'The Problem' is The Future
James Houston is different. Very different. He only needs you to believe.
This is the first installment of our 2023 NFL Kickoff features.
Go Long is completely independent. No ads, no corporate overlords. Our aim — always — is to pull back the curtain on pro football. Paid subscribers will have access to the entire series:
DETROIT — One practice bled to the next. He was miserable. James Houston had reached the pinnacle, a feat that seemed impossible at his lowest of lows.
But this was it? What a dreary existence.
On the practice squad, he pretended to be an opposing player. Or, as he puts, “serviced” others. Like a toll-booth operator. He’d stare at a play sheet and then do whatever that card indicated with robotic obedience. “So,” he adds, “your brain’s not working.” The rookie was more AI-programmed cyborg than free-thinking football player. Each week, Dan Campbell was optimistic. The Detroit Lions head coach told Houston how close he was to playing on Sunday. Yet, each week, Houston failed to crack the 53-man roster.
And this sixth-round pick out of Jackson State went right back to impersonating the next defensive end. He knew he was helping the team, but nothing about this was stimulating.
By Week 11, he reached a breaking point.
“I was very close to quitting,” Houston admits. “It was real tough. Very mundane. You’re not thinking about anything.”
He could only go all-out in practice when the Lions were in pads. Once per week. “And I went crazy,” he assures. “I mean, crazy.” This kept veteran tackle Taylor Decker sharp. Their 1-on-1 jousting was the one element of practice-squad life Houston treasured and Decker would tell Campbell — repeatedly — that the kid’s success was no mirage. All 6 foot 1, 240 pounds of James Houston, he insisted, would excel in the actual NFL games. Then, back at his crib, Houston played video games, and waited. Shortly after his 24th birthday, in mid-November, he told his girlfriend enough was enough. He planned a “slow exit” from the sport. He decided to ask Dad about his real estate exploits back in South Florida and to find a second job in Detroit to stay sane the final seven weeks and ever so slowly off-ramp this whole football thing.
Quit. For good.
Houston even envisioned an exit interview with coaches. He’d politely tell them that it was time to move on.
There would be no hard feelings. He’d fade away.
The chasm between Never Was and Rising Star is hardly visible.
Entering Detroit’s luxurious London Chop House feels more like transporting back to the ‘50s. Classical, looping L, C, H font greets you on the street corner. A wisecracking doorman nods, says hello, opens the front door and stairs that immediately lead you downstairs into more of a dim lair. Waiters all wear white shirts neatly tucked with sleek black ties.
This menu of wines could stump a sommelier. As this night’s live crooner begins to set up at a center stage, the velvety voice of Frank Sinatra sets the mood over the speakers.
All fitting as James Houston struts on in. The edge rusher known as “The Problem” — get it? — rocks a white hoodie, black dreads and, most distinct, a swagger that declares he’s the one rocketing his position into the future. To most, he’s still a mystery. Perhaps you’ve already confused James Houston with Justin Houston, the ex-Chief. Conversely, James is a Lite version of anybody you’ve seen sack quarterbacks and, hell no, the fact that he surrenders five inches and 75 pounds to offensive tackle is no disadvantage. Not to him. He calls it a “superpower.”
There’s zero chance that mountain of a tackle has ever dealt with a creature like him.
“They don’t know what this is,” says Houston. “They’ve got to try to figure it out.”
Of course, Houston finally did get his chance to play for the Lions and sacked the QB eight times in only seven games. Only 140 snaps. It’s no coincidence that the Lions went 5-2 in those games. Before he chooses a meal at his favorite steakhouse, Houston explains why there’s nobody like him. His torque. His bend. His balance. When he turns, he’s cartoonishly horizontal with the ground. Monstrous linemen hunch over like they’re retrieving their child’s toy behind the couch. His arms appear too long for his body. A middle linebacker most of his life, Houston loved Patrick Willis but he never tried copying anyone. He describes his game as “wiggly” and “explosive” and nobody rushing the passer — he’s certain — is quicker 5 to 10 yards.
Those long arms keep a heavyweight at bay for One Mississippi… Two Mississippi… which is all Houston needs to create space. If he gains that space — if he avoids getting swallowed whole — he’ll find the ball. His head coach at Jackson State, the Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, likened Houston’s tenacity to Dallas Cowboys star Micah Parsons and Houston doesn’t protest. He calls his Parsons-like ability to line up all over a defense an “unlocked” feature of his game. Randy Shannon, the longtime coach who recruited him to Florida, knew Houston was different… on the basketball court. He watched one practice in high school and couldn’t believe someone at his size could so fluidly dribble under his legs and spin away from a defender en route to the rim. His only hope was that other college recruiters weren’t treated to such a show.
“He’s got a first step,” Shannon says. “It’s just like in basketball, like a real athletic guy coming off. His first step coming off the football is what makes him. And when you have quick feet like he has, that makes it very difficult for O-Linemen. And he’s got long arms. If you ever look at James, don’t look at his height. Look at how long his arms are. When it’s arm to arm that makes you 6-3 ½, 6-4.
“I used to look at him when his hands hung down close to his kneecaps. I said, ‘OK, this guy’s very long.’
The Detroit Lions have one playoff win since 1957. Now, they’re legitimate NFC contenders. That’s not blasphemy. That’s the very real expectation in Year 3 of Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes because both hunt for a very specific DNA — more on this at Go Long soon for subscribers.
The key to it all on defense is this 24-year-old who’s either fad or radical. Either an undersized niche player who’ll be bullied out of the big leagues or — like Darren Sproles at running back, Wes Welker in the slot, Bob Sanders at safety — a fantastical glitch in the system. Houston wasn’t built on an assembly line, wasn’t processed through the same NFL scouting machine as every edge rusher before him. His rise to this opportunity included a stolen credit-card scheme, a villain (Dan Mullen), a savior (Deion), depression, turbulence that should’ve broken him.
Now? James Houston plans on doubling his sack total to sixteen in 2023. He says it all depends on the number of snaps he’s granted. Because, frankly, The Problem has a problem: He’s not sure the Lions believe. The OTA depth chart slotted him in as a third-stringer at both D-End and Sam linebacker. He isn’t bitter. He loves it here. It’s just that not everyone believes in aliens. Earlier this day, in June, an assistant coach was teaching Houston how to rush the quarterback in a more traditional manner and Houston needed to interject to tell his coach that wasn’t going to work for him.
He cannot follow the textbook. He’s unorthodox.
“There’s definitely nobody who plays like me,” Houston says. “So, it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out how to use what this is.’ I know they’re my coaches. I know it’s the NFL. They have players to do certain jobs. But I am a player who can do different things.”
Asked if he feels valued in this defense, Houston flatly says he does not. Not yet.
He bites his tongue initially. Says he doesn’t want to go there.
Quickly, it’s obvious the Lions did him a favor.
“It’s fuel. It’s fuel. It’s the same thing. No one believes in me. They think it’s a fluke. So, I just have to show ‘em. I just have to keep showing ‘em. Give me my opportunity. I promise you: I’ll show you.”
In August 2017, the seventh day of camp, James Houston was called into the office of Florida head coach Jim McElwain. Four or five teammates joined him. The boss was not pleased, asking right away if the players knew why he called them in. Nobody said a word. One teammate was already arrested, but they weren’t sure authorities had connected all the dots.
Finally, McElwain theatrically plopped a book on his desk and began reading the charges.
The jig was up. The Gainesville Police Department caught ‘em all.
Nine players in all participated in this stolen credit card scheme, racking up $17,056.31 in fraudulent charges. Houston? He was more of a hanger-on. Friends would order a bunch of food… he’d eat with them. Friends asked if he wanted in… he obliged. Compared to others, his involvement was minor. He added $550 to his UF Bookstore account with a card belonging to someone in Oakland, Calif., to purchase an Apple iPad worth $424.94. Houston never knew where all the cards came from — not that it mattered.
McElwain told the players they’d need to pay the money back.
All were suspended indefinitely. His face was plastered on the news.
As soon as Houston received his stipend — these were the pre-NIL days, remember — he hustled to the bookstore, paid the money back, and assumed he was good to go. Which, uh, no. “Hell nah,” he chuckles, thinking back to a suspension that lingered. And lingered. And had Houston thinking he took a match to all the work it took to get here.
This sport was love at first sight. At age 7. Houston scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball and — when the next game began — his parents couldn’t find him. He was still on the field trying to play for a team in the next game, the next weight class. Known as “Baby Shaq” those days, Houston was the rare running back who’d also swim past the center with ease at nose tackle. (“They couldn’t stop me at that nose. I’d kill ‘em.) James IV was also the product of a highly educated family. All the way back to James I, his hero, a black man in the ‘30s South who owned a pharmacy, a gas station and became politically connected all on a third-grade education. His father, James III, was a two-time All American at Missouri State and played one year with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Very early, James IV realized he was gifted. He’d blow off homework and get 100’s with “astronomical” test-taking skills. In elementary school, Houston competed as a mathlete against other schools in multiplication, algebra, geometry. It all came easy. So easy that into sixth grade at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs High School he took math classes with the ninth-graders across the street at St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Alongside high-schoolers, the little kid in the suit and tie had all the answers.
He loved math’s simplicity: “What’s right is right. What’s wrong is wrong.”
On to famed American Heritage, interest from college football powers was scant. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst finally offered Houston a scholarship five games into his junior year —Houston asked his coach, Patrick Surtain, if this was a joke — and, soon, 40 more offers poured in. His numbers were average: 37 tackles (20 solo), a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. But this was Heritage. The reason Surtain, the former NFL corner, had Houston at middle linebacker was that current NFL star Brian Burns and Oregon State outside linebacker Andrew Chatfield were entrenched as the starters. Whenever Houston got his shot, he didn’t disappoint. Against IMG, the No. 1 team in the country, Houston forced a fumble that helped Heritage pull the upset.
Surtain has known Houston since he was 8 and confirms his beastly tales. Calls him the “Derrick Henry of running backs” since Houston was damn-near the size he is now back in Pop Warner.
“He works at it,” says Surtain. “When people say his size is a limitation, he takes that and runs with it.”
Houston committed to Florida with full intentions of putting the nation on notice as a senior captain. He couldn’t wait to see his name climb the national rankings. Alabama was even showing love. The Army All-American Game, too. A torn ACL then wiped out his final season. Heritage won another state championship and Houston proceeded to throw that title ring into a lake. Livid, he felt totally undeserving.
The good news: Florida never pulled its commitment.
The bad: It now felt like his football career was over. Thankfully, he was not charged with a felony. Those victimized didn’t pursue a case. But his entire freshman year went up in smoke.
“I’m spending days and days at these dudes’ crib, like, ‘Oh my gosh. I messed up. I really messed up.”
Shannon recalls Houston being straightforward, how he never tried BS’ing coaches about his involvement. It would’ve been easy for Houston to disappear.
“He’s always been a guy who’s fought,” says Shannon, who’s now at Florida State. “He accepted what it was and he moved forward.”
The Gators went 4-7. Everyone was fired. Houston was granted a clean slate by the new staff.
Or, so he thought.
In hindsight, Houston is sure the new Florida staff disliked from Day 1. When “Hell Week” began — most all new coaches weed players out with a rigorous boot camp — Houston was still suspended. Furloughed, frowned upon. By the time he could practice, Houston says everyone from head coach Dan Mullen on down treated him “like the ugly stepchild.”
“Very derogatory,” he says. “Like, ‘You don’t know shit. You need to fall in line.’ You don’t even know me. You didn’t recruit me. You have no clue who I am.”
Relegated to seventh on the OLB depth chart, Houston begged Todd Grantham through fall camp to let him shift inside. The defensive coordinator would tell him to make plays in practice and maybe he’d reconsider. Each day, Houston was in his coach’s ear: Did I make enough plays?! Until, finally, Grantham relented. That first day at Mike remains Houston’s most treasured all-time practice. He knocked two players’ helmets clean off and earned a spot with the No. 2’s. This position always felt most natural. James IV loved the idea that the entire defense ran through him because James III played middle linebacker and taught his boy everything he knew.
Yet, his Florida career never took off. He was a backup for three seasons.
Houston and his coaches never saw eye-to-eye.
“How they treated people in the building,” Houston says, “it was really toxic. Really toxic. Yelling at each other. Not respecting each other. It was bad.”
Talks with Shannon helped. His first DC had latched on with Central Florida and wanted to see Houston through his freshman mistake. He knew this was a kid “who works and believes in what he can do.”
Still, every day, Houston called his parents — “depressed.” To the point where it didn’t even matter if he had a chance to start into his third season. I don’t like these people, he’d tell Dad. Houston even contemplated declaring for the NFL early knowing he had zero chance of getting drafted. Simply for the minuscule fraction of a chance one team worked him out and saw something these Gator coaches did not. Mom and Dad told him he needed to stay and earn his Education degree. He listened. He clammed up the rest of his Gainesville days, trudging around campus with a hoodie draped over his dreads and his mouth shut.
Says Houston: “It made me hate everybody there.”
Growing up, he played for his Dad. For so many friends’ Dads. For Surtain. Coaches who harbored genuine love for players. This most certainly was not that. Pressed on what exactly pissed him off so much, Houston adds that Mullen and co. would yell things such as “Are you f--king stupid?” It got old.
“That’s not how you treat people,” he says. “And they never tried to get to know me or talk to me. I never had that interaction with a coach where it was like, ‘You need to play football. Shut the f--k up. Do what I say. I don’t give a f--k where you’re from or what you got going on. When you come out here, you’ve got to do what I say.’ It was like, ‘Whoa.’ Dan Mullen was a great offensive analyst coach. A great coach. He just didn’t know how to coach people.”
Everything boiled over in the 2020 Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.
The week before, the SEC title game, Houston had eight tackles against Alabama. And with eight starters opting out, transferring or sidelined with COVID, this was Houston’s shot to start. Finally. He got the party started by dissing the Sooners on a conference call. (“They’re not on our level,” Houston told reporters. “They’re not the SEC. They’re not the Florida Gators. We should put on a good show.”) He didn’t care that his words were 100 percent splashed all over the Sooner locker room. He’d enter the game as a one-man wrecking ball. Nor did the comments seem to bother Mullen, who kept Houston in the starting lineup throughout practice.
That’s why he’s still stunned by what happened.
Five minutes before the Gators took the field, Houston found out he would not be starting. A coach didn’t deliver the news. No, they had a fellow linebacker (Miller) inform Houston that a freshman would be starting at his spot.
“They couldn’t tell me themselves,” he says, disgusted.
The ball was kicked off and no coaches uttered a word to Houston on the sideline. Eventually, Houston asked one if he was going to play. He was thrown into the game with six minutes left in the first half, forced a fumble, returned to the bench. In all, the Gators were gashed for 682 total yards including a video game-like, OU-record 10.9 yards per rush. “Got our ass whupped,” Houston says. Throughout the 55-20 loss, Houston heard from the Sooner fans who made the short three-hour drive south. “Forty-one! You ain’t get in yet!” Once the butchery concluded, Houston went right to Mullen and informed the head coach he would not return to Florida for the 2021 season.
Mullen didn’t get a word in.
Houston didn’t travel back with the team.
“I was like, ‘Nope! Coach, it’s all good. I’m not going to be there. I’m entering the portal. I’m just going to finish up my classes and be out of your hair. Trust me. I will not be there.’ I was gone. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. I couldn’t handle it. I felt like I was going to explode.”
His NFL prospects were dwindling. His love for the sport, evaporating.
James Houston drifted into the transfer portal in desperate need of someone to believe.
The official visit should’ve sent James Houston sprinting the opposite direction.
Jackson State University, he begins, was nothing to look at.
“At all,” he adds, emphatically. “It’s right smack dab in the hood. Crime rate out of this world.”
He’s not exaggerating. The governor of Mississippi has referred to Jackson as the “murder capital of the world.” In 2022, the city had a homicide rate of 88.9 per 100,000 residents which ranks No. 1 in the U.S. and fourth in the entire world. Tourist attraction, it is not. And yet? This was the perfect landing spot. For starters, everyone in James IV’s family went to an HBCU, be it for a bachelors or a masters, and he wanted the same experience. A slew of D-I powers were interested in the transfer and, at first, Houston chose West Virginia because he’d step right in for the Cleveland Browns-bound Tony Fields at middle ‘backer. Plans that fell through when he failed to graduate in time for spring ball.
Back to square one, Houston posted his highlights on Twitter and asked friends with large followings to share it.
Repeatedly, Houston heard that the Gators coaches were trashing his name to schools. He was bad news and troubled. Mostly, he couldn’t believe SEC schools like Kentucky and Missouri seemed to take the smears seriously and were incapable of forming their own opinion. So, no, he didn’t care if a campus was beautiful or not. James Houston wanted a head coach who’d sincerely get to know James Houston.
He didn’t care that one HBCU player was drafted in 2020 and none in 2021. Or that he only heard of Jackson State through his best friend at Florida whose father set the school sack record. Or the hood, the food, the cramped weight room, the fact that this would feel like playing football in a dungeon compared to Florida. Jackson State, under Deion Sanders, was the easy decision. He remembers telling himself this was exactly what he needed. He wanted “to really get it out of the mud.”
He also needed a coach who could see something he couldn’t himself.
After Houston got to the quarterback three times in a row during a blitz period, Sanders told him he should move to defensive end. Huh? Houston pushed back. Sanders asked to at least give it a go for one day.
Nobody could block him. Nobody came close. Sanders sat the kid down and made it abundantly clear:
This is your calling.
You’ve got a gift.
I haven’t seen anything like this.
Houston poured cold water all over his own performance. Told Sanders that all the coach saw was a middle linebacker who could blitz.
Sanders disagreed. No, no. He saw a legit NFL pass rusher who’d sign a $100 million contract one day.
Houston looked at him like he had three heads — again — and plainly asked “Coach Prime” if he realizes he’s only 6-1, 240 and that there was nobody this small excelling at defensive end in the NFL which, uh, well, y’know, was the whole point of transferring here. Sanders told Houston to trust him and brought in several NFL players to convince him this was the best move. The one obvious comp was Elvis Dumervil, who weighed 20 more pounds but was two inches shorter and finished with 105.5 sacks through an 11-year career. They all watched film of smaller ends sacking the QB.
Houston gave up. Fine. They weren’t going to play him at Mike even if he wanted to.
So, his plan was simple: Sack the quarterback as much as possible to force the NFL’s hand. He trained with the coaching staff for endless hours before and after practice, watched more tape and started to believe in himself. Once again, Matthew 17:20 ran through his mind: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there.’” Houston loved this verse so much in middle school that he started wearing a necklace that contained a literal mustard seed. It made him feel like he could do anything. Back then, he had absolutely zero left hand on the basketball court. But with the necklace on? “I’m just like… ‘Whoa.’” Suddenly, he could dribble left as well as his right.
Until he lost the necklace and — abruptly, completely — lost his left.
This power of belief stuck with him. An edge rusher was born.
“I had such a determination,” Houston says, “it was almost scary.”
Officially, Houston finished with 70 tackles (52 solo), seven forced fumbles and 16.5 sacks. He’s very quick to note, however, that the statisticians missed three of his sacks and, well, we can’t argue with a mathlete whose notebooks were once filled with mathematical equations. The breakthrough was Game No. 2, a 38-16 thumping of Tennessee State in which Houston had 4.5 sacks. He didn’t tackle the quarterback that afternoon as much as grip Geremy Hickbottom by the torso, lift him up and viciously slam his body into the turf. This one, he admits, was “just disgusting” and, no doubt, would’ve gouged his checking account in the NFL.
Whatever. This was a calling in every way.
With a relationship rooted in love, first, Houston welcomed his coaches’ harsh rhetoric. All game, they’d scream at him: “You ain’t bullshit! An FCS, D-II (expletive) is locking you up. What are you doing!?” Houston would get pissed and respond with another wincing sack that changed the game. Coaches didn’t want to clutter his mind with a To-Do list or an array of pass-rush moves, instead telling to simply “Go!” Deion Sanders is obviously in possession of an Atlantic Ocean-sized ego, but spotted natural ability and refused to get in the way. Eight Pro Bowl seasons taught him the power of playing with clear mind. Not only did Deion realize Houston was an edge rusher, but he didn’t pretend this was a conventional edge rusher.
Smart considering Houston wouldn’t make a living bull-rushing 330-pound humans.
Houston had the green light to find himself and essentially wrote his own manual.
Still, he was not naïve. He spent time with former NFL end Chuck Smith in Atlanta ahead of the NFL Draft. Smith, “Dr. Rush,” turned himself into such a pass-rushing guru for players such as Aaron Donald, Robert Mathis and Osi Umenyiora that the Baltimore Ravens eventually hired him this offseason to coach their outside linebackers. Quickly, Houston learned the “science” to rushing and incorporated Smith’s intel with the core of everything he figured out on his own at Jackson State. Smith could tell Houston was different on Day 1.
Says Houston: “I’m not trying to be like anybody else.”
With the 217th overall pick in the sixth round, the Lions selected Houston and plugged him back into his Mike spot. It didn’t last. By training camp, Houston was a D-End. His head was spinning. Being a math expert doesn’t exactly help you grasp the league’s terminology. Cutdown Day closed in and… he was cut. The Lions wanted to sneak Houston through waivers to stash him on their practice squad. Houston says his heart “was broken.” Every time he saw a player cut on Hard Knocks, he never imagined that’d be him.
None of the other Lion draft picks were cut. Nor did any of the other 31 teams claim him.
“Did I deserve to be cut?” Houston says. “I didn’t think so. It was a tough situation.”
“I’m feeling left out. This is the same thing — nobody wants me. I’m underappreciated. It’s the same old bullshit. At first, I was really upset. I wanted to leave. I wanted to go somewhere else. Because I just felt like they didn’t know how to use me and they didn’t know what type of player I was.”
And, yet, this was different. Houston loved Campbell and the entire environment. It was mutual. Campbell, at the podium, couldn’t contain his excitement. “There’s a physical nature to him,” the head coach said. “He has a ways to go but, man, I’m glad he’s in this building.”
He might’ve been following those mundane play sheets but the opportunity to face Taylor Decker every day was exactly what The Problem needed. Decker has started 98 games as a Lion and, as we chronicled, has served as the Lions’ conscience through this rebuild. If a specific rush didn’t work, Houston would ask Decker what he’d absolutely not want a pass rusher to do in that situation. Where he was exposed. Decker, an open book, would say he’s susceptible to an inside move.
To which, Houston perfected an inside rush.
So went this song and dance. Each practice.
Next, Decker would hit Houston with a hand-fake to get the rookie to reveal his move first, before then shutting him down. Which led to another important lesson from Decker: Do your best not to freak out over a lineman’s hand movements. Sometimes, it’s best to stick with the move you had planned off the edge. That’s when Houston honed his “cross-chop.” Decker started throwing his hands and — this time — Houston refused to fall for it.
“He taught me that I can’t just do the same thing every time,” Houston says. “I can’t run off the edge and just try to dip my shoulder every time. Or try to cross-chop him every time. I’ve got to give him a stutter. I’ve got to give him a hand. I’ve got to give him something. I’ve got to do something else — for him. It’s, ‘OK. I’m attacking you and you are reacting to me.”
Ahead of Week 6, Campbell told Houston that everyone on staff saw him busting his ass. His opportunity was coming. And… he wasn’t called up. The next week, Campbell said to be ready again. And… crickets. Week to week to week to the point where Houston convinced himself he was preparing for 2024, a mental switch that actually supplied a rush of joy. Houston’s new goal was to have six-pack abs by then.
Frustration soon suffocated him again. The Lions toiled in last place.
He was ready to quit.
“I’m like, ‘I can’t play on the Detroit Lions? I’m probably not going to play anywhere else,” Houston says. “It was like, ‘Alright. I’m probably going to have to find something.’”
Thanksgiving Week arrived and his world changed.
Football lore is teeming with zeroes who maximized a sliver of an opportunity to become heroes.
Legendary tales that lead to Canton speeches and Hollywood pictures.
Terrell Davis’ freight-train blast of a tackle on a preseason kickoff in Tokyo compelled coaches to give Davis a chance at running back. Does a 196th overall pick ever blossom into the Hall of Famer leading two Super Bowl runs without that hit? Doubtful. Kurt Warner is nothing more than a forgotten grocery store worker if not for his wedding, honeymoon and subsequent spider bite on that honeymoon forcing the quarterback to cancel three workouts with the Chicago Bears in 1997.
That awful timing, Warner explained to Go Long, landed him in St. Louis where only a Trent Green torn ACL got him on the field.
On and on.
If a documentary is scripted one day on “The Problem,” the narration will begin with Houston only getting a shot because everyone else was hurt. Down Charles Harris (groin), Josh Paschal (knee), with Romeo Okwara still one week away from being activated from a torn Achilles, the Lions had no choice but to elevate Houston. Even then, they were scared to play him. He played five total defensive snaps against the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day.
Two of which introduced James Houston the world.
With 12 seconds left in the first half, and Buffalo threatening, Houston swam through a chip block and then clowned 6-foot-8 right tackle Spencer Brown to sack Josh Allen. “Wow!” yelled Tony Romo, flabbergasted even by his standards. Into the second half, on another third down, Houston was chipped again. This time, he bench-pressed Devin Singletary, ditched the running back, then fooled 6-foot-5 David Quessenberry with a juke-and-dip maneuver to track and chop Allen down by the ankles.
All a few days after he seriously considered quitting.
Here, Houston can only shake his head. His entire family was in for the holiday. His mother’s birthday was the day prior. It was all meant to be.
“That doesn’t happen! … The flip of energies was overwhelming.”
There’s a reasonable chance the Lions would’ve ruined turkey dinners throughout Western New York if Houston played more than five snaps. He was just flipping on his burners. No opposing offensive tackle, not one, seemed nearly as talented as Decker to him. The games were as easy as solving for X. “So easy,” he repeats. “It was scary.” Everything looked different because James Houston is different.
The most memorable sack occurred in Detroit’s 40-14 demolition of the Jacksonville Jaguars when he froze Cam Robinson with a “hopscotch” move. That’s no secret code word. Off the line, Houston quite literally leapt into the air like this was fourth-grade recess before stealthily dipping underneath the left tackle’s arms and (dangerously) spinning Trevor Lawrence 360 degrees to the turf. The QB’s leg snapped underneath. In a 41-10 destruction of the Chicago Bears, he shoved one lineman (6-foot-5, 310-pound Braxton Jones) directly into Justin Fields for Sack No. 1. Chased Fields down from behind to tomahawk the ball loose for Sack No. 2. Appeared out of nowhere for Sack No. 3. After dropping into a hook zone, Houston saw Fields float left and hit the gas.
His running joke, all along, was that nobody in NFL history had more production on such a meager amount of money. Those toiling on a practice squad make $11,500 per week. From Heritage to Gainesville to Jackson to Motown, it begs the question: What does everyone keep missing? No question incites a more passionate response.
“When I get on that field, I’m a warrior,” Houston says. “I’m coming at you! I don’t see my ‘height’ when I’m on the field. I’m attacking you, like I’m 6-6. I feel like it’s my heart. I’m a football player. I know how to move on the field. I make special plays. Ever since I’ve been young, I’ve made game-changing plays. Even at Florida — the little bit that I played — the plays that I made were always game-changing. They affected the game. I just feel like I’m a dynamic player.
“And it’s scary because I don’t know why I’m like that. But with the game on the line, I feel like I’m supposed to make the play.”
This mode of thinking, he admits, isn’t always optimal. Straying from a gap can compromise a defense. But this is also how one of the sport’s mutants (Aaron Donald) wins a Super Bowl for the Los Angeles Rams one year on fourth and 1 and another (Chris Jones) gets his Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl on third and 8 the next. It’s so hard to hijack a football game on the defensive line because it’s so easy for an offense to deploy a double team or direct a play the other direction. Eight sacks in such a short amount of time hints that Houston has the same playmaking gene.
For so long, he could realistically affect every play at the Mike.
As far as he’s concerned, there’s no reason why this should change.
“I’m supposed to get the sack,” he says. “What am I on the field for?”
James Houston knows his coaches haven’t seen anything like him before. Once more, he pleads for patience. Think about it this way. Mammoth lineman are all trained to drop, to anchor, to do what they’ve always done… and here comes a whirling dervish of a 240-pounder following an instruction manual of his own design. They’re not used to contorting their bodies at such strange angles. More snaps equates to more opportunities at that one play that can nuke a game. Houston knows all linemen are bound to fold — at some point — through their 70+ tireless snaps.
The risk is obviously that NFL offenses will run directly at an undersized end. Houston bristles at his perceived kryptonite and says he has no problem setting the edge. Even if he did, even if teams see No. 41 at end and audible to more runs, the risk is worth the potential reward.
After all, the NFL’s a big-play league.
“Imagine all game,” Houston says. “They’ve got to try to get back there after hitting the dude and double-teaming. Now they’ve got to try to get their feet back and get in front of me? They ain’t trying to do that all game. Nobody wants to do that. It’s a new thing. I feel like it just has to be incorporated. They’ve got to see it in real time a little bit more.”
Surtain points to Dumervil, Parsons, Dwight Freeney and sees no reason why Houston isn’t the next star racking up sacks in bunches. Like this trio, Houston blends long arms and quickness with a trick up the sleeve no one ever sees coming.
“I know his mindset,” Surtain says. “His mindset is, ‘I’m going to lead the NFL in sacks.’ I know they have Aidan Hutchinson on the other side and some other guys, but with the way he rushed the passer last year with a limited amount of snaps I think he has earned the right to get more snaps. And I think coach will do the right thing. Everybody’s going to put him in the right situation with the way he plays.”
On one hand, Houston completely understands players shouldn’t lose their jobs to injury.
On the other, he believes he outplayed those ahead of him.
Staring at that depth chart, in the spring, Houston experienced cruel déjà vu. (“Florida came right back!”) Houston vented to a few friends on the team, who offered one solution: Put it all on tape. Make it obvious. Houston hasn’t brought any unhappiness to his coaches because Campbell is no Mullen. Campbell taps into the intangibles — “the innate,” Houston says — as well as any coach he’s ever seen. That’s why we can realistically refer to the 2023 Lions as contenders. Houston believes a football team has a soul.
The more he agonizes over his plight at London Chop House, the more he’s convinced the man running this team grasps the psychological impact of keeping him so hungry. So angry. Houston cannot wait for the NFL’s kickoff opener, a primetime slot against the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs. He grew up a Chiefs fan and wants to be able to say, “I got Patrick.”
As hype around this team inevitably builds up to Week 1, James Houston IV will serve as the team’s hard edge.
“You show up in the moment,” he says, “and exceed the moment.”
Houston climbs those steps once more, exits the steakhouse and that jovial doorman sizes him up. Head to toe. The gentleman says he heard a Detroit Lion was dining tonight, asks what position Houston plays and shouts “You’re huge! You’re going to take me out.” Little does he know, of course, that Houston’s actually changing the sport in spite of his stature.
When Houston pulls out his cell phone, it’s so terribly cracked, so spiderwebbed that it’s a miracle he can even read texts. Get 16 sacks and a playoff win or two, or three and a trip to Verizon will be in order. He’s worth more than P-Squad money now.
James Houston is fully confident that everyone — ASAP — will believe.
He’ll give us no choice.
How exactly did the Detroit Lions morph themselves into an NFC contender? Subscribers will get that story next week:
Recent features at Go Long…
Miss a previous Lions piece at Go Long?