I want to start this post by asking you to think about Derek Stingley. Yes, really. The Texans third overall pick this year. Close your eyes for 20 seconds. Think about what you think he will be one day.
The thing about being a fan is that you always start with the best-case scenario in any situation and want to believe in it. Stingley was once the third overall pick in the draft. There was a value you attached in your head to that pick before it was ever made. That value was based mostly on other successful third overall picks and not on, say, Trent Richardson or Blake Bortles.
Stingley’s looked good so far — not talking about his PFF grades or anything. How good will he be in three years? You’ll look at what could be and amplify it to the desires you have. Well, he could be the next Patrick Surtain II! In settling on that, you have chosen to neglect the idea that Stingley’s career is lost to injury attrition. You have chosen to neglect even a still-positive but less-optimistic outcome, like how Justin Reid was a good player for four years before signing a major free-agency contract. You can point to big moments in Stingley’s five games so far. I can tell you I’ve been here long enough to remember Amobi Okoye starting off his NFL career with four sacks in his first five games. I’ve also been here long enough to remember Duane Brown being bad his first season, and Kareem Jackson being bad for two seasons, before they rebounded and became core players.
The inherent optimism when I ask you what Stingley will be is a trick that fandom plays with you. And I’m not leading off with this because I have some great secret on how big Stingley is going to be — he’s played five games and shown big flashes, you could tell me he’d be anything at this point and I couldn’t tell you otherwise. But I want to demonstrate that in the grand game of probabilities that is the NFL, little is guaranteed. Fandom carries the optimistic outcomes to the forefront of our mind first, and conditions that belief in us.
Firing Jack Easterby reminds me a lot of firing Bill O’Brien. It was long overdue. There was a mountain of evidence that both men weren’t up to the standards of the positions they filled. The carnage left behind from their shared marriage of power is not even close to being cleaned up. And the true measure of how each move changed the franchise is to be gained not from the firing itself, but from what happens afterwards. Their firings were a relief. A book closing on days that can never be unsuffered. It was a waste of our collective lifespans watching Anger from Inside Out (who routinely fucks up major talent advantages at Alabama) and Mr. Mackey with a taste for power drive an organization with star-level talent to the ground and disperse it.
But that mountain of evidence also made it extremely obvious that this would happen at some point, the way any of these things in sports do these days — Robert Sarver selling the Suns, or how the Commanders will eventually be sold. The toothpaste doesn’t get unsqueezed. The Texans have been telling any media person on the ground for months that they had minimized Easterby’s role this season. I’m not sure if that was a reaction to the failed Josh McCown coup, something weird with the Deshaun Watson settlements, or just a more benign falling out of favor with the McNairs. (I don’t spend a ton of time in the media insider circles, because I’ve found it doesn’t really matter much when it comes to the product on the field.) I’m going to trust that you’ve read the Sports Illustrated articles on Easterby’s bit pre-2022. If you need a “more credible source,” (i.e. you’re one of those “the national media hates my team!!! types”) here’s Andre Johnson:
One of the things I have heard plenty over the years from people who wanted to believe that Easterby was just a scapegoat for another real problem is, to paraphrase, “what if you fire him and nothing changes?” I regret to admit that they are right — this firing could mean nothing materially changes in Houston’s short-term plan. The relief on the shoulders of those in the organization who Easterby made not wear sunglasses so he could look them in the eye is something I think we should be happy about. Those people are the real winners today. But the on-field product, well, that’s something that could take years without Easterby or years with Easterby. It’s kind of all up to them, and your fandom views will optimistic that up as you wish.
Another thing I noted? The deafening silence post-firing. I waited a day before I even attempted to write about this because I wanted to see more of how things would develop and, well, we barely got any of that. John McClain posted a big thing at Gallery with a bunch of tea. And that’s fun stuff, but it’s not exactly saying what the final straw was or how anything changes now. Aaron Wilson’s accounting of it — and I say this as no slight on Aaron because he is okay with being a person who sources speak through — reads like it was written by Easterby.
But is there a big Adam Schefter story about this beyond the scoop? No. Ian Rapoport? No. Albert Breer? No. Peter King? Etc. Normally when an enormous change like this happens, we get a big media dissection of What It All Means. Now, I’m sympathetic to the idea that because Easterby was a leaker to all these people, we don’t have the level of sourcing that we normally would. But the part of my brain that always looks for troubling signs is also thinking “maybe they just don’t think removing him is that big of a deal, or there’s not going to be a real change to who they are at this point.”
The only accounting for it that Texans management had were a statement from Cal McNair that went like so:
And a brief Nick Caserio statement that he gave on his weekly hit with the in-house crew:
Neither of those statements actually do a lot to tell us how anything will change, or what the upside was in letting Easterby go. I know that you, the snarker, are reading this and thinking “you know exactly what the upside is!!!” Yes, I can see publicly many upsides. But do they? What is their broad accountability for how they see the last few years? Pardon my language, but I don’t give a shit about what Jack Easterby was actually working on this year or who is going to make developmental program tweaks or schedules now. What his continued employment represented is much, much more important — what do the Texans hope will change by firing him? You can’t find an in-house person who will talk about this stuff on air, as they have season blinders on and think we earnestly care about the results of the current football games.
That’s something that’s generally out to media 48 hours after. I am nothing if not patient — drop a full 10 page report on me and I’ll read it — but I’m surprised that there wasn’t a broad consensus to take control of the messaging of him being fired beyond “it was mutual,” which I can only read in a Clueless valley girl voice.
This leaves three major questions unanswered. They are the three questions that matter more than anything else. They are questions that are apparently going to be answered with actions as much as words.
1) How much of the dumb stuff the Texans are currently engaged in belonged to Easterby, and how much of it belongs to Nick Caserio?
2) How much of the firing is about mending a reputation carried by ex-Texans to the rest of the NFL that this organization is utterly hapless?
3) Is ownership about to change their mind about a slow build and actually demand some results?
I’m not as pessimistic about the answers to these questions as I was when O’Brien’s firing left Easterby, who was clearly never qualified to do any of the stuff he did and only stayed abroad by hiring his New England buddy. I am more pessimistic about the state of the current roster, because as much as replacing David Johnson with Dameon Pierce every Sunday is a gift, the roster has continued to bleed talent and has no plan for creating more value from it’s non-drafted players. When O’Brien was fired, they had a quarterback who was so good that he was credibly accused of serial sexual harassment and was still worth three first-round picks. Today, they have a lot of draft picks to dream on, which is something that has sometimes built good teams and sometimes built the mid-2010s Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars.
I’ve been a vocal critic of Nick Caserio’s culture and non-draft roster building, but I must admit that if he is now more empowered, he at least comes to this with an actual football background. It’s at least feasible on the surface that he was being held back or steered away from signings or refreshes he wanted to do by the voice of Easterby. Or the reputation that Easterby carried throughout the NFL. Wilson’s article ends by saying that helping to bring Nick Caserio to Houston is going to be “Jack’s greatest legacy.” I don’t know if that line will age real well.
But given how impulsive this whole organization has seemed once Bob McNair passed away, where things seem to stumble and take new direction every season, and where we very well could see head coach four in four offseasons, I don’t really have a strong feel for where this is going. I don’t think the little that trickled out Monday and Tuesday set expectations well for that. Could the Texans keep mostly the same strategy and just draft and develop until they’re ready to be relevant in, like, 2024? Sure! Could Cal McNair make further changes and sign free agents of real acclaim while putting Caserio on the hot seat for 2023? I can’t rule it out! He’s probably sick of empty seats and being less relevant than the Astros in football season.
As a fan you’re conditioned to believe the best. And as someone who has covered football for 12 years now, I’ve seen administrators rise and fall like the tides. I don’t say this to be cryptic, but it’s hard to know which way this will turn without seeing more of the how and the why. I don’t think a Nick Caserio/Lovie Smith pairing is stationed to do anything but sit here and watch young players maybe become good one day. A lot of these other rebuilds that have happened over the last three years — the Falcons, the Lions, the Jets, the Bengals, the Giants — they are head-and-shoulders in better spots than the Texans are. They’re doing more schematically to be competitive earlier, they have generated more value out of roster spots rather than having middle-class vets play extensively. The Texans have … figured out how to beat the Jaguars. That’s a neat trick, but it hasn’t really translated well to the other 15 games of football every season.
If I had to bet on something, it’s that the Texans will largely handle things like they’ve handled them since Caserio took over — and in my eyes, that’s not really a positive at this point, but I understand that optimistic eyes can differ. Optimistic eyes are all we really have as we watch draft picks become young players become whatever they will eventually be.