The Case to Fire Nick Caserio (Already)

I haven’t really written much about the Texans this season because nothing they do actually matters, and there are multiple people who deserve some blame for that. Jack Easterby was one of the architects of a number of disastrous trades that left them in the spot they were in following the 2020 season, as well as the No. 1 reason that the franchise-quarterback-turned-accused-serial-sexual-harasser wanted out of Houston. Lovie Smith has been, about as I expected, an old school coach without much in the way of solutions for this new era. Pep Hamilton’s offense is gimmick-heavy because it has no players to rely on and Rex Burkhead-heavy for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom. Some of the players on the field have played poorly for them or been hurt, but broadly speaking I wouldn’t say any of what has transpired this season has been surprising. They were not very talented in 2021 and still aren’t.

But it’s time to put the one who has avoided a lot of the blame on trial here too. Nick Caserio’s draft picks have been more-or-less acceptable. Dameon Pierce is a big hit. Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley are already starting. When the Davis Mills pick was made it was a chance to find a starter that didn’t pan out, I think the Texans have their money’s worth out of the pick. Nico Collins still could be something even if he’s lost in whatever this offense is and is now hurt. While I have questioned a lot of the draft capital spent to move up in trades at times, I don’t think the Texans have made objectively poor picks. (Well, okay, I didn’t like the Metchie pick, but I’m not going to spend five sentences on it.)

But the process involved in creating the infrastructure around those picks has failed spectacularly. Not only are the glue and culture guys coming apart at the seams after Easterby’s firing, but the coaches chosen to oversee this task are barely even creating a scenario where anyone with talent can look good. The only thing that has improved at all from 2021 to 2022 is that the offensive line has put its tackles in the correct spot — and neither of them have quit the team for the year yet — and it has been bailed out by Justin Britt’s abrupt hiatus from having to deal with how bad he is and was. That portion of the team has improved from abysmal to acceptable with some bad weeks mixed in. Which is part of why sometimes they are able to functionally execute Texans Football, a playstyle I’d define as “running the clock out while hoping for turnovers and the opponent to beat itself.” The 2021 and 2022 Texans play football like Homer Simpson boxed.

That’s a stylistic choice, I would argue. Not just by the coaching staff, but by the shape of the team. And the truth of the matter is that we’re all just waiting for something to happen here because nothing has yet.

The weird Brandin Cooks non-trade

I will ask a question: What’s the point of Brandin Cooks being a Houston Texan if he doesn’t want to be one?

He clearly, obviously, does not want to be one.

There’s been a lot of hubbub about trying to extract the most value that you possibly can here, but it’s not like whether Brandin Cooks is a Texan or not has any real impact on the status quo. He’s not worth a second-round pick with the massive extension that Caserio signed him to this year, but the Texans wanted one. I am skeptical that Cooks’ value will increase from here, whether he plays or not. He’s 29 and in the midst of the worst season in his career to date. He’s averaging just 6.7 yards per target, a career-low, and way less involved in the offense than he was in 2021. What are the odds that the next nine games — again, assuming he plays them — increase his value? I think the Texans will be lucky to get a fourth-rounder for him.

I think the deeper question that comes out of this is: What does it mean that Brandin Cooks wants out?

And the Occam’s Razor of that answer to me is best explained by Kamu Grugier-Hill abruptly quitting on the team and asking for his release: His boy is gone. Cooks is an Easterby guy. Much of the movement in the football industry is founded on Who Is Your Boy? One of the major reasons I was not a fan of the Lovie hiring is because his boys were already here, joining last offseason, and they aren’t good enough.

I’m not going to be teased by this — I don’t think there’s any chance that what has been in the shadows gets put out there by a player. But man, would it be fun as hell for all of us who aren’t Texans.

Caserio has said nothing but glowing things about Cooks for his Texans tenure — nobody gets spoken of in higher terms as a character guy — thus the contract extension. The fact that he already wants out and that Caserio limited his options is emblematic of a problem that I’ve had with Caserio since day one: Texans fans talk day and night about how bad his circumstances are, but he creates many of them on his own! Nobody asked him to release Zach Cunningham or Whitney Mercilus early. Nobody asked him to trade for Shaq Lawson. Nobody asked him to have Grugier-Hill, Pharaoh Brown, Antony Auclair, Jeff Driskel, Royce Freeman, Fabian Moreau, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Marlon Mack accounting for a combined $9.6 million in dead cap. Look at how long this list is!

Some of these are releases or trades that were leftovers from the O’Brien/Easterby era, and I am by no means upset that Watson is taking up $16.2 million in dead cap. But we are in the second season of this rebuild and the fallout has been dragged on by short-sighted decisions to try to field a team of culture.

Comparing the Texans to other recent rebuilds paints them in a pretty dark light

Let me attempt to answer this question posed by Robert Mays:

If your culture is what you do well, then I’d say that the Texans have developed one culture over the last three years: Not being the Jaguars. The Texans have nine wins over the last three seasons: 1 in 2022, 4 in 2021, 4 in 2020. Six of those wins have been over the Jaguars.

Compare that to what is going on in Atlanta and New York, where the Falcons are ninth in DVOA and the Giants are 14th with similar rebuilds and lack of talent. Those two teams were amongst the five worst in the NFL last year by DVOA, right there with the Texans. The Falcons are starting a journeyman quarterback and the Giants are starting a failed fifth-year option guy. They have similar turnover rates on the roster of high-paid guys and clearly-failed free agents. (Kenny Golladay, Deion Jones, to name a few.) The Texans are dead last in overall DVOA and just lost to a team that didn’t even bother trying to throw the football in the second half. Because they’re that bad at a fundamental portion of their defense: playing the run.

The Texans are keeping pace with the Lions in the win column, but if you asked me if I’d rather have Detroit’s offense or Houston’s offense in two years, it’s not even a question. The Lions have a much brighter future assuming they can figure out their Texans-esque inability to cover. The Bears are tearing it down just as quickly as the Falcons and Giants have, but notably beat the Texans despite not being able to throw in September. The Steelers I’d argue are notably bad this year, but they are trading their unwanted players for assets at the deadline and are an offensive coordinator away from being on the right path again. The Panthers fired Matt Rhule and suddenly look much better than the Texans, with a bigger stack of building blocks. I won’t even embarrass the Texans by comparing them to the Seahawks and the magical Geno Smith.

We are two years into this and I am struggling to find a team that is in worse than the Texans are in. I’ll give them Jacksonville based on the recent head-to-head results, but I don’t think most plugged-in NFL people would agree with that. Trevor Lawrence is probably more valuable than the entire Houston roster in the grander eyes of the NFL, even if he’s struggling after 20 games.

You see, it’s almost like building an entire team around culture and heady, veteran play doesn’t grow roster value. If only I had written about this at any time in the last two years.

The Jack Easterby excuse happens to make Caserio’s roster building look worse in retrospect

In fact, I’m kind of curious if it will be walked back in any real way.

What you heard from several people at the conclusion of the Easterby Era, and what was a not-closely guarded media secret, is that Easterby’s influence had been reduced following the coaching search not hiring Josh McCown. Here’s how John McClain put in his Gallery column on the Easterby firing.

Something happened after last season that caused the McNairs to see Easterby in a different light – the same dark light that everyone else saw.

During the offseason, Easterby’s influence with the McNairs diminished. He didn’t have the same decision-making authority. He was seldom seen or mentioned. He was forced into the background. It was apparent Easterby would be gone after the season, but the McNairs didn’t wait, and the Texans’ fan base is giving a 100-percent approval rating.

Do you know what that means? It means that Nick Caserio had a full offseason to do whatever he wanted and just kept everything the same as it was. While they drafted some good players, the talent around them was just the same guys they’d already had re-signed, minus David Johnson. (Thank goodness for that, by the way, small blessings.)

I’ve actually been a little kids gloves with Caserio because I don’t feel like he’s always had full control of the roster. I’ve written numerous times that the way that Caserio talked about David Johnson kinda betrayed the fact that I don’t think he really wanted him around. But if he truly had a full offseason all to himself this way and decided that what was happening here was Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes and Andy Janovich turning this thing around, maybe he’s not focusing on the right parts of his job.

I’m willing to give him credit when a move pays off — Steven Nelson and Desmond King have both played well enough this year. But — and this is especially funny given how publicly uninterested in gambling he is — Caserio winning those small bets means absolutely nothing to the state of the franchise. Hughes and Nelson and King won’t be a part of the next good Texans team, and he hasn’t opted to trade them off for things that could be. Him winning the Desmond King re-signing is kiddie table stuff, like trying to win $10,000 at a blackjack table except you’re playing $10 a hand.

Heck, let’s dabble in hypotheticals. Remember the Anthony Miller trade? Let’s say Anthony Miller played about as well as Nico Collins did this year. Now the Texans get to decide if they want to pay him $10 million a season or let him walk. This team has been so reticent to spend long-term or big money that even if they’d won that trade, they’d still likely not recover real value on it! The ways that this team can recover value — taking on bad contracts from other teams, stacking draft picks and UDFAs instead of trading up and clogging roster spots with vets — are so unexplored that talking about them feels like a fever dream. And what I hear from people who still back Caserio is something that winds up sounding like this to me:

Except that every day, other NFL teams are proving that it is, in fact possible! The Falcons annoy the hell out of me as someone who writes about fantasy football, but I’d build Arthur Smith a statue if he were doing to this roster what he was doing with Atlanta.

The one caveat I have to give is that people don’t think Caserio has hired any of these coaches yet

The people who talk to me about this stuff behind the scenes believe that Caserio has not ultimately been the one that has hired either David Culley or Lovie Smith. And while my instinct is to react to what is being said with “this is stupid,” I have to admit that I felt the same way whenever I heard about Easterby lacking influence and potentially being out after the season.

Here’s the problem: Lovie Smith is a babysitter. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach in historical terms, I don’t think he’s a bad person. He just has nothing to offer to today’s game in much the same way Romeo Crennel didn’t. If you keep him as head coach in 2023, he’s a babysitter. The Texans aren’t going anywhere, and he’s just the shepherd that’s out there to make sure nobody skips recess.

But also if you fire him, you’re committing to four coaches in four seasons. And the big problem is that Caserio is in such a position of power for the Texans — remember when he was on the headset to Culley? — that it’s going to be hard to find a good coach who accepts that level of delegation. This is something The Athletic brought up earlier this offseason when discussing successful rebuilds.

To commit to Caserio over the ability to get a new coach is to commit to a mindset that the Texans need another two years of rebuilding to even be NFL-level feisty again, and that’s something that goes against everything happening in the NFL this year. The franchise is already irrelevant. What happens in three years with, let’s be polite and say, another couple of five-six win seasons? Do people show up? Do we even talk about the Texans as an NFL franchise? Are they the butt of every talk show joke in the NFL?

That’s why I’ve come around to the idea that as much as you can hem and haw about what Caserio has and has not had the power to do, this roster should look better by now. This team should be somewhere better by now. By his own admission, you can’t change what’s happened. Nobody’s going to bitch and moan about your situation and your circumstances. The team was built on contrarian ideas and has not done the results necessary to validate them.

I write all this, and I will be honest with you: I have zero expectations that Caserio will be fired. I expect that the Texans will just float along as a babysitter’s club here for a few years, sell people on the youth and act like no team with a bunch of young first-round picks has ever failed to come together before.

But I don’t think we need another year or two to understand what has happened here: Caserio has had more than enough power and opportunity to turn this team around and he hasn’t done it. Those are grounds for dismissal if I’m an owner with any kind of vested interest in the team being good within the next two seasons. I don’t know how many more seasons of being bad the McNairs are willing to tolerate, but if I owned them, it would be zero.