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BRB GroupThink: Reviewing Zach Cunningham’s Release

It’s the end of the road for Zach Cunningham.

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Houston Texans released Zach Cunningam yesterday. What is your opinion on the situation? Was it a move that needed to happen, or would the Texans have been better off keeping Cunningham on the roster for the rest of this season and even going onto next season?

This is the question I asked the masthead. These are their answers:

MATT WESTON:

I tried to tell you, I told you, and I kept telling you, Zach Cunningham is overrated. He was great in a very specific role. On a stacked front seven including players like D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus, Cunningham could play on the weakside of the formation and chase and tackle and deliver kill shots on runningbacks. Their hands were purple, gnarled and bloody, busted nails and piano key teeth, so Cunningham could keep his pedicure pristine for weeks.

Bill O’Brien and Jack Easterby went to work in 2020 to extend Cunningham. They gave him a 4-year $58 million extension with with $23 million guaranteed, an extension that would require Cunningham to exceed the bounds of his previous body and performance, and be the type of player who can anchor a front seven. He never showed the propensity to do this before. Coverage struggles. Issues stacking and shedding. Never playing Mike linebacker. The Texans paid for hopes and dreams, and future performance.

The results were miserable from the get go. Last season Benardrick McKinney went down with a shoulder injury, which forced Cunningham to Mike linebacker. He was supposed to prowl the short middle in coverage, read his keys, fit his runs, and zip through blocks to control the run game. None of these things happened. The dam had broke. Houston’s front had crumbled into a ruins, and Cunningham was an artifact from a former empire.

What was terrible became stranger this past offseason. Rather than pay his bills to create cap space for 2022, Nick Caserio restructured a horde of contracts: Shaq Lawson, David Johnson, Laremy Tunsil, Whitney Mercilus, Brandin Cooks, and, of course Cunningham. The Texans linebacker had a cap hit of $5.8 million this year, that would balloon to $14 million the following year. Turning salary into signing bonus increased his guaranteed money. The Texans owed $18 million on this contract.

There was some hope Cunningham would be better this season. The Texans added bodies to their front seven. Their two younger players would be a year older. Cunningham would be back to playing Will linebacker. The performance was just as bad as last season, the same lazy reads, silly run fits, high tackle attempts, and liquification in coverage were here once again.

The difference this year is the new decision makers were tired of it. David Culley and Nick Caserio have a standard for a 2-10 team, and Cunningham wasn’t meeting that standard. Whether it was lazy play, ignoring playcalls, missing COVID-19 tests, whatever it was, the Texans had enough.

Houston didn’t have another option to move on from Cunningham. His performance was awful, and so was the contract. No one in the league would offer even a 2024 seventh round pick for him. There wasn’t hope that Cunningham would improve enough this season to be able to trade him next offseason. It was either bite the bullet now, or pay him for the same sort of play for another year.

The truth is Cunningham was never great to begin with, he was signed to play a role he had never played before, and his performance has fallen apart when the top talent left the roster. Cutting Cunningham isn’t a disaster. If you want something to be upset about, you should have screamed about the extension, and wailed about the restructure, today, you are way too late.

L4BLITZER:

In a vacuum, the release of Zack Cunningham isn’t great, but it would be one of those “It is what it is” type moves. He certainly wasn’t living up to the contract making him one of the highest paying linebackers in the league, a position that is not exactly worthy of high dollar amounts in this day and age. The degree of disciplinary infractions and on-field performance may have made Cunningham a locker-room cancer, but it wouldn’t appear to be Antonio Brown level toxic. Cunningham’s cap hit, especially for next season, is a burden to rebuilding that this team didn’t really need. The team may not have been able to trade him, but to cut bait the way they did, when they did...not great.

Yet, in context with everything else with the Texans as an organization over the past couple of seasons, it is further proof that this team really does not have any semblance of strategic planning. It seems like each day, the deals authored by then-GM BO’B have a half-life that continuously decay into some more toxic for the future. This handicaps Caserio, but the way he managed the cap situation for players like Cunningham seriously calls into question the strategic plan for the Texans. Why do all the short-term cap gymnastics for a team that is bad in 2021, only to needlessly saddle the team with heavier cap hits, thus hindering rebuilding options? I really wish the team would have just written this year off, done all in its power to clear future cap space, thus maximizing the rebuilding options for 2022. At least that might have generated positive excitement for the team, a quality that this franchise sorely lacks.

This also speaks ill of the “culture”. Ok, Cunningham wasn’t following team rules and the squad acted accordingly. Between Cunningham and Reid being suspended for disciplinary actions, it can send a message that no one is above the team. Fine. Yet, that off-field discipline is not manifesting itself anywhere on the field. The team, veteran-laden as it is, is among the league leaders in penalties. There is no sense of growth or evolution as a squad, a few individual performances excepted. What sort of leadership is Culley really offering? Maybe his tactics would work better in college or with a rookie squad, but this team is among the oldest in the league. Those sort of games will fall flat more often that not in that situation. Perhaps the team is just that bad in all facets, but at least with Detroit, theirs is a flawed squad that will put up some fight on the field. I don’t see that with this Texans team at all.

Outright waiving Cunningham will not solve the problems for the Texans. How much he is missed is debatable. It is more telling that his fall from grace is so emblematic of the Texans as a team and an organization. Not a good look for anyone involved.

BIGFATDRUNK:

The contract Bill O’Brien gave to Zach Cunningham is what happens when you don’t understand the most basic fundamentals of roster management.

Sure, Cunningham had a couple of decent seasons, but if there’s one thing this league doesn’t lack, it’s linebackers who can stop the run. Cunningham was worthless both in coverage and as a pass rusher, and BOB deemed him fit for a top five linebacker contract because...well, there was nobody else on the roster who could play? Because we had no draft picks to backfill a replacement?

Like the rest of his off-season, restructuring Cunningham’s contract was nothing more than Nick Caserio wankery. It did nothing. It proved nothing. It just moved around a small amount of a billionaire’s money. Who cares (and that’s not a question).

At the end of the day, and I really hate that saying!, the only thing this move does is to put one more nail in the BOB was incompetent coffin. It says nothing substantial about anything else.

EVAN WILSMORE:

I understand that Cunningham had a few flaws, but I really liked him on a personal level. Letting him go is nothing more than rearranging deck chairs on the titanic, since we all know it won’t solve any of the problems.

From a management perspective, player discipline is important. You need to build character among individuals and install an attitude that’s centered around winning. However, the Texans are a rebuilding franchise, and “veteran” presence in the locker room is important regardless of player performance. Cunningham was with the team since 2017, and led the NFL in tackles last year. Even if he can’t do everything right, even if he can’t get along with some people, he’s still a valuable asset to have when it comes to teaching others. Now, the team no longer has that.

Culley has been somewhat cut-throat in his approach lately, perhaps angry with the lack of production from his team. Considering the guy’s resume, I don’t really know what he expected. It’s not a good look for Caserio, either, but I’d be willing to give him more chances than the head coach.

The Cunningham release also takes away from morale, and it doesn’t help that the media has already covered this story extensively. When I look at a team like Detroit, a team that has an even worse record than the Texans, I actually think they’re the better squad. Why? Because those guys have bought into the system. They love Dan Campbell and are willing to fight every week. The locker room is filled with energy, and also a sense of community. Houston has rarely achieved that this year, and seems to be moving further away from it with this roster move.

As for where Cunningham will end up, I don’t have a good answer. Something tells me a division rival is a possibility, probably Tennessee or Jacksonville, which could really come back to bite the Texans in the ass further down the line.

Finally, I’ll leave a quick note to the fans. The best way I can describe this is if I relate it to alcoholism. There’s an addiction to something, and it’s bad. That addiction has more drawbacks than benefits, and it can also hurt the people around you. With this recent news regarding Cunningham, that’s when you walk into rehab and surrender. Go get help. It’s not working anymore. Things need to be changed and things need to be fixed, all for the greater good of the world.

MATT ROBINSON:

The move has been in the cards since the extension first took place and was foreshadowed when fellow run down specialist Jaylon Smith was released from his rich deal earlier in the year. The cap implications were already bad from the moment his contract restructured and he was getting outplayed by Kamu Grugier-Hill roughly a quarter into the season which made him more of a luxury than a necessity. I don’t know if it was a needed move per say, I’m not in the locker room to properly gauge how much of an impact he had on productivity. Cutting him now is like ripping off a band aid that you were tired of wearing. It continues the post BoB healing process and even if the circumstances are not ideal this has been wanted ever since his misplaced extension occurred.

MIKE BULLOCK:

My knee jerk reaction was this was yet another stupid move in a long line of stupid moves by the Texans stupid, stupid leadership team. If Cunningham was a worthless, distracting, troublemaker as he’s being painted, then why not get rid of him prior to the trade deadline? Surely a top tier culture coach could have spotted that in the first ten minutes of being around Zach. And, if he wasn’t to that level, why not hang onto him until the season is over and try to trade him then? Houston’s certainly not adverse to paying part of a player’s salary to get rid of said player. Instead of taking an $18 million dead cap hit, they could have only taken a $10 million one. Maybe.

After digging into some of the ‘back story’, seeing some of the tweets surrounding the news and pondering the timeline of how we got from drafting Cunningham to where we are right now, my opinion evolved. Now, I think this was yet another stupid move in a long line of stupid moves by the Texans stupid, stupid leadership team.

But, in a different way.

Bill O’Brien on Zach Cunningham’s (stupid) contract extension

Really, to be very, very honest with you, Jack Easterby did a lot of this negotiation.

I’d like to believe this is Nick Caserio doing his best to sweep away the last of the bad Cal McNair/Jack Easterby/Bill O’Brien detritus, but since two/thirds of that “braintrust” is still in the building “contributing” it’s apparent we’ll continue seeing horrible moves like this as either initial events or responsive-to—said-initial-events for as long as those 2 are in power. McEasterby is going to continue [Kitten]ing the bed and Caserio is going to continue coming in with the pooper-scooper while David Culley narrates from his toxic positivity cue cards.

At some point, someone else will offer Nick Caserio a real general manager job and he’ll be gone, leaving us with the “abusive uncles” to mind the kids.

In the end, based on the past four years of evidence, it will be a long, long time before this team’s leadership is anything other than collectively stupid. So, expect more of the same with Laremy Tunsil, Justin Reid, and any other vestige of hope this fanbase still holds.