By now, most are tracking that the Houston Texans hired the 5th Head Coach in franchise history: One Mr. Lovie Lee Smith, formerly the team’s defensive coordinator. How we got there will no doubt make for one epic oral history book in 15 years. Up until one week ago, any debate about Lovie Smith centered on whether he would return as defensive coordinator. However, throw in a major lawsuit against the league from one of the two finalist candidates, add the possibly of some nightmare optics, and you find yourself with Lovie Smith taking his third NFL head coaching gig, and his fourth head coaching position since 2002.
There will be plenty of time between now and the start of the season to try to figure out what the team will look like under Smith, how he will lead the team/etc. Yet, even in the immediate fallout, there is much to learn. Here are some key lessons about the state of the franchise from this recent coaching search
debacle, er, saga.
- Jack Easterby still holds significant power:
Remember this guy? Well, if you forgot about him, you might be forgiven. With Caserio taking on the role of General Manager, Easterby moved into the Executive Vice President of Football Operations office, which translates into a position of power, but out of the primary media limelight. This is not a bad thing. Yet, Easterby was never completely gone. Many a player would reference Easterby unbidden at press conferences, and his constant presence on the sideline reinforced his position on the squad.
Any doubts about Easterby’s power vanished during this coaching search. When the Texans planned to once again interview Josh McCown for the Head Coaching gig, despite the fact that McCown had only added some limited coaching at a local high school to his resume, that got a bit of an eyebrow raise. That eyebrow turned into the “People’s Eyebrow” when the team brought McCown in for a second interview, a sign that the team was seriously considering the man for the gig. Mind you, no other team, college or pro, had even considered him for a Quarterback coaching position, much less the Head Coach of a NFL franchise.
That McCown did not get hired should not diminish the fact that love him (few do) or hate him (most of the general population), the word of Jack Easterby carried a lot of weight in the Texans’ organization. There is little sign of that changing anytime soon.
- The Flores lawsuit gave the Texans their 1st big “What If?” of 2022:
What if Flores doesn’t file the lawsuit and what impact does that have on this job prospects for the Texans? Prior to the fallout of that legal thermonuclear detonation, Flores was considered a finalist for the Texans head coaching job, along with the aforementioned McCown. How does this go if Flores didn’t bring the lawsuit?
One school of thought: The Texans realized they COULDN’T hire McCown after the Flores lawsuit. Even though the Texans were the only team to hire an African-American head coach last hiring cycle, they also fired Culley after one season. That news brought out some grumbling about the fate of African-American coaches vs. White coaches. IF the Texans, on the heels of firing an African-American with four decades of NFL positional coaching experience, hired a white guy with NO coaching experience of ANY significance at ANY level over an African American with actual head coaching experience, and on the heels of this lawsuit, that blowback, even for the Texans, could be a bridge too far.
Another school of thought: The Texans wanted to hire Flores, but the ill-will from the lawsuit made Flores a toxic asset with the league. The team, to maintain peace with the league and other owners, decided against this hire. Caserio may have humored Easterby, or might have been genuinely intrigued by McCown, but it seems likely that Caserio wanted Flores. The Patriot connections and the job Flores did with Miami made him a favored choice to try to get the Texans back to playoff contention. Yet, the lawsuit probably put Cal in a difficult position vis-a-vis the other owners. While general public outcry hasn’t seemed to penetrate the Texans’ brain trust, grumbling from the other owners probably resonated more with the McNairs, especially after seeing the ill-will directed towards Stan Kroenke after his lawsuit resolution with St. Louis.
While the Texans are saying that the lawsuit had nothing to do with their hiring decisions, I think that most people can read between the lines and think otherwise. Plus, it is also possible that Flores may not have wanted this job, seeing it as a trap. 2 bad seasons with this team (a very real possibility) and he is fired, and the impetus of his lawsuit dies with that losing record.
- Caserio must feel like he will get a chance at hire #3
The general rule of thumb for general managers is that that usually don’t get to make a third coaching hire. When Caserio fired Culley after only one season, it stood to reason that this head coach hire would be the one that would make or break his tenure as GM. Yet, with a move like Smith, who hasn’t had a winning record as a head coach at any level since 2012 and is 64, this has the feel of another short-term, place-holding move. Smith has more head coaching experience than Culley, but the team is still a long ways from contending, and by the time the team is in position to contend for even a playoff spot, the franchise might just be ready to move on to someone else.
Caserio is on Year two of his six year deal. While no contract is ever for certain in the NFL, that Caserio would just hire a guy without reopening the coaching search, even to see if there was any other Patriot alumni that he might prefer after the Super Bowl, seems to indicate that Caserio feels good enough about his position to go with Smith. With the high likelihood that Smith will not be the long-term answer, Caserio will get a shot at a 3rd hire. Who that will be? Who can say, but continue to keep an eye out for any Patriot alumni. You know that Caserio is/will.
- If You Thought the Off-Season Drama Ended in 2021, Buckle Up...
If the Texans’ coaching search went this way, it does seem to indicate that the team is in for quite the off-season, another one with major plot twists and turns, mostly of the bad, horror-movie kind. Even with Smith and Pep Hamilton taking over as Offensive Coordinator, the team is still filled with deficiencies all across the roster. As of now, the team will carry nearly $40 million in dead cap money out of a salary cap of around $208 million. This doesn’t take into account the Watson or Tunsil situations. The team actually has some draft picks, but even if the squad hits on all of them, there is a significant talent deficit that will take multiple seasons to overcome.
Oh, and since we mentioned everyone’s favorite Executive Vice President for Football Operations, you can’t ignore some good old fashioned palace intrigue. While it might appear there is a balance of the three power brokers in McNair, Easterby and Caserio, any fault lines from the head coaching whiplash will very quickly get exploited, especially if someone like Easterby feels the need to put a rival, even Caserio in his place.
Plus, since we are dealing with this version of the Texans, there is likely to be some other dumb bit of drama that will emerge to derail whatever narratives and hopes the fanbase has for the squad to return to contention...or at least avoiding embarrassment.