The genesis of his television career was a phone call from his sister, and Marcus Spears took it from there. The former LSU and Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman has emerged as one of ESPN’s most prominent and loquacious NFL analysts after starting his career with the fledgling SEC Network.
Spears discussed the Texans’ 2020 crash, Deshaun Watson’s disillusionment with the franchise, his media career and a memorable on-air moment talking about the Houston food scene with Chronicle staff writer Greg Rajan.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: In your time around the league, have you seen an NFL team have a worse 12 months than the Texans from January 2020 to January 2021?
A: I have not. On the field is forgiving. What I mean is losing games or not having the type of season you thought you would have, that type of stuff is forgivable. I think what the Texans have been through is, it’s almost in the sense of alienating the fan base, especially with the (DeAndre) Hopkins move and you don’t really see the direction of this team and where they’re going. I had to remind myself that this was a playoff team two years ago. This last 12 months, off the field and on the field, something happened. And I wish I knew what it was.
From a football standpoint, starting with getting rid of D-Hop, I think that took some air out of the team. J.J (Watt) not being happy, being disgruntled and wanting to leave. That was huge to me. J.J. Watt was Houston. He was the Texans. And obviously that was becoming Deshaun’s team, but it is a puzzling last 12 months and then you think about even with Andre (Johnson) speaking out on the situation when Deshaun wanted out and wanted a trade. It’s some organizational things, a disconnect between the front office and seemingly the players and everybody’s not on the same page. I know it’s kind of clichéd to say everybody needs to be on the same page but this is what you get when everyone is not on the same page. There’s some type of trust that is broken between even former players and the Houston Texans. It’s been a rough year, man, but a really rough year for the Texans organization off the field and one the field.
Q: If I had told you in September that Deshaun Watson would be wanting out four months after signing a huge extension, what would you have said?
A: I would have told you you’re lying and called you a bald-faced liar to your face because of the press conference and how things seemed. That was his franchise, right, and that was what resonated with people who are not on the inside and don’t know what’s transpiring. How do you (alienate) your young, ascending QB? So it was surprising to everyone and then you saw it and started reading into it and recognizing things. You start to ask yourself, “OK, former players are speaking out and J.J. Watt wants out.” You have things that have transpired between Cal McNair and Jack Easterby and the disconnect there and bringing in (Nick) Caserio and all of this stuff, the process in the hiring of a head coach (with) Deshaun wanting to be involved in the decision-making and we’re talking about all of this (before) what Deshaun Watson is going through right now.
For it to go that bad, that fast, you have to look at the front office, you have to look at the decision makers and piece together why this thing got really bad, really fast.
Q: Does Nick Caserio give you any reason for hope with this team?
A: Based on what I’ve heard about Nick Caserio, he seems to have a great understanding of personnel decisions. A lot of times when you come from New England, you come with this tag that you’re supposed to know everything about football. Caserio is in the same position everyone else is in who’s in a general manager’s spot. If you draft well and the players pan out and you form a good football team, you will be fine in your job. As far as his reputation precedes him, he’s very serious about what he does, seems to be a guy who understands roster management, cap management and all of those things. But I mean, he walked into a firestorm.
So between him and now the head coach David Culley, those guys to me don’t have any responsibility of anything previous to them. They have to prove their mettle by more what happens on the field. Caserio has to come in and manage some things as well as far as what was given away and not having an opportunity to have a lot of draft capital to do what you want to do. It’s a lot of things that he’s going to have to sift through but I think the main thing for him as a general manager, he has to find a way to get the message from the front office through himself to the head coach to the players, where everybody understands the clear mission.
Q: What’s the best-case scenario for the Texans in 2021?
A: A four-win team last year and for all intents and purposes, you’re not going to have the quarterback who probably accounted for the only four wins that you got. I don’t seem them doing very well. There are too many unknowns and things surrounding the football team right now, clouds hanging over it from all over the place. I just don’t think it’s very conducive (to success), especially for a first-year head coach. And it bothers me to say that because I want to see David Culley have success, man. This guy’s been in this league for such a long time and gets an opportunity to be a head coach, but he walked into a situation where your franchise quarterback doesn’t want to be there, you’ve got miscommunication between the front office and ownership and the players. All of that stuff that’s going on, he has to try to coach through that with a team (where) Tyrod Taylor may be the starter going into the season, I don’t see the Texans having a lot of success. Maybe another four- or five-win season.
Q: Keeping the pending litigation in mind, do you expect Deshaun Watson to play in 2021 and, if so, where does he end up, in your opinion?
A: The first question is just so difficult to answer because you don’t know what the timing is. The league has to make a decision about how they want to proceed and obviously, the litigation and everything that has to play out is probably going to impact anybody making the decision because there’s so many unknowns about Deshaun. Before all of this transpired, I had him going to San Francisco. I thought they would trade for him because they had the capital to do it and obviously, they did move up in the draft. I thought that would be a team he would be (in the plans). I thought New England was a potential place. The quarterback-needy teams like Chicago, all of the usual suspects, but I thought that San Francisco was ready to make the biggest push.
Q: When you look at this offseason, which teams’ moves have impressed you the most so far?
A: The first one that comes to mind is what New England did to address an offense that was just so bad and didn’t have enough talent. They signed Jonnu Smith from the Tennessee Titans, they signed Hunter Henry from the Los Angeles chargers, got (Nelson) Agholor from the Las Vegas Raiders, Kendrick Bourne came from San Francisco. They really revamped this thing offensively and then defensively, they’re going to get some opt-outs back. They brought Kyle Van Noy back, they signed Devon Godchaux. They made a lot of moves that are New England-esque, and especially from a defensive standpoint of bringing in Matthew Judon as well. Their retool was very impressive.
I like what Arizona has done. They brought in A.J. Green. They just signed James Conner and obviously J.J. (Watt) coming over. That NFC West division is intriguing to me. Matt Stafford obviously coming over from the Lions was a big splash for the Rams. So there are a few teams where I really thought the moves they made move the needle on them being a better football team. But those three in particular are the ones that have really impressed me with their offseason moves.
Q: A star quarterback on a rookie contract seems to be the most valuable commodity in the NFL right now. Are we seeing that play out with this year’s draft and the emphasis put on quarterbacks, maybe more so than ever?
A: You’re exactly right. The bottom line is it just gives you more ability to move and adjust and get what you need in order to build a team and especially when they (pan out) ahead of schedule. The perfect ideal scenario is for you to draft one of these guys, and they’re ahead of schedule. Like Justin Herbert was for the Chargers last year. They could make a lot of moves now knowing that we got a young quarterback that we can build (around) without having to worry about his impact on the cap, especially this year when it went down. You look at Buffalo with Josh Allen, they were able to go out and make the Stefon Diggs move because (Allen) is still on a rookie deal so there’s incentive there.
Now if you ask me which one I want, I want Patrick Mahomes with $500 million before I want a good, young rookie quarterback, because with Mahomes, I’m going to have a chance to win the Super Bowl every year. With a rookie quarterback, I’m still figuring it out.
Q: Going back to the Texans, would part of their decline be that they didn’t maximize the window with Deshaun Watson’s rookie deal?
A: Yeah, especially with how good Deshaun was playing. To their credit, they were a playoff team that won 11 games (in 2018). But you didn’t see the moves that were in particular to push for a Super Bowl. And then obviously, the DeAndre (Hopkins) trade was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I don’t know what was going on there personally but I don’t give a damn — you don’t trade that away. You figure out a way to make that work.
Players like that don’t come along but every once in a while where they have special talent and skill and are going to put on a gold jacket. And you trade that away in the prime of his career? That’s a part of it, not maximizing Deshaun’s window but also but also losing assets stupidly. It’s crazy.
Q: You’re an ex-Cowboy. How has it been 25 years since they were in a conference championship game?
A: Brother, if I could answer that question, I would have made more money than I made playing. Some of it is bad luck. Obviously, you remember Aaron Rodgers’ throw (in 2016) and you remember Dez (Bryant) and them overturning the catch (in 2014). There’s been a couple of times where, even after I retired, I thought they were a good enough team to reach the NFC Championship, at least, and things just didn’t work out. That’s the crazy thing about football, man. The Cowboys are so polarizing and people talk about them quite a bit but they’re not the only team that’s been in the abyss for this long.
The problem is, they’ve had the talent where they shouldn’t be. And you’re supposed to be critical when you have teams that you feel is good enough to get to the point of the Super Bowl and they don’t. The Cowboys — including my time there, my eight years — we have been major underachievers when we’ve had the teams good enough to make an NFC Championship or get to a Super Bowl.
I don’t even know if you call it bad luck. It’s just not making the plays that need to be made at the right time. And that’s really what I can attribute it to. There’s been times where Dallas has been really good, where everything was, was working out and going well. Especially when I was playing when we had Wade (Phillips) and won 13 games and 11 games, and felt like we really had a chance. We went to Minnesota (in 2009) and Brett Favre beat us and (in 2007) the Giants beat us after we beat them twice in the regular season. The playoffs that’s probably what makes the NFL so great, the slim margin of error you’re afforded.
Q: You kind of launched your media career seven years ago with a tweet and that helped get you in the door at ESPN. How has the transition to media life gone for you?
A: It’s been crazy; it’s been fast. It started with a tweet. My sister (Deidre) called me and was like “Hey, have you heard of the SEC Network?” And I was like, “Yeah, I heard they’re about to launch it and I was excited about it because while I was in the league, we used to always argue that the SEC was the best conference. And she was like, “No, I’m not calling you for that. I’m calling you to tell you that you need to apply for that.” I had just finished up (playing). My wife (Aiysha) was on me because I wanted to do radio in Dallas, and my wife’s like, “No, you should do television, you need to do television.” So it’s the story of our lives with most men — women know what’s best.
So I tweeted (ESPN executive) Stephanie Druley and Stephanie responded. And we eventually ended up talking in direct messages and setting up an audition in Bristol, Conn., and then a second one was set up in Austin where the Longhorn Network was. And after that, I got the job at SEC Network on a live two-hour show called “SEC Nation” on Saturday mornings. I just had no idea. All I took was my knowledge of football, and my personality.
I wanted to find something with a team atmosphere but also something that was exciting, something that I would actually be excited about doing daily. Because that’s the hard part when you retire from football, in my experience. You try to figure out what is it I can do that I’m contributing to something, but I love because I have afforded myself to make a decision to not do what I what I don’t want to do. So, television was a progression for me. My mom was a telephone operator and she always told me you have to better have the ability to be able to communicate effectively and at a high level. I grew up arguing, sports with my dad, my friends, my mom, my sister. So it was natural to do that.
And then football — I put my 10,000 hours in. I understand the game; I love the game and how it evolved. I love the people associated with the game and I love what the game has afforded me not only playing for the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens, that had a lot to do with me being in television as well. And now what I’m doing, man, I love it. I feel like this is what I was born to do. I truly believe that.
If you said, “You played football. That was a dream.” It was a dream, but I knew football wasn’t going last long regardless of if you played 12 to 15 years in the NFL. Television and what I’m doing now will probably be the legacy that my kids remember me by, so I want to do the best I can.
Q: Speaking of personality, where did your nickname “The Big Swagu” come from?
A: It comes from (ESPN’s) Joe Tessitore. I like to look nice. My suit sponsor J. Hilburn, who I’ve been with for a long time, was like “Oh, we’ve got to have you ready for when you go on television.” They did a great job and we did a photo shoot and Joe Tess saw one of the suits while I was walking on stage and he was like, “Man, you’ve got some swag.” And I was like, “Joe, you know, I spent a little bit on my suits. I’d just come to the league and we’ve got to look nice when we’re traveling.” And he said, “I’m going to call you The Big Swagu” And brother, after that it took off. Everybody from all the hosts on other shows on ESPN to people in the hallway when I’m in Bristol on campus to executives at ESPN now refer to me as “Swagu.” Joe Tess coined that phrase.
Q: You joined “NFL Live” last year in a very odd situation during the pandemic. How hard was it to develop chemistry with a new crew when half of you aren’t in the studio at the same time?
A: The fortunate part is I’ve been working with (host) Laura Rutledge since I got into television. She was at SEC Network as well. Laura and I, we are the closest to each other, when it comes to reps on television together. So for her and I, it’s just natural for us to understand each other’s cadence and how she likes to steer, drive, and direct a show. Me and Dan Orlovsky had an opportunity to work on “Get Up!” together for an entire year. So basically what I’m saying is it wasn’t hard because we had done so much studio time together.
Mina Kimes was new but Mina’s reputation preceded her and we knew she was a football savant. We knew she understood the game and brought a different perspective because Mina is one of the people that understands analytics and how it applies to the actual play on the field as well as anyone in the business. We all just had a healthy understanding for each other, we had worked together before and we wanted it to work so we had to find chemistry fast.
And I think we have. We have a good time. We give a lot of good football knowledge but the show is not stale and boring and uptight. And I think that’s what’s resonating with people. They come to hang out for an hour, they learned some football, they get some laughs, they feel like they are part of a family and a community and that’s kind of what we wanted the show to be.
Q: Your Houston food rant earlier this year went viral and you said you couldn’t believe Deshaun Watson would want out of a city like Houston with its food scene. So what would Marcus Spears’ restaurant recommendations be for someone visiting Houston for the first time?
A: Let me go through the day. If you wake up in the morning, you go get breakfast at The Breakfast Klub. Everybody that goes to Houston needs to eat at The Breakfast Klub one time. If you want like a good atmosphere and a midday lunch, go to Pappadeaux, order you some seafood and get you a nice drink and some appetizers and enjoy the atmosphere because people are having a good time.
Saying “Let me show you how mad you have to be to leave H-Town,” Marcus Spears (@mspears96) basically cut a Houston chamber of commerce promo today on ESPN plugging Frenchy’s, Pappadeaux’s, Turkey Leg Hut and The Galleria. It was glorious. Just epic. pic.twitter.com/M33MNQB4hr
— Greg Rajan (@GregRajan) January 28, 2021
Later on, you go to Turkey Leg Hut and you eat yourself into oblivion. You’ll have some of the best food you’ve ever had in your life. And that would be one day where you could knock Houston out and tell everybody, “I hit The Breakfast Klub, I hit Turkey Leg Hut, I hit Pappadeaux.” And before you leave, hit Frenchy’s and get some of that fried chicken. And then you’re good in Houston. And if there are any new places that popped up, I’ll be there to try them out to see if they can make the Swagu food recommendations in H-Town.