.

      The Texans have never picked a WR as high as Hopkins since Kubiak has been coach. Even the Broncos when Kubiak was there didn't have too many high draft pick WR, and sometimes struggled developing WR. Part of that was opportunity-better guys who knew the playbook getting playing time over young guys.

      The Texans need Hopkins up to speed ASAP because this is a win now team and will have little patience for development. The best hope for Hopkins is: 1. He takes advantage of the targets his way; 2. Isn't an impediment for the offense where they have to go simple to incorporate him; 3. He frees up AJ and makes teams pay if they over-commit to AJ's side of the field.

      Ultimately, Kubiak says that AJ is still going to be a huge part of the offense because AJ: http://blog.chron.com/texan...
       
    • Albert K

      Added by: Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Steph, really gonna miss the blog on the Chron.

      How long does it take you to research and put together you're Texans Chick blog? Where do you find the time for a writing career in the middle of a legal career?
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      Thanks Albert, but my Texans blog isn't going away any time soon on the Chronicle as far as I know. I have the deal that I've always had with them--I'm going to continue writing it until it doesn't work for me or them any more.

      From a freedom/style/platform perspective, it allows me to do more cool things for Texans fans which is and has always been my primary goal.

      The current situation is not ideal but I dearly hope that the change in Chronicle blog focus doesn't mean it becomes harder to find the blog--one of the coolest projects I worked on last year was helping road trip fans find each other--something easier to do on a platform that reaches out to non-social media types.

      The deal with blogs is a matter of compensation, and that may make some very good destination Chron blogs, like LZ's go away. I am sad to see it go but happy he will still blog somewhere. For me, I read writers, not platforms, so it doesn't matter where he writes.

      As for my legal career, I am intentionally underemployed. For now. My primary job is mom. I do things for my husband's office that allows me to work around my kid's schedule. I can read and write faster than most humans (it's my super power), so it makes a lot of sense for me to do a lot of behind the scenes writing for him so that he can do more of the courtroom stuff.

      Prior to kids, I used to work in-house for companies which I very much enjoyed doing. The travel, time and intensity of my work wasn't very compatible with kids, and I was fortunate that my husband's practice was such where we were able to make a choice about my um underemployment.

      At some point, given the rising price of colleges, it may end up being best to have more of a full time legal/consulting role for an outside business. The perfect job wouldn't hurt my family and let me continue to do good things for Texans fans.

      I like to look for ways to help the world in a positive way as a part of finding meaning in life. What I'm doing now is sort of a happy accident that evolved. Football is one of those things that no matter what your background is, you can help create common communities. I know that is unfashionably earnest, but that's how I feel.

      As for the time on each blog post, it depends on how detailed it is. Some of them are more time consuming than others. I thought the Matt Schaub post, which is one of my all time favorite ones, was going to kill me: http://blog.chron.com/texan...

      I wanted a post that I could direct anybody to when they ask me what I think about Matt Schaub going into 2013. Everybody has an opinion about him. I wanted a blog post that had info in it that no matter what your opinion was, you would find something valuable in that post. That is not an easy post to write because QB talk can set people off such that they have a hard time reading what you write because they are so distracted by something you said that offended their sensibilities.

       
    • Zach Abramowitz

       
       
       
      Holy good God, how did I miss the Matt Schaub compendium? And there goes my workday.
       
    • Stephanie Stradley

       
       
       
      I used the word "compendium" sort of as a joke. Usually not used for football writing. But I finished that sucker and thought, "What the hades do I call this?"

      Top posts for emails received? That post and the one on sports talk radio. The neat thing about the MSC post is that the emails came from people who had all different points of view on Schaub but just like the info. And that they appreciated me just breaking it down but trying to be fair with it. (Even got an email from someone from the Texans who appreciated reading it--I get a lot of Texans employee readers because they have a hard time finding out stuff they don't already know and is accurate).

      That was a post that was hard to wrap my brain around, and to figure out how to structure.
       


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