The optics of firing David Culley are terrible; the decision is rational

If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.


There are many reasons to hate that the Texans fired David Culley, so I want to start out by laying a few of them out.

— He’s the first one-and-done coach in Texans history.
— By all accounts, there wasn’t a lot more he could have done with this roster. His four wins equaled the pre-season over/under for the team. Expectations were at rock bottom, and the team fought hard to rise above those. That’s a credit to the head coach.
— The Texans took four days post-season to actually come to the decision to fire Culley, and then the very day it comes out that he’s fired, three very obvious candidates are circled almost instantly, all of them are former Patriots.
— The idea that the Texans fired a black head coach after one season in which he lived up to expectations, fair or not, is a brutal look for the team and the league.

There’s probably more than this. It’s been a long day. I’m tuckered. Let’s get to the point.

To be honest with you, boots on the ground here, it’s hard to really understand why they hired David Culley in the first place beyond him being a placeholder. I wrote about it the day it happened. It was almost impossible to have an opinion on him because he was a 65-year-old first-time head coach! The Texans brand was toxic, and anybody who came here knew they’d be saddled with losses.

Culley gets to ride off into the sunset with, apparently, four guaranteed years of money for being a punching bag. What is your soul worth? I don’t think I would have had it in me to take this job. But that is lifechanging money. I think there were a lot of people that turned down interviewing for this job because they knew what was happening here. To have a general manager on your headset the entire game feeding you advice and undermining your authority is not something I think a lot of people would sign up for.

I don’t think you can find a single person with a bad word to say about David Culley the person. He was pitched as a leader and a motivator and he did just that. Nick Caserio pointed to “philosophical differences” in their parting, and the one thing I’m curious about with this idea that nobody has pointed out yet is the parade of disciplinary actions: Justin Reid, Desmond King, Zach Cunningham, Charles Omenihu, even Shaq Lawson in training camp. Culley defended those very strenuously at all times.

Now, I can’t tell you who in the organization was for these punishments and who wasn’t — all I can tell you is that it’s pretty wild that they happened. It’s not something you see very often. And with how vociferously Culley defended them, it would make sense to me that he led that charge. That doesn’t mean it’s how it went down! But it’s something I think could have been an easy tension point in the organization if the power structure didn’t seem to agree.

I enjoyed the human side of Culley. The fact that he couldn’t help but chew his damn tongue in pressers or on the sideline. The fact that he later switched to gum. The fact that he all but admitted he doesn’t watch film that often when he’s not working. The fact that he could wax poetic about a Hershey’s bar. I liked the guy more than I liked the coach. And I think that’s about where the Texans wound up on the situation as well.


David Culley couldn’t reliably say the word “analytics,” always lisping it to sound like “analythics.” David Culley apologized after wild in-game decision mistakes multiple times in the first six weeks of the season, including not letting the Patriots score so they stopped bleeding clock, and declining a penalty that would have given the Texans another third-down play so that he could punt on fourth-and-short. David Culley’s offense was so conservative that it would barely look out of place in the 1980s, when he came of age in football. In one interview he joked that he was computer-technology illiterate.

It was very obvious that this was a big wedge between Caserio and Culley, particularly when he was being fed advice and going with his gut, which did not particularly appreciate being second-guessed.

Culley was the coach the Texans settled for, not the coach they actually wanted. And as extremely haphazard as it played out over this last week, it’s not like he was slaying people with in-game decisions. He was 28th the last time EdjSports put up their list of coaches by pure decision WPA added. And I think that undersells how conservative he was because Edj’s model downplayed Houston’s chances to win often on account of how bad the team was.

Firing David Culley the head coach is, at the very least, not worthy of scorn. He wasn’t downright embarrassing all that often, but it was clear that he was behind the times. There was little hope that this would improve or that a second year of it would go better than the first. About the only positive thing you could point to in a major way was that Davis Mills improved drastically after he was benched, and that’s not something that often gets attributed to Culley so much as Pep Hamilton.


I don’t know how much optimism I have that Brian Flores can make Deshaun Watson play for the Texans again. I think he’s a worthy target in the sense that if you paired him with a better offensive coordinator, he has proven that he can be an effective NFL head coach already.

But what I am optimistic about is that this horrific year of Texans football will be buried quickly. Because if the Texans are willing to upset the apple cart by firing Culley, they must believe that this is a year where a lot can happen in a very short time. Like last year, where a lot also happened in a very short time. But except maybe unlike last year, with a head coach that has some credibility and that they have stake in the success of, and who will be working with talent more equal to that of a real NFL franchise.

I can’t tell you I’m brimming with joy about the fact that the Texans continue to actually be Patriots South, but Josh McDaniels is pre-eminently one of the best-regarded candidates available, and I think highly of Flores’ work in Miami. I’d be less excited about Jerod Mayo, but I’d be willing to hear more about why I should be excited.

But in a way, the feeling of firing Culley reminds me a lot of when the Texans traded up to get Deshaun Watson. They were mired in quarterback hell, and whether Watson worked out or Watson didn’t work out, it was clear that something was going to give about this team. This happened in plaid speed as opposed to the Bill O’Brien era, where we were three years into mediocrity already, but the message is that the Texans understand and are acting like they can’t continue to fritter away time.

Maybe that will work out, and maybe that won’t. It’s beyond frustrating that the candidate list would have been a funny joke told the day that Bill O’Brien was fired based purely on who Jack Easterby liked. But I’m glad to dispense with what appears to have been a WarGames simulation of what the Texans might look like and try something that might have a chance of working. It’s time for the front office to take some praise or take some heat, and with the decision to jettison Culley, it’s clear that they’re willing to put themselves front and center.


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