Should Rick Smith Stay?

HOUSTON - NOVEMBER 07: Bob McNair of the Houston Texans walks off the field after the Houston Texans were defeated by the San Diego Chargers 29-23 at Reliant Stadium on November 7 2010 in Houston Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

A recent tweet has sent the Texans blogosphere atwitter (pardon the pun).  Lance Zierlein posted the following nugget yesterday:

The word on the agent grapevine is that Rick Smith will remain as GM and be in charge of hiring a new head coach for the Texans

My first reaction?  Surprise.  Surprise and confusion.  With the utter failure that this season has been, everyone knows that change is coming.  The nature of the change has been a matter of debate though.  Most everyone has seemed to settle on two possible courses of action:  (1) everyone gets fired (Frank Bush, Gary Kubiak, Rick Smith and Frank Bush) and a new coach like Bill Cowher gets hired or (2) Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith keep their jobs, Frank Bush gets fired and an established defensive coordinator like Marvin Lewis gets hired.  This unforeseen third option is kind of a head scratcher.  Before everyone weighs in on whether they think it’s a good idea or not, it’s probably important to examine Rick Smith as a GM and analyze his performance with the Texans.

Drafting performance should be the yardstick for Smith, considering his mantra is "build through the draft".  Smith has had mixed results.  To his credit, his lows are usually not all out busts, although Kareem Jackson looks startlingly bad, especially compared to the "less pro ready" Devin McCourty.  The greatest detractor to Smith’s draft record is, however, is what he didn’t draft.  The interior defensive line and safety have been continuously ignored in April, with the exception of controversial tenth overall pick in 2007,  Amobi Okoye.  Instead, the Texans have relied on late round picks (Troy Nolan, Dominique Barber, Frank Okam) or other teams' cast-offs (Shaun Cody, Eugene Wilson, Bernard Pollard) to fill those holes for the positions that have plagued this defense.

This negligence brings up an interesting question pertaining to Smith--how much control does he have over personnel decisions, specifically draft picks?  It has been widely rumored that Gary Kubiak had final say over who got selected.  This might explain why Smith has only taken two defensive backs prior to the fourth round in his tenure.  That is one way to produce one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history.

Another way is to miss on the few DBs that you do pick.  My contention earlier that most of Smith’s picks were not busts was probably met with derision for some of you, but can you really consider a sixth round safety or a fifth round corner a bust?  On the other hand, a good talent evaluator should be able to hit on some of those picks.  Of the nine DBs drafted by Smith, only Glover Quin would see playing time for a playoff caliber team, and that would be at best as a nickel corner.  What makes this worse is that Smith coached and scouted defensive backs after playing as one collegiately.

To play devil’s advocate to this argument, players tend to regress after impressive debuts for the Texans, as Rivers cited in one his articles.  Amobi Okoye had 5.5 sacks as a rookie and had 4.5 in the three years since.  Brian Cushing earned the Defensive Rookie of the Year award (twice) and has had a negligible impact the season after.  Fred Bennett was incredible in coverage his rookie season and then completely disappeared thereafter.  This trend is certainly on the coaching staff.

Lastly, Smith’s free agency record is minimal and, for the most part, uninspiring.  Antonio Smith has been above average but can’t be relied on to avoid costly penalties such as offsides, unnecessary roughness, or removing teammate’s helmets.  Eugene Wilson is terrible...enough said.  I applaud Smith for not handing Dunta Robinson the kind of money he was looking for, but he should be held responsible for not preparing for Dunta's foreseeable departure.  The exception is Matt Schaub, who was by far his most daring move, as Smith paid two second round picks for a backup quarterback.  While the true benchmark for a franchise QB is wins and losses, I’d say it’s still safe to say that the move worked.

Those are his big splashes.  What may be more telling for Smith in free agency are the smaller moves that don’t get the spotlight.  A well-respected theory among GMs is that when you take over a team that needs to be rebuilt, you find a quarterback and concentrate on the bottom third, the thought process being that you make sure your depth players are all NFL caliber players first, and build your core players along the way.  And yet, when core players such as Mario Williams, Andre Johnson, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing miss time, the drop-off is considerable.  Any team that loses its stars feels a difference, but good teams find a way to plug in backups and still get the job done.  Further proof is the substandard special teams play, which is usually a good barometer of and NFL team's depth.  Also, other teams sometimes find hidden gems when starters go down.  Who was the last Texans player that took advantage of this kind of break to claim a starting role?

The truth about Rick Smith is that you can’t unequivocally say that he has failed as a general manager, because of the coaching staff’s possible interference in personnel decisions and the evidence that the coaches developed those players poorly.  On the other hand, what has he done to merit staying?  If the coaching staff had final say, it was because ownership created or approved that process, which would imply a lack of trust in the front office.  Yet now you’re going to give the same front office personnel the power to decide the next coaching regime when you wouldn’t let it/Smith decide which players to select?  And if the coaching staff didn’t interfere with personnel decisions, Rick Smith has even more to answer for.

The Texans have failed on almost every level this season after three seasons of mediocrity.  To keep Rick Smith would continue the dysfunction of this franchise, because there is no reason to think that the problems wouldn’t get passed on along to the front office.  What head coach worth hiring would assume that he’d be stepping into a good situation after witnessing the entire personnel department was given a do-over?

I believe that this course of action would make a coaching change meaningless, and it will continue the complete lack of accountability that begins with the owner and permeates through this organization.  Enough of my opinion though.  What’s your take on keeping Rick Smith?

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