How to lose a GM in 17 months: what to make of the Brian Gaine firing?

I think the best way to sum up Brian Gaine’s tenure as general manager of the Houston Texans is that he had small ambitions and accomplished those well.

Gaine didn’t trade for Deshaun Watson. He didn’t show much urgency at the trading deadline in coming away with only Demaryius Thomas. He signed a single player this offseason to more than a one-year deal: Tashaun Gipson. (Angelo Blackson was re-signed to a three-year deal.) He didn’t trade up to get Andre Dillard. He was content to build through the draft — which he crushed in 2018, it must be said. Gaine was always going to make moves that would only benefit the team or be irrelevant in a year, because he never aimed to do more than that. The Texans took a low-risk plan and got an eleven-win season for it.

I don’t think there’s much more that can be read into Gaine’s tenure because 17 months isn’t much of a timeframe to leave your mark on a franchise. We’ll see how the draft picks pan out, of course. But otherwise this move just leaves me with many questions, which I’ll try to address one-by-one:

Who was responsible for firing Gaine?

That’s a great question. Here are your main suspects:

Bill O’Brien: Has fired numerous coaches that were “his guys,” Gaine was “his guy.” Won a bloody PR war — or I guess as bloody as anything one-sided can be given how little media is given access to the Texans front office — against Rick Smith, despite Smith’s wife having cancer. John McClain noted in his column on the situation that Gaine and O’Brien’s relationship had “eroded.”

He’s the odds-on-favorite in the clubhouse to me because he’s got a long track record of winning culture wars. Being on O’Brien’s staff is, I imagine, like living in The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.”

Jack Easterby: The new Texans “executive of team development” seemed to be singled out by the most well-sourced Houston football guy I know, Lance Zierlein:

McClain noted that Easterby has gained “widespread influence throughout the organization.” I know jack crap about Easterby and won’t pretend that I do, having never ever interacted with him. All I can gather from the internet paints him as a religious man — former chaplain for the Chiefs — and someone who fits the mold of a leadership coach.

Perhaps it’s possible that Easterby and Gaine didn’t agree on some things, and that O’Brien was informed of those? Possible.

Cal McNair: Now the way the stories are written point very strongly to this being new owner Cal McNair’s decision. He asserts the power in the Texans PR post about it, and most retellings involve him being the one to actually pull the trigger:

Here’s why I think that’s a bit off-base: McNair has been involved in his father’s businesses for most of his adult life. He’s also got a background as an investor in the pre-Texans days with his father’s companies. It would seem wildly out of character for McNair to do something so impulsive, particularly given Gaine’s five-year contract. This man has been patient for his entire life. He may have signed off on the order because he was convinced to, but I don’t think it’s a step he comes to on his own. And exactly what football sense does he have to make such a leap? No, no, no. None of this adds up.

Janice McNair: Nope, this ain’t it.

I think there’s two real suspects here, and I think Occam’s Razor suggests that maybe Easterby and O’Brien discovered something about Gaine they didn’t like and, using O’Brien’s supreme power in the organization, forced Gaine out.

What does the timing of the move tell us?

There are a couple of ideas I have about things that may have informed the urgency of this move:

  • Charles Robinson of Yahoo! claimed that there has been almost “zero” movement around Jadeveon Clowney’s contract. It’s possible that the Texans didn’t like that — I think it’s more likely that O’Brien doesn’t trust Clowney and didn’t really mind, but I can’t completely dismiss this as a possibility.
  • It’s possible that Easterby and O’Brien determined that Gaine was spending too much time scouting traits and not enough finding productivity. Keep in mind that almost all of Gaine’s high draft picks this year, as well as his big free-agent signings in 2018, were tools-first. Tytus Howard and Max Scharping are big and fast, Kahale Warring is The Tools Guy, and Lonnie Johnson has almost zero to recommend on play alone.

    I would dismiss this because I think that’s also O’Brien’s M.O. — remember that the main targets at quarterback that O’Brien had were Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Savage, and Ryan Mallet. The big arm at the expense of anything else. I think that also starts with O’Brien.
  • The Texans may have gone through OTAs, looked at their roster, and realized just what their lack of impact this offseason has done. Now, I should note that from what I’ve seen as far as OTA coverage, Howard and Scharping have done fine. But remember that not every OTA is open to the media, and perhaps a lot of the in-OTA scouting the Texans did scared them. It’d scare me to defend the AFC South with this team too. Sometimes you need that crystallizing moment?

    I don’t completely buy that theory either, but it feels stronger to me than the other two.
  • They didn’t trust Gaine’s evaluation of the end-of-roster players, nor did they appreciate his tendency to bring in hurt players. Which I think is kind of interesting because I thought special teams was much improved last year, and I think most of the moves that Gaine made in that vein worked out pretty well! The end of roster wideouts didn’t do great towards the end of the season, but which UDFA rookie looks good at WR2? DeAndre Carter was an inspired waiver wire pickup in the middle of last season.

    But the injured player thing rings a bell to me. Look at Seantrel Henderson and Matt Kalil — the front office invested heavily in guys who have almost zero recent track record of staying healthy. It’s been a complaint of many in the Houston media.

What can be salvaged from a dreadful offseason?

Well, there’s my Jadeveon Clowney contract idea. That’s one way to use the cap space. They could similarly front-load a Will Fuller extension if they believe in his health. DJ Reader could be front-loaded if they want to lock into a run stuffer in 2019.

Unfortunately, there is no rewind button. Of NFL.com’s top 75 free agents, Morris Claiborne, Corey Liuget, Michael Crabtree, and Jay Ajayi are still out there. Could the team make some trades? Sure, but the positions they need the most help at are the ones that are the most unlikely to have anyone become available at. Wanna trade for like, Jason Spriggs? Make some sort of godfather offer for Laremy Tunsil? Start throwing random late-round picks around for depth guys you think have a chance ala Chris Myers way back in the day? Every NFL team needs cornerbacks and no NFL team has three good offensive tackles.

The time to be this aggressive was three months ago, not now. No matter who the next GM is, the only way he’s going to successfully use that cap space is to think so far outside of the box that he’d never be on O’Brien’s radar.

The offseason has already capped Houston’s ceiling.

Who will the Texans hire?

Well, before we get to the part where we discuss the options, let’s talk about the reputation you build when you ice a general manager 17 months into a five-year contract: Nobody good is coming, and you’re going to be used mostly as a negotiation tool by agents. Congrats to Joe Douglas!

The good news (I guess?) is that nobody who wasn’t on Bill O’Brien’s Friendster page was coming anyway. This organization had offensive coordinator open for years and couldn’t bring themselves to fill it from the outside. In interviewing people for the job last time, the organization interviewed two people — Gaine, and Jimmy Raye III, who conveniently satisfied the Rooney rule. Hey, so do Ray Farmer and Martin Mayhew! I’m sure they’ll be getting second interviews, right?

O’Brien will do one of two things: he’ll try to hire either Nick Caserio from New England or Monti Ossenfort from … New England. My guess is that if neither of them are granted permission, you’ll see Chris Olsen continue in the role while O’Brien and Easterby figure out who else O’Brien knows that might make a good general manager. I’m not going to tell you there’s zero chance the Texans hire from outside that pool, but I will be floored if it happens. I’ve seen Scott Pioli mentioned by Jason La Canfora and will start to believe that when someone with sources besides La Canfora says it’s a possibility.

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