Now that the 2022 season in moving further into the rear-view mirror, the Houston Texans can move on to where the “real” drama and games will be played: The off-season. The Texans and their limited fan base can actually look forward and have some semblance of hope for the future. At the time of this writing, the team can look forward to a complement of 12 draft picks, including the #2 and #12 selections. They also look to start the free agency season with nearly $40M in cap space. There are a number of promising young players on the roster, to include Derek Stingley, Jr, Jalen Pitre, Christian Harris and Dameon Pierce.
Yet, whether the Texans can maximize all of those assets into a competitive squad now rests squarely on the shoulders of one man: General Manager Nick Caserio. Now starting his 3rd season at the helm, Caserio will have no shortage of opportunities to improve the state of the Texans, who have only won 11 games this decade. Along with the cap space and draft picks, Caserio will also have the chance to select his 3rd head coach in as many years.
Yet, with all the promise comes increased pressure. The poor roster and chaotic internal team dynamics Caserio inherited put him in a bad spot. It is hard to see how even Bobby Beathard or Ozzie Newsome in their GM primes could have navigated the team to a better situation. However, in the modern league, worst to first turnaround are not impossible. One need only look to division rival Jacksonville, long a league punching bag and holder of the 2022 #1 pick, as they clinched the AFC South and are in the AFC Divisional Playoff round.
Caserio, prior to the Houston gig, was long seen as a prime GM prospect, one that the Texans tried to hire back in 2019, before that effort was shut down by New England. While the hire was not without controversy, most saw it as a good move. Yet, since that hire, the team has:
- A 7-26-1 record;
- Failed to find an adequate replacement for Watson at the QB position;
- Hired and fired two coaches after their first season;
- Seen attendance steadily decline for home dates;
In particular, the lack of consistency and the process by which Caserio and the Texans looked to hire coaches is haunting the team. While the Texans were the first team to fire a coach in 2020, they turned out to be the last squad to hire a coach for 2021, and that coach, long time assistant/position coach David Culley, was hardly a coveted coaching prospect. Culley struggled at times with running a team as the head man, making questionable decisions, alienating star talent and seemingly a willing puppet of Caserio and the front office on the field. Yet, by the end of the 2021 season, the Texans finished on a 2-2 kick, and those two losses were slugfests against NFC Championship participant San Francisco and eventual AFC #1 seed Tennessee. The team became that squad no one wanted to play to the end the year.
While the 2022 Texans didn’t figure to compete for much more than high draft picks, it was curious that the team decided to fire Culley after only one season each. Culley reminded nobody of peak Lombardi or Landry, but given how the team ended the season and the projected expectations for the ‘22 squad, did he really have to go? The conventional wisdom is that NFL GMs typically don’t get the chance to hire more than two coaches a tenure. If Caserio and the Texans sacked Culley so suddenly, it signaled that the team figured it could get a better coaching prospect, one that could be the “man” to lead the team back into contention.
Yet, the process gave short shrift to that notion. The team cast a wide net, looking at noted prospects like Eric Bienemy and Brian Flores. Yet, they also went down the untraveled paths, interviewing individuals like Hines Ward (a college position coach) and Josh McCown (long time back-up, but not a hired coach at any level of football). Eventually, the finalists seemed to narrow down to Flores and McCown. Then, outside factors submarined that process, when Flores filed a wrongful termination/discrimination suit against the NFL. Suddenly, the former head coach for the Miami Dolphins proved too toxic for the Texans to hire. Yet, that toxicity rubbed off on McCown, whose hire would generate optics that were too much for even the morbid Texans to stomach. Thus, the team, in desperation, just went ahead and named then-defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to the job. They tried to sell it as getting the “right” man, but most saw through that language.
Moving into the 2022 season, the Texans didn’t figure to contend for much outside of the #1 pick in the draft. They generally played to expectations, even as they integrated more rookies on to the field in 2022 than they did for 2021. The starting QBs for the Texans seemed worse under Smith than they did under Culley. The team arguably let as many as five wins slip through their fingers. Smith’s style grated on numerous individuals in the organization and there were disgruntled stars this season as well. Yet, the team did finish the season as a team that gave top playoff contenders significant heartburn (Kansas City, Dallas). They finished 2-1, including a win at Indianapolis, something only the Bill O’Brien teams ever accomplished. Yes, it cost the Texans the #1 overall pick, but it is a finish that the organization can try to build on for the next season.
However, that win did not save Smith, and he was fired within hours of the conclusion of the 2022 season. Suddenly, the narrative about the Texans as an organization without direction or semblance of organizational competence dominated sports headlines. That both Smith and Culley are African American and the short nature of their tenures was not lost on a league that has struggled to promote minority coaching candidates. Caserio found himself under increased scrutiny, to a degree he never experienced in his days in New England.
While promising to be more diligent in the coaching search and less hands-on with coaching decisions/organization, Caserio is running out of chances. Perhaps the best move the Texans made last season was the dismissal of the religious charlatan posing as an Executive Vice President of Football Operations Jack Easterby. With his firing, the driving force behind much of the Texans’ ills went with him. However, Caserio lost his last shield. If this coaching search goes south, if he botches the draft and mismanages the cap/player acquisition, Caserio will not be around to hire a fourth coach.
As the present time, Caserio seems likely to welcome his third head coach as GM, and the Texans are going through various interviews with respected prospects. With both Bryce Young and CJ Stroud declaring for the NFL draft, the Texans seemed well-placed to acquire a franchise-level QB in the upcoming draft. Even Cal McNair is acknowledging the team’s struggles and is looking to put forth a better product on the field for 2023. There is reason for optimism, a rare thing this decade for the Texans’ fan.
However, all of that optimism and hope must pay dividends on the field in 2023. A Jacksonville-like turnaround may not be in the cards, but the Texans will have to play a more watchable brand of football, showing progress and signs that if not 2023 as the turnaround, then 2024. All of that rests on Caserio. Do that, and he can look forward to a long and fruitful tenure in Houston. Fail in 2023, and Houston will have to search for its fourth GM of the 2020s.