Hiring Lovie Smith makes me feel like a lonely bird

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.

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When I met my wife, she had two birds — budgies. They were named Wilbird and Orbird, and were brother and sister. They bonded very close, because my wife (back in the days before COVID existed) worked long hours at an office. Wilbird wanted to make eggs with Orbird, and Orbird would tend to fly away from him because she didn’t want that. Sometimes she even hung from can lights on the ceiling to get away from him. But despite that lack of understanding, they were very close and took care of each other.

After we moved, Orbird suddenly became ill, we suspect from chewing too much on the walls of our new house. She had cancer, which is somewhat common for budgies. It’s almost impossible to do anything about budgie cancer, as their bodies are too small. We drained her once, but she had no chance of fighting the thing off long-term. She died.

We expect a certain emotional state from people at times like these, and we turn our expectations on to our animals. And my wife was really upset at Wilbird, because he wasn’t emotional at all about his sister passing. In fact, what overtook him was … boredom.

And it makes sense, in a way, as a flock member with no flock, that your life just kind of feels pointless, right? Wilbird ate, and he drank. He flew around a few times. But he didn’t have a bond with either of us. He didn’t miss his sister emotionally, but he missed her presence. He missed being part of something bigger than him. And even though we weren’t sure if it would work, we wound up getting him two new bird friends. They don’t always get along, but they’re a flock and Wilbird is energetic and engaged in helping his new bird friends, even as he hits an older age for budgies. (He especially likes the yellow female bird.)

Where I’m at with my Texans fandom right now is kind of about where Wilbird was without his flock. I’m not emotionally upset at them, because I don’t know that anybody involved in this enterprise is a bad person and because there’s nothing I can do that changes the fact that they’re collectively not interested in seeing what they’re doing wrong. These are the facts of the situation: Unless they draft well and all their young players develop beyond their initial draft grades, they’re not going anywhere for years. The team is incapable of luring a new head coach with any options, and doubles down on that approach by making sure the front office has to have a heavy hand in every bit of the process. On a team that has completely crumbled as they have made decisions against the grain of the NFL, Bill O’Brien was the only one punished for those moves.

And I am alive, and I am moving around and eating, but I don’t really know what the point of any of this is. It’s just kind of here because it’s the only situation this current leadership can muster.

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There are two sections about hiring Houston’s abrupt Josh McCown circling that ended with Lovie Smith: the optics and what actually changes. Let’s start with the optics.

The weirdest thing about firing David Culley wasn’t that Culley was fired, because he was essentially hired to be fired. It was just how effusive the praise of Nick Caserio was when he was fired. Caserio’s post-firing presser went out of its way to say amazing things about Culley.

That doesn’t really read like Caserio wanted to let go of Culley. I know this organization is tainted with toxic positivity, but it would have been very easy to just say “philosophical differences” a bunch of times. He didn’t have to go in like he did about “the foundation” that Culley laid:

My takeaway from the Texans firing Culley was that they thought they were trying to get their coach of the future. Their version of, as Caserio alluded to in the presser, Mike Tomlin. When asked about retaining Smith, Caserio was completely non-committal.

Lovie Smith isn’t anybody’s coach of the future. He’s 63, and will turn 64 before next season. So, what happened?

I think some of the theories I’ve seen floated have overrated the effect that the Brian Flores lawsuit has had on the optics vis a vis not being able to hire Josh McCown. The Jaguars literally just hired Doug Pederson over Byron Leftwich to keep their terrible general manager employed. I also don’t think the NFL league office — the same place that called Flores’ allegations “without merit” and then spent most of last week producing memos that proved that there was some merit — is organized well enough to put down a McCown signing. I do think Caserio probably realized how bad it would look in a post-Flores lawsuit world to hire a guy with no coaching experience anywhere, but I don’t think there was guidance from above on that.

My reading of this is a little more simple: The Texans wanted Brian Flores to be their head coach. He was the first interview with the team, the day that they announced Culley’s firing. But the lawsuit makes him unemployable in the eyes of the NFL, which organized very effectively to collude against Colin Kaepernick as a free agent. The league refuses to have a head coach who is actively suing the league get a grand platform to continue to say what he thinks. That’s a future they weren’t going to allow happen. It sure feels like Flores felt the same way:

So who was left? I think you had McCown as Jack Easterby’s finalist, Jonathan Gannon as Caserio’s finalist, and a situation where the two couldn’t agree on a coach. That led them to the compromise candidate: a guy who they literally had last season.

Regardless of the vibes put out earlier by Caserio after he dispensed with Culley’s job, what we have here in Houston is a situation that still has no appeal to outsiders. Part of that is because the team is bad and just fired their head coach after one season. Part of that is because the roster is still barren of long-term talent after last year’s ingenious decision to prioritize older players on one-year contracts, one where essentially the only offensive or defensive starter they found for next year was Tavierre Thomas. They extended two players all season: Rex Burkhead and the kick returner. And, my belief is that part of it is also the fact that the head coach role in this scheme barely has any power.

Caserio’s on the headset. It’s not normal. I know that it’s something that the sect of you who are still hardcore fans don’t enjoy hearing about. I know that same sect of fans doesn’t understand why a big deal is made out of Easterby hanging on the sidelines. Well, the reason a big deal is made out of this team’s power structure is because this team just completed two head coach hiring cycles and barely got interviews with top head coaching candidates. It was a sideshow where people like McCown and Hines Ward were interviewed and taken seriously. They brought in Eric Bieniemy for one interview in 2021 and didn’t like that he wanted some actual agency. I wouldn’t have been a humongous fan of the Jonathan Gannon hire because I think this team really needs someone who will fight back with upper management and he was the “consensus builder,” but at least he had some experience and another team had interviewed him. They’ve been turned down by candidates like Matt Eberflus. Brandon Staley had no struggle in deciding between the Texans and Chargers.

The people who this team have hired have not been on the radar of any other team in the NFL. Nobody else was looking to give David Culley or Lovie Smith (or Josh McCown, for that matter!) a head coaching job. And it’s impossible to escape that this team’s organizational structure is helping to deliver these results. Whether you think that’s purely Easterby, Easterby and Cal McNair, or the whole trio. This can’t be the outcome of your coaching search if you’re a serious franchise, which means you can’t be a serious franchise with your current situation.

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Let’s lead off the actual changes with some praise for Lovie Smith: His defense truly did do what it promised and turned the ball over plenty last year, and they adjusted away from being a wildly outrageous Cover-2 team early in the season. I was worried after that Panthers game that they would be absolute toast all season, and they showed a bit better than that. It was still a turnover-heavy profile, but the defense improved from 30th in DVOA to 23rd in his first season as Texans defensive coordinator. It had, in my opinion, less talent than it did the year before when J.J. Watt was in uniform and they had the full buy-in of players like Bradley Roby and Zach Cunningham. He was also cited by numerous free agents who joined the defense — Christian Kirksey most loudly — as a reason to join the Texans.

But in a weird way, signing Smith to be your head coach turns into an endorsement of last year’s staff. The one where the guy who led the charge was fired. In fact, the darkest part of the Josh McCown-Lovie Smith “debate” is that they could have hired McCown and still had Smith. They didn’t have to fire Culley to retain Smith. And I think defensive coordinator is a better role for him than head coach at this point. If you think Culley was a conservative stick-in-the-mud as a play caller, Lovie is not going to appeal to that in any real way. Lovie finished 90th out of 131 coaches from 1983 on in aggressiveness index, which measures how often coaches go for fourth downs compared to their peers.

In his only professional stop since leaving the Bears, Lovie was a quick two-and-done in Tampa. They were a bad defense in both years, and only improved on offense in his second year by drafting Jameis Winston. The offense they asked Winston to run was based heavily on running the ball and shorter passes. He finished 20th in Football Outsiders’ ALEX ranking — something that measures the average distance to the sticks on third down. When Lovie was fired, and Dirk Koetter took over, that number immediately leaped to sixth, then third in 2017.

In other words, it sounds exactly like what the Texans ran last year. So much for “philosophical differences!” Ultimately if the final two choices were McCown or Lovie, what it really came down to is McCown or Pep Hamilton. I don’t think Hamilton is some sort of savant that will quickly work magic here or anything, because I covered those Andrew Luck Colts for Bleacher Report and wasn’t all that impressed by the offense. But I also don’t think the Texans had much in the way of better options that were interested in coming here. Heck, they were connected to Joe Brady heavily in the 2021 offseason and he’d rather be the Bills quarterbacks coach, apparently. I expect Hamilton will probably carry much of the actual play calling.

I don’t mean to insinuate any lack of respect for Smith here. He’s a huge part of football history, both in Texas and in America in general. He and London Fletcher are big reasons the Rams defense turned around in a major way. The Bears defense was absolutely stellar for the better part of a decade. He’s shat turds that have more schematic knowledge of the game than I have. There’s a reason he commands the respect of the players.

It’s just that, at this point in his career, set in to the ways that he is, I thought DC was a better role for him because it gave him more space to make adjustments. The last two stops as a head coach that he had were brutal.

Lovie got a ton of time to work at things in Illinois, too. That wasn’t a fluky pandemic thing. They never finished over .500 in a season in his five years there, peaking as a 6-7 bowl team in 2019. They immediately went 5-7 in Bret Bielema’s first year in 2021, beating all but one of Lovie’s win totals.

I don’t think you can see a 64-year-old as the next coach that’s going to lead the Texans to the playoffs. I don’t even necessarily see any reason why he’ll survive beyond this season other than pure optics. In many ways, it feels like an extension of the Culley era — partially because Lovie was a big part of the small measures of success in the Culley era. Lovie’s the coach with the better track record, yes, but a lot of it is ancient history in the grand scheme of the NFL at this point. I don’t care about Super Bowl appearances in 2006 when we’re in 2022. I’m not surprised that fans are rallying around him being a better candidate historically than Culley and talking themselves into it. But that’s mostly because at this point I fully believe that this team’s loudest fans — the ones who always complain about how the team is covered negatively — would take news of Nick Caserio eating a baby whole from the NRG rooftop and respond with “wow, he really did eat the whole thing tho, pretty good can’t lie” or “that’s a natural part of the process that has to happen, the baby had to go.” If the last two years haven’t broken your optimism, nothing will.

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In the end, where I’m at with this is that the Texans are stagnant and that it probably doesn’t have a lot of bearing on this team’s real future. The potential Deshaun Watson trade matters much more than the head coach in 2022 does. The draft picks that this team has this year are more important than anything the head coach in 2022 does. I don’t expect Lovie Smith to be here when this team is ready to compete.

But I think the backlash I’m seeing hits from a place of again seeing this front office just look comically out of their depth. They ran a head-coaching search with three finalists and didn’t pick any of them, and in which the only one who had real NFL experience was busy filing a lawsuit against the NFL. Caserio set expectations very high in the press conference in which he fired Culley.

Things were supposed to be different with Nick around. And instead of something new or inspiring, this head coaching search just reverted back to what it has been for the better part of the last four years: Same. Ol’. Texans.

12:50 P.M. 2/8 Edit: I changed two years (2020 to 2021) that I misremembered when I wrote this post, and I also added Rex Burkhead to the re-signed players list.

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One Reply to “Hiring Lovie Smith makes me feel like a lonely bird”

  1. Nice head coach search summary. Hemingway might say it was a bit wordy, but still, it did shine the light in some gray areas. I remember something in the early chapters about a budgie, but it escapes me now. Kinda like they had a plan, dropped back, fumbled, tried to recover but only ended up back at the line of scrimmage. Sigh, at least Pep was wanted by other teams so, there is that.

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