DeMeco Ryans is the sea change the Texans needed with a bow of nostalgia on top

When I wrote about the Texans hiring David Culley, I couldn’t make much sense of it beyond a Jack Easterby power grab. When I wrote about the Texans hiring Lovie Smith, I compared it to me being a lonely bird. It’s been isolating and exhausting being on the negative side of the reaction to Texans news these past two years. They’ve won seven games since all this madness boiled over in the 2021 offseason.

2023 augurs some changed times. The Deshaun Watson saga is now another team’s problem. Easterby was dishonorably discharged in-season. Nick Caserio spoke at the team’s initial offseason press availability like his job was uncertain going forward. It was a massive power vacuum much like the one we saw after Brian Gaine was fired and Bob McNair died, one that would accommodate a head coach who had his own designs on how things were supposed to be done.

However, instead of picking one of several bad answers to the problem of firing three head coaches in three seasons, the Texans just … rolled out a thoroughly competent hiring process. Outside of being concerned about Ejiro Evero’s offensive coordinator selection (I did not want to witness the Hacketting of 2023 in Houston), and maybe thinking it was a bit early for Thomas Brown to get a head coaching interview, the initial list is pretty much a who is who of who I’d want to approach. Sean Payton is one of the most successful coaches in the NFL and has won a Super Bowl. Shane Steichen and Mike Kafka have both shown an impressive grasp of what it takes to run a modern NFL offense, Ben Johnson as well despite withdrawing early. Then there were the two defensive coordinators, both representing entirely different things in my eyes: Jonathan Gannon with the Eagles was the Caserio man they identified in 2022 as the guy before things went pear-shaped. DeMeco Ryans was the almost implausibly perfect candidate for the job, from his ties as a former Texans linebacker to his results on the field. How perfect of a match was Ryans? Look at this poll:

In today’s America where everyone is mad about everything at all times and I’m sure at least 5% of you think I’m a PsyOp employed by the government to shit on the football organization at all times — what can we find 97.5% of 2,450 people to agree on? The miracle of indoor plumbing? Not turning the electricity off during the Texas freeze?

I don’t know that I necessarily expected the Texans to end up here because it feels like Ryans was the most desired candidate of the cycle — the one who was requested to speak to every single team about their opening — and because I wasn’t entirely sure just how much would change here in terms of power dynamics. I’ve been hurt before by Josh McCown and Hines Ward interviews, so you’ll have to forgive my skittishness. But I was open to it after that Caserio “oops we fired a second coach in a row” press conference for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.

Ryans finished the 2022 season with the NFL’s best defense by DVOA at -14.1%. The 49ers had Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, and Dre Greenlaw, yes. They also dealt with a ton of injuries on the defensive line, broke in Talanoa Hufanga and turned him into an absolute cruise missile at the line of scrimmage, and forced 30 turnovers while playing stout run defense with a lot of rotational-caliber players. If you listen to the tape obsessives talk about him, you wind up seeing praise like this:

What impressed me just as much is that the 2021 49ers had problems creating turnovers and it simply didn’t matter — they were still DVOAs seventh-ranked defense. They still fit the run in an astonishingly good way.

So, listen, no head coaching hire is ever guaranteed to work. I would tell you the same thing if Sean Payton had landed here. But certainly on paper you could not draw up a better coaching candidate for a team badly in need of credibility and — let’s be blunt — a real football mentality rather than some culture bullshit. I could not fictionalize a hire as good as Ryans, which is the only way I know that it is real. He’s a terrific head coaching prospect. I was afraid to write about this happening before it happened because I did not even want to put the jinx into the arms of the powers above me.

It took year five of me writing in this blog, but I finally found the move I can’t find anything to complain about.

Let’s give a hand to Hannah McNair

One thing I alluded to when I wrote about the dismissal of Easterby is that I wasn’t sure what would happen because I wasn’t sure who would have the owner’s ear. That question has been answered: It’s his wife.

Hannah has been locked on Cal this whole cycle. He does not speak — outside of reading a press statement — without her by his side. When he gives an interview, she is there. I know there are plenty of you who have harbored negative feelings towards the McNairs — and I understand where they come from even if I haven’t always agreed with all of them — but one thing I remember pointing out during the Easterby years is that an aloof guy who writes enormous checks can be an ideal owner if you surround him with the right people.

I think the way this search process has gone and the way things have changed for the Texans post-Easterby owes a lot of gratitude in house. I don’t say this as A Man With Sources, but it is overtly obvious to me that Hannah is the one who reads up on what the fans think. She’s the one who didn’t shake Deshaun Watson’s hand on his return to Houston, something that can’t be said about her husband. She’s the one who understands when her husband is about to say something that’s going to sound wrong, and she’s willing to intercept that pass:

Look at how this starts about Nick Caserio — it’s a bumbling answer that doesn’t really know where to go. Hannah picks it up halfway through and spins a much better line around it than “we liked him when my Dad was here, so…” and answers the question as asked.

Cal is genuinely trying his best here. He’s never going to be a man made for the interview. That’s just not who we have. But I think the state of the franchise these last couple of years was embarrassing enough that Hannah started to have to set her powers on figuring out what could be done about it, and now we’re closer than we’ve ever been to the proverbial quiet owner who lets the smart people he employs work and signs off on checks.

Kudos to both of them for finding a way to DeMeco Ryans. It would have been incredibly easy and cost-efficient for them to focus on not improving the team and letting Lovie Smith babysit a bunch of draft picks again in 2023.

The worst area of concern I can think of about this hire is rhetorical

OK, so a defensive head coach was hired. But offense is more consistent and more important as far as the general tastemakers of the NFL intelligentsia believe right now — a good offense often beats a good defense the way the rules are set up today. Now, you might say, wouldn’t you rather make sure that the offensive brains of the operation are the ones locked into the head coaching gig? Yeah, I guess in an ideal world, you would.

But independent of that, we saw how Mike McDaniel worked out for the Dolphins last season. I don’t have a problem hiring a 49ers OC du jour like Bobby Slowik.

Ultimately, the style of offense is check one, and I think as long as Ryans doesn’t stray too far from the Shanahan tree, the Texans will at least be anchored in great material offensive concepts. Beyond that, yes, maybe Bobby Slowik (or whoever, we’re new to the interview process as of Tuesday evening) doesn’t wind up being the best coordinator from the tree — nobody really knows at this point. If he strays beyond it into places like Eagles QBs coach Brian Johnson or some of the other interesting younger candidates — this is a job I’d like to see Thomas Brown have — well, I’d be excited to see Ryans go Daboll on the league’s coaching staffs and find guys who aren’t necessarily his guys but who he thinks he wants to work with. It took Gary Kubiak a long time to find a defensive coordinator worthy of the position, and if there’s any worry to have about this hire, it’s that DeMeco Ryans might have the same problem on offense.

The truth if Ryans winds up doing his job well, and he’s a rock star defensive-minded head coach, the Texans are going to be a popular landing spot for rehabbing OCs and talented newcomers so long as the talent is well-stocked. I get why people are concerned about the theoretical specter of this being a stepping stone job for an OC, I really do. But after these last three years of Texans football, complaining about this possibility feels like being upset that the new car I just bought will one day need to be repaired.

What exactly is the fate of Nick Caserio now?

This is the biggest question I have about the move, let’s look at this statement:

“I’m excited to partner with DeMeco to build our football team together.” Look at what he said about working with Lovie Smith: “We both understand how much work is in front of us, but we embrace the responsibility and look forward to continuing to build a program that can have sustained success.” Nowhere in that statement was an admission that he would be endeavoring Lovie’s opinion on his own process.

I think the very first question about where the Texans sit at this point after hiring Ryans become “who has the power in the building now?” And when you combine this process that shut out Jonathan Gannon from even getting a second interview before the Texans moved on Ryans, the multiple self-admissions that the next coach might decide not to believe in him, and this statement, I’m having a hard time believing that Caserio has the ultimate power in the building. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s getting fired by Ryans any time soon, nor does it mean that Ryans will have a contract that directly says he has control over the 53-man roster or anything like that.

But if I had to guess today, before we hear these two talk on the podium on Thursday, I’d wager that Caserio will be grocery shopping for Ryans’ vision rather than the other way around. That is a humongous change and, if fans are able to objectively look at the work Caserio has done beyond the draft, a necessary one. Caserio’s first two Texans drafts achieved, on the whole, an average result I think when you look at the picks they had. They added some impressive talent when they had picks in 2022. They also don’t have a lot to show for 2021 when they didn’t. But the constant focus on culture, playing through injury, GPS numbers, and off-field habits created a mish-mash veteran roster that didn’t really have a point or plan. Rex Burkhead somehow becoming the team’s passing-down back is a great example of that — why would any rebuilding team decide to do that? What sense was there in this? The only vantage point to view it from is one where he picks up everyone else with his demeanor and work ethic, and when you finish those seasons with the win totals you did, it’s hard to argue that was the case.

I still think Caserio can do plenty of good for the franchise if properly focused. I think his vision for how an NFL team succeeds can only work with seven nailed drafts in a row, including a drafted franchise quarterback. Hopefully, Ryans imparts a better vision for winning in today’s NFL and gets Caserio focused on that instead of the overly clever designs of the last two seasons that, frankly (to use one of Caserio’s favorite words), never were going to yield any value to the team in the long-term and sure as hell didn’t yield any value in the short-term.

What will port over from San Francisco, and what will that mean for who is here?

Beyond the offensive coordinator, I’m extremely curious what else about San Francisco Ryans will want to replicate in Houston. San Francisco’s quarterback situation is a big toss up and I could see Trey Lance being moved in some situations. Does Ryans love Lance like John Lynch loved him, or does he see reasons for concern? Does he like (gulp) Jimmy Garoppolo?

Will he bring in other 49ers assistants? Will we get Niners vets like Jimmie Ward brought in to help young players figure out what they’re supposed to be doing here? Will Azeez Al-Shaair fit in next to Christian Harris?

And what exactly does he make of what he has stumbled into outside of the youngsters here? Does he want to bring back Brandin Cooks or trade him? Does he want Laremy Tunsil extended, or is he skittish about that? I don’t know how much we’ll get out of him on day one, but Thursday and Friday figure to be extremely revealing days for the organization now that they’ve made this move.

The end of the dark ages

Being a Texans fan for the last two years has felt like a secret you only come forth with when you’re forced to. When I have been asked to do interviews with people about the 2021 and 2022 Texans, the thing I lead with wound up being something like “I’m of course happy to help, this isn’t really a normal NFL team, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t follow your normal formula for how an interview works.” There was no reason to care about the results that this team put up. Questions like “Well, how do you think the Texans offensive line will hold up against our defensive front?” were in one ear and out the other, because really, who gave a shit? Why would any of this matter when there was never a coach with a long-term vision? The day-to-day stuff fans of actual NFL teams talked about became meaningless because it was in service of a vision that was never going to work.

While Dameon Pierce had a great rookie season and broke a ton of tackles, that was about the only thing that translated to 2023. Jalen Pitre and Derek Stingley were playing in a defense that was never going to be a long-term fit for them. Or, as Steven Nelson succinctly put it:

Elementally, it was hard to even care about how the young players played because there’s very little of what they did that would be extrapolated into the next time this team mattered. That is the hole the Texans dug themselves into with these hires and Caserio’s non-draft roster construction. You can marvel at your good Jerry Hughes reps here and there, but beyond that, where was this going? It was a blank slate before the 2022 draft class, and it was still a blank slate with the 2022 draft class.

For the first time since fans gave up on Bill O’Brien — I think 2018 or 2019 at the longest for most of us, I did hold out some hope for 2018 after how he worked with Deshaun Watson in 2017 — the Texans have empowered someone to build a vision of winning some goddamn football games.

And regardless of how the rest of the plan winds up looking like and how the results go, I’m excited about that.