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An Interview with Stephanie "Texans Chick" Stradley

One of the many great things about being on radio is the opportunity to talk football with some of the passionate fans and sportswriters. In the case of Stephanie Stradley, I'm able to do both. Stephanie writes a blog for the Houston Chronicle, does a weekly in-season radio show on 1560 AM in Houston, and is one of the most rabid fans I've ever run across. I recently talked to her about several topics concerning the Houston Texans, ranging from the draft to the new coaches on the staff to what the fans should realistically expect for the upcoming season. 

1. Most fans know you as "Texans Chick" (and for those who don’t, I highly recommend that you read her blog at http://blogs.chron.com/texanschick/). Give us some background as to how you became one of the teams’ most visible fans.

A total accident.  I've always been a huge sports fan, particularly a huge NFL fan.  Like many, I was despondent when Bud stole the Oilers away, and I never thought the city would get another team when Los Angeles didn't have one.  In those sad years, it felt like the Houston Chronicle mocked me by doing a ton of coverage of the Cowboys and Titans, two teams I loathe. The NFL season, something I loved and looked forward to, turned into something that was painful.

When the Houston was able to get a team, I was ecstatic, and I immediately got season tickets.  I didn't know anyone who was as excited about this as I was, so when the Texans had an "Ultimate Fan Contest" in 2002, I went and met a lot of other crazed fans.  On the entry form, they asked me what my nickname was, and I just threw down "Texans Chick."  As in "that chick who knows all about the Texans." (I might have picked a different name had I known it would become something that would stick).

Over the years, I went to every Texans event I could go to, became involved with Texans message boards (eventually being asked to be a moderator), and was a one time semi-finalist our time finalist to the Ultimate Texan fan contest, getting to know all sorts of other crazed fans. One of the benefits of being a finalist is that you got to run out of the tunnel with one of the T-E-X-A-N-S flags right before the team comes out. It's amazing.  In 2006, I finally won the contest.

At the beginning of the 2006 offseason, it was a low time for Texan fans coming off of a 2-14 season.  It was impossible to find real news about the team because many sportswriters didn't know enough about the team to be accurate and were too busy thinking up different ways of telling us how stupid the Texans were for picking Mario Williams in the draft. There weren't many Texans blogs because blogging about a struggling team is no fun unless you enjoy figuring out different ways of saying so and so sucks. 

I longed to find some straight up news about my favorite team. Or to find a place that defended Texans fandom and begged for better quality coverage of the team.  Not just cheerleading-type writing, but a place for real news and analysis just like every other team in the league gets.  Not like a writer who grew up a Cowboy fan and was just writing about the Texans because it was their job.  But as someone who genuinely was enthusiastic about the team growing into something worthy of the city it was in and was interested in the process of building a team from scratch. 

So in early 2006, I got fed up.  I decided if I couldn't find stuff that I thought was worth reading, I could try to encourage more of it by writing a Texans-only blog for the Houston Chronicle because one didn't exist. I figured I could use that forum to encourage reasoned discussion of the team and a place for airing concerns of the fanbase.   Eventually, Jamie Mottram, the originator of AOL's FanHouse asked me to be on the staff for the original NFL FanHouse and then eventually writing on whatever sports stuff I felt like writing when they expanded the website to include other sports.

Given that I know a lot of the different fan groups (facepainters, message board people, bloggers, tailgaters, etc), journalists and a number of people from the Texans organization, I sort of accidentally evolved into someone who acts sort of like an ombudsman for the Texans nation and a clearinghouse for information. I know a lot about the team and what the fans are talking about, and so I try to use that information to help people out, whether it is pointing people to information they might find interesting or giving people information about tailgating and events.  And once in a while, I use the interwebs to rally Texans fandom about things that make us angry

I think a more informed fanbase is a more vested and caring fanbase.  Ultimately, I just want more than anything for the team to succeed, and want to do whatever I can to help that happen.  I can't do two-a-days or score touchdowns, but I can try to help the Texan fanbase the best I can and have some fun experiences along the way. Every year 31 teams are losers and most fans are disappointed, so most of it is about the journey.

2. Obviously, the Texans have some severe deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball. Do you have a ranking as to what Houston needs to address in this year’s draft? Are there any particular players you have your eye on?

You could make the case that you could take best player available at just about any position on defense, and help the team out.  The only thing limiting which positions you might take is not wanting to invest much more salary cap money on the defensive line because so much has already been spent there and will be spent.  Given recent statements by coach Gary Kubiak and owner Bob McNair, I think you have to look at OLBs Brian Cushing and Clay Mathews.  The Texans say they are looking for an impact player with their 15th pick, but none of the prospects really stand out to me as The Guy they really need to take. 

3. You were very outspoken about Richard Smith and his philosophy on defense. What changes would you like to see from Frank Bush?

Yeah, I had concerns about Smith's defense because it looked so lost from the beginning--averaging almost 500 yards allowed for the first three games and making an aging Mark Brunell look like an All Pro.  Strange defensive line rotations to *rest* players, but resulting in 300 lb guys getting winded running off and on the field.  Conservative play calls when they should be more aggressive, and then reckless play calls when they should be conservative. (The endings of two home game losses to the Titans come to mind). There's so many examples, but the bottom line is that they have been one of the worst defenses in the league for the last three years under Smith, and that is just not acceptable no matter what the reasons. 

Though we have heard a lot of generalities of Bush's defense being aggressive, what I'd like for it to be is smart on just basic things.  Making it more difficult for offenses to know what they are doing as soon as they break huddle.  Being able to make in-game adjustments so that maybe a Lee Evans doesn't get TWO 83 yard TD scores. Just flat out slow teams down.  The Texans are 31st in the league in the amount of four yard gains they allow on first down.  The Texans were abysmal against the run, and semi-abysmal against the pass.  If you are allowing a ton of yards on first down and you can't stop the run, your defense is going to be doubleplus ungood.  I'm not sure personnel-wise they are going to be able to do to get better against the run, but the talk from the players is that Bush is going to get rid of the read and react style of defensive line play and allow them to be more aggressive at the snap. To be thinking less and doing more.  Not a bad idea in an era where players move from team to team and you have to rely on young players to make a difference.

4. After ranking third in total offense, many people are saying that the Texans should “leave well enough alone” when it comes to the offense. Do you agree? What changes/additions would you like to see made?

I think the third in total offense statistic is a little misleading as a judge of the offense. If you look at offensive efficiency stats, they are more along the lines of 11th.  It's certainly terrific progress to see especially for those who were brutalized watching the offense of 2005, and I think they can improve more now that Matt Schaub and the rest of the offense is getting another year knowing the scheme.   When it comes to red zone production, QBs getting hurried even when they aren't sacked, and how the running back plan for last year involved praying that nothing too bad happened to Steve Slaton, I think the Texans shouldn't pass up quality offensive draft picks in the draft and reach for defensive needs. 

Running back is a clear need, and the Texans have been pretty quiet about their other concerns on offense.  They may be picking and choosing in the rounds for players they think will fit what they do and can just plug in if there is an injury.  They got Jeb Putzier as a free agent before the 2006 season, but then drafted Owen Daniels in the 4th and gave him lots of playing time.  They want to create competition on both sides of the ball to build their depth.  If they see a chance to upgrade their offense with a good fit, I don't see them passing it up.  There's only so many young guys that can be added to an already young defense.  At some point, the defense just has to develop and play better.

5. Kyle Shanahan is the youngest offensive coordinators in the NFL and will assume more of the play-calling duties this year. What do you think he brings to the table that more experienced coaches can’t?

I'm going to be writing about this in much more depth in a future blog post, but in general, I am very impressed with Kyle Shanahan.  When he was first hired as a wide receivers coach, I was skeptical what this skinny young guy could say to NFL receivers, including some that were older than him.

So when he was first on staff, I made a point to attend Shanahan's session of a coaching clinic where a number of the Texans coaches were speaking.  As soon as Shanahan broke down film, you totally lost any thought of how old or experienced he was.  He's the perfect guy to running the offense because since he has been with the team, he has functioned sort of like Kubiak's brain annex on offense.  He's good at articulating what is working and not working with the offense.  And offensive line guru, Alex Gibbs has taken the same role mentoring Shanahan as an OC as he did with Kubiak.  My biggest concern with Shanahan is how long the Texans will be able to keep him given the league's love of hiring young head coaches for relatively cheap. 

6. Do you think he’ll strictly follow the Denver/Kubiak/Gibbs/Mike Shanahan philosophy, or does he have some other tricks up his sleeve?

At this point, I think they want to get back to what they do the best.  Prior to last season, they had a blended offense with some of the things prior OC Mike Sherman brought to the table, and I thought that the Sherman v. Kubiak parts of the offense were at odds.  The best the offense has looked was last year--part of that was personnel and another year of the offense, but I think part of that was focusing more on Kubiak's style of offense.  They did try some goofy thing with WR Jacoby Jones running some Wildcat to no good end, but I see those sorts of things as being more out of character.  I think it is a bit like cooking--you get good at using a recipe before you start doing more variations of it.

7. There’s no question that Houston plays in one of the toughest divisions in football. What expectations should the fans have going into 2009?

Gee, I hate predicting divisions because year to year uncertainty is what makes the NFL fun.  No team can just outspend another to win.  You can't just look at the stars of any team and figure out who is going to be in the playoffs.  Who thought the Titans were going to have the season they did?  Just about everyone picked them preseason for the cellar.  Or that the Jaguars were going to physically and mentally implode.

I believe the Texans season is all about gaining confidence in themselves and expecting to win.  They have won at home pretty well under Kubiak but not so much on the road. It would be handy for them to get off to a quick start.  The team knows all about being resilient facing adversity.  They have good character as a team.  Now they need to get more of a killer instinct, and the sort of intensity throughout the season that they have been able to show in games here and there.

If the Texans defense can get even average, they could do some magnificent things.  It is hard to go 8-8 for two years in a row when your defense has been as bad as they have been.  Most of the teams with defenses as bad as the Texans are in the cellar.

8. If the team gets off to a slow start, is Gary Kubiak’s job in jeopardy?

Bob McNair is among the most patient owners in the league. He understands about player development and not making choices for marketing sake. (See 2006 draft). If he didn't make a head coaching change mid-season with Dom Capers in 2005, I don't see him doing that with Kubiak after the progress that has been made so far and with the multiple changes that go on with a new and young defense.  I think that McNair genuinely likes Kubiak and wants him to succeed.  If he fires Kubiak, it will be done very reluctantly and only after it is very abundant that it has to be done.  The players genuinely like playing for Kubiak and believe in him, so the biggest problem he faces is if the defense doesn't see obvious progress from previous years, yet again.

It would be handy for the Texans not to have to start off the season with one of the toughest schedules in the league, not even counting hurricanes disrupting everything.  There are no directional teams in the NFL, but who wants to open the season in Pittsburgh?  I would prefer for the all the offseason articles about the Texans not starting off with the words, "If the Texans can survive the brutal start of their schedule..."

 

Make sure to catch Jimmy Neil every Friday from 11:00 AM to noon, Saturday from 2:00 to 4:00 PM, and Sunday at 4:30, only on 1560 AM or www.1560thegame.com