While the 2-3 record is keeping fans from getting completely out over their skis, the Texans have on the whole been positive surprises this year. The defense has played a couple of sharp games. C.J. Stroud — though I thought he would be good — was better than even I expected right away. Bobby Slowik has been more up-and-down than someone other teams will try to poach for a head coaching job to me, but he’s done some very good things. (Sometimes he also calls run plays.)
But I’m here to talk about someone who I didn’t think that highly of coming into the year, and that’s third-year wideout Nico Collins. That’s not to say I thought he was a bad wideout, but I read the infusion of pass-catchers (Robert Woods, Noah Brown, Dalton Schultz, drafting Tank Dell, return of John Metchie) as a verdict against what was already there. Teams don’t often trust guys who miss large chunks of their first two years to injury, and the flashes had not become consistent production yet. I expected a more balanced offense rather than Nico and the Collinsettes, as it has often become in the first weeks of the season. Third-year wideouts were a big deal when I was coming into football as the breakout candidates, but rarely do you see a third-year breakout anymore — the scarcity of the position dictates anyone who can play is already playing much faster.
But there were extenuating circumstances: Collins played for the 2021 and 2022 Texans. Instead of being a supporting player in the offense, Collins leads the team in targeted air yards and has broken out as a YAC guy. He leads the NFL in yards after catch per reception and is a league-best +3.8 YAC over his expected YAC per Next Gen Stats. Collins was not in the top 40 qualified receivers in YAC last season, and in fact was third amongst just Texans behind legends Jordan Akins and Chris Moore.
So it’s tempting to look at those numbers and say something like “Houston’s Deebo!!!” and throw on two more exclamation points so they know you’re serious. But when you break down the scope of those missed tackles, I think it’s mostly just great play design from Slowik. Collins isn’t often cutting around open-field tacklers who can square him up. He’s getting a head of steam from Slowik’s designs as an in-breaker, and then using the momentum of being a 6-foot-4, 215-pound missile to bust through arm tackles in the secondary.
I was a little iffy when I was asked about Collins’ early-season performances because I’d already seen bits of this here or there. His game wasn’t about whether the talent would play, but about whether the talent could consistently be applied. This is a big player who was supposed to be a red zone threat, and between 2021 and 2022 he caught just 4-of-14 targets for 35 yards, with nary an eye-popping highlight to be found as compared to busted plays for the defense. So after Week 2? I kind of wanted to see some sustainment of the production.
Where I was encouraged — and what I want to see more of — is his performance against the Steelers in Week 4. There are three plays in particular that I thought showed well for his future.
One of them was a vanilla screen, one where he actually did leave someone behind:
This is an element to a good running game that the Texans have to emphasize given their lack of push up front: They’re gonna have to give the ball to their best tackle breaker and let him make some moves. Here you’ve got a would-be tackler in space that gets uncovered and darted around, and then you’ve got the speed to quickly press the available hole.
Another was a play where Collins was a late option and went up to get a ball at his highest point.
Big catch in Jacksonville last year aside, Collins has not won as many of these sorts of balls as it feels like a player with his rare size should win. But this is a late ball, Stroud has placed it in an area where Collins can go get it, and he does it with relative ease. It’s not so much that the plays he has been making this season are bad as it is just how many of them are in the same area and amount to in-breakers. I need the height to play. It doesn’t have to play as much as the YAC does, but it does need to be there.
And finally, there was his touchdown catch:
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think burning Patrick Peterson is the cutoff line on being a great NFL receiver in 2023. But it’s important to me that the tool is in the toolkit, and that’s something we didn’t really see a lot of in either 2021 or 2022. Show me you can break a defensive weak point like that and you have my attention.
In Week 5, Nico’s numbers tailed off a bit and the Texans surprisingly kind of played away from him. The interplay between Stroud and Jesse Bates was apparent — Bates jumped a few routes, including this one from Collins below — and Bates also was a victim on the go-ahead touchdown pass when he bit on a double move from Dalton Schultz. That was a an in-game adjustment to Bates playing loose on underneath balls:
I didn’t leave my watch of that game thinking that Collins was stymied — I think the Texans really wanted to get Tank Dell involved early, perhaps even that they believed Dell could give them more YAC than Nico Collins could in that matchup. (The idea that Collins was shut down by A.J. Terrell doesn’t really hold up — they barely matched up on each other.) Collins played more of a deeper role and ran more out-breaking routes. PFF charted Collins with 61.4% of his routes working in from the line of scrimmage in Weeks 1-4. In Week 5, that number was down to just 38.4%.
I kind of think no matter what he does from here, Nico has done enough to make himself a valuable NFL player. Receivers who can make the kind of plays he has as secondary options are extremely valuable in this current iteration of the NFL. The Christian Kirk contract may never happen again — the NFL free agency market looked heavily colluded in 2023 — but anyone who has demonstrated what Nico has demonstrated so far this year will be worth a real investment. If he keeps up this level of production all season, I’d go as far as to say he’ll get an eight-figure contract.
The question is just where in that spectrum he settles. Is he a No. 1? Is he a No. 2? It’s actually Houston’s most pressing issue in a way because Collins will be hitting the end of his rookie contract in 2024. He’s a late bloomer, and also the first player in Nick Caserio’s initial class that looks like he might be something worth keeping. I think it’s probably way too early in the season to call it one way or another — beyond the fact that he’s definitely improved into a productive wideout. But when you look at what awaits in free agency and the trade market in 2024 and 2025 (a place where Tee Higgins and Justin Jefferson have not signed extensions, for example), these last 12 games of the season are going to be extremely important to the evaluation on how the Texans move forward.
But in a season that has mostly been notable for Stroud’s quick emergence, I have my eyes on Collins every week. What we ultimately see him turn into will be one of the biggest hinge points of the 2024 offseason — both for his bank account and for how Houston can play the cards it has. If they believe he’s turned into a true No. 1, their chips can be spent elsewhere. If they don’t, what will he be worth and will they be willing to pay it?
Through two weeks, C.J. Stroud has shown a lot of upside. He’s also been sacked a league-high 11 times. Some of that is because the Texans have been trailing a lot, and his 10.8% sack rate is not indistinguishable from, say, Deshaun Watson’s 2018 season. The trailing has led to more passing attempts. Some of that is because the Texans have played their hand-selected starting linemen for a grand total of 3 of their 10 starting opportunities. And some of that is because, just like every year since Carlos Hyde ran for 1,000 yards, the Texans are pathologically unable to run the football.
The Texans have run for 124 yards this season in two games, the fourth-lowest in the NFL and stone cold last in yards per attempt. It is early, but it is a continuation of norms for a team that finished 31st in rushing yardage in 2022 and last in 2021. That is even more harmful than those numbers indicate because the Texans were trying to run a lot. They were 24th in running attempts in 2021, and only 30th in 2022 because Pep Hamilton abandoned it entirely after Dameon Pierce was sent to IR. (Isn’t it funny how a team can run the ball just 22 times in a Week 18 win over the Colts that they barely ever trailed in, then learn the lesson that they have to run the ball?) They’re 22nd in attempts through two weeks despite never leading a game, and game script is essentially the only thing driving them off their quest of Establishing It.
Now, it would be nice if the offensive line that I’ve read so many good things about was actually intact. That doesn’t appear to be the case after only Shaq Mason started both games. But let’s be honest about this: Kenyon Green may have been a first-round pick, but even a healthy Kenyon Green wasn’t necessarily likely to be good based on his first season. Juice Scruggs may have been a second-round pick, and I don’t think we have enough evidence one way or another to say how he’ll play, but there is a long history of rookie offensive linemen not playing well right away. He wasn’t exactly a known upgrade. Shaq Mason (the personal angels looking out for the betterment of my mental health are begging me not to post this) posted his lowest PFF grade since he was a rookie in 2022 and was literally given away by the Buccaneers. He’s also 30. I don’t think he’s a “bad” player, but my evaluation of that trade at the time was more stopgap than linchpin. After two weeks, I think I’m closer to right than Nick Caserio — the man who signed Mason to an extension this offseason — was.
The punch I pulled post-draft, knowing that this kind of take is inevitably received by the True Fans as an Unfair Shot: Despite the hype, there wasn’t much reason short of Scruggs coming in and being a great center instantly for the offseason hope to hold up. It was always likely that we’d see some rough patches, and the only questions were: Where and how many?
This rock keeps tigers away
The Houston Chronicle’s finest states what I’ve begun to see become an established fact, and my response is: Uh, do they?
Stroud took five sacks in Week 1 with Tunsil playing. I’ve spent a lot of time marinating in the mindset of the Texans fan over the past 21 years. There seems to be a large collective consensus that bad offensive lines ruined David Carr, and that thus the Texans must make sure it never happens again. But every time Tunsil has missed a game in his Texans career, the greater tenor of the results doesn’t exactly seem to change much. When I was covering literally every game intently, I remember the Texans just destroying the Jaguars in London without Tunsil. I remember him sitting out a few games towards the end of David Johnson’s first season, and Roderick Johnson’s run blocking suddenly unlocking the rushing attack. Let’s go back to Tunsil’s mostly lost 2021 season. He started the first five games — two Tyrod Taylor starts, three Davis Mills starts — and those teams managed one game of over 168 passing yards. Mills took 2.3 sacks a game without Tunsil and averaged 230.7 passing yards per game. Deshaun Watson didn’t instantly take a leap when they added Tunsil, and if you look at the on/off splits nothing really seems to come out and say “Tunsil made him who he was in 2020” either. Did Stroud struggle to throw the ball in Week 2?
None of this is to say that re-signing Tunsil was a mistake — I was leery about paying market-setting prices, but the Texans didn’t have to do as much as I thought they would to retain him — but he’s never been a one-man offensive line. He’s a fabulous player who is a pass-protection savant. He’s not the tone-setter in the run game that this team desperately needs, and he’s also not five guys all playing well together. The reality of having Laremy Tunsil, as I’ve learned over these five years, is that he can both be one of the best players at his position and not really change a lot without help around him from both the scheme and his fellow blockers. Pay him, praise him — he’s not doing anything wrong. It’s just how football is.
Nick Caserio’s backup plans
Caserio sent two draft pick swaps away to acquire stopgap solutions for an obviously beleaguered offensive line in Kendrick Green and Josh Jones before the season started. After which, the burning quote to me was him saying it “was a matter of when, not if” on putting Green on IR.
So, let me get this straight. I want to put the facts out here and make sure I get them right.
-The Texans were going into a season in which they do not control their first-round pick, giving them effectively zero incentive to tank. -They knew in early August that Scott Quessenberry was headed to IR, but even before that, should not have been counting on him for real play as he was a disastrous starter in 2022. -The only other experienced backup on the interior line they had in camp all offseason that has made the 53-man roster was Michael Dieter, who has had zero good seasons with Miami and was available to the whole league with no takers at final cuts. -They were aware that Kenyon Green might miss extra time and had no urgency to get anyone in camp earlier to get up to speed for the start of the regular season, at all, in a season in which they are starting a rookie quarterback who they don’t want to develop any bad habits. -They’ve given up 11 sacks in two games.
I’m curious — is it strictly apathy, or does Caserio not have a goal to save his job at this point? Because they are 7-29-1 under him and there is not a single person in front of him for the chopping block. I guess I kind of assumed when I wrote about the Will Anderson trade that the Texans would proactively be looking to make some more win-now moves in what looked to be an easier division. But DeAndre Hopkins — the obvious win-now play — is a Titan (gross), and the entire offensive line seemed to come apart the moment that Scott Quessenberry, of all people, was sent to IR? That just isn’t a very good plan, if that’s the shape of it.
What will Bobby Slowik do?
It’s tough to be too upset about an offensive coordinator two games into his career, and I liked the Slowik hire. I’m not going to destroy him for saying the same things any offensive coordinator would; every OC wants to run the ball 40 times a game en route to a win the same way every child wants ice cream.
But when that hypothetical ice cream to be eaten wasn’t bought at the store, and your child really wants some. And you have an ice-cream making machine, but only some chocolate chips, a gallon of milk, and a bag of pretzels … is that ice cream?
The Texans have spent three years pounding the rock fruitlessly under rookie head coaches. They spent seven years pounding the rock fruitlessly under Bill O’Brien, with only Hyde’s weirdo 1,000-yard season to show for it. I’ve watched Alfred Blue carries until my eyes bled, and remember names like Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes. Nobody’s saying they should outright abandon the run ala Steve Slaton’s bizarro 2009 season that finally ended with Arian Foster’s emergence. But lemme level with you: I’m a little tired of hearing about the goddamn run game. Even the beats are tired of hearing about it!
How about the No. 2 overall pick, a good quarterback prospect, gets to throw the ball to Nico Collins and Tank Dell as a main plan, and we see what happens and go from there?
Normally at this time I’m saying my goodbyes to friends and relatives as I prepare for the football season. Instead, my life changed forever in late June when my son was born. In some ways, this change is very obvious. Time that used to be spent on the computer is now spent with an infant pulling at my chest hair while I watch The Price Is Right. Navigating the How Responsible I Actually Am Matrix goes as far as my willingness to bend down and pick something up that he dropped while holding him. I have had to create entirely new spaces in my brain and life to help my wife in her recovery and become studied about things I never knew I would ever need to think about. (This was an extremely lorge child, to do the thing I have complained about child rearing the most about and undersell the actual details in the name of not turning people off.)
The more obvious takeaway for readers is something along the lines of: Writer (usually Texans, sometimes general football if I am weighing associations I generally am given) isn’t writing much anymore. Some of you have checked in and it’s very sweet of you. Enough of you have asked that I felt compelled to put some sort of update out. So here goes:
I have been #RiseAndGrinding for little monetary gain since the day I entered this industry. The last two seasons I banked an amount of money not all that different from the amount I made in my first year of doing this, despite (checking notes) 12 years of experience in this realm, working with Rotoworld. The real reason I did it is because that was a site I always read and respected — the number of sites I can say that about is extremely small in our new and improved Capital Takeover media landscape — and it felt good to be a part of it in some small way. 2021, the year of the David Culley Era, was the first year I worked with them and juggled both Texans coverage and this new job. My Sundays became unsustainable 16-hour marathons, and in 2022 I simply opted to stop the more-intensive bits of Texans coverage part because it was more a sadistic badge of honor than anything that was actually fun.
I don’t come at this with some sort of grudge in my heart for my time at NBC, but I think the best way I can put this is that if I were to recur last season’s role, I might make $100 a week after I paid for childcare and taxes. So unless a role materializes in this space where I can do things like “send my son to daycare while actually making money,” well, it makes little sense for me to not take a step back. It’s a shame, as I really thought I was growing — something I didn’t share much publicly was that they had me doing some baseball coverage in May and June. That was exciting and fun. But I don’t get to make the decisions of capitalism, I just get to “enjoy” the “results.”
So on paper that kind of sets up for a return to Texans writing, right? Some free time, team looks to be on the upswing enough that even noted pessimist Rivers McCown couldn’t ding their head coach or quarterback picks.
Except … honestly I’m just burnt out. I’ve watched the two preseason games (well, most of them, baby will baby). I’m open and waiting for that spark to come back, but I think the best way to explain it is that writing my truth about the team I am a fan of has become a source of anxiety and made me a magnet for negative energy.
I know most of you reading this are just regular people who want to get some honest thoughts on the team, and I kinda hate in my heart that the wackos drown you out. But I’m also not really interested in having my motivations second-guessed by a group of people who will never mentally reconcile that Lovie Smith was a bad coaching hire from the moment that idea happened and would instead rather make a parody Twitter account of me with pictures they clearly stalked out. I’m good on that unless someone’s gonna bankroll it. The business of fandom has become more powerful than I ever could have imagined five years ago, and the business of speaking truth to power is not exactly booming. I know plenty of writers and media personalities who are fine exploiting this gap, and I don’t begrudge them their choices, but I don’t know how much “me” there is in that path for me.
(My 10,000-foot view of the 2023 Texans now that I have strung you along with vulnerability for a bit: Nothing that has happened these past three months really matters. When you have good prospects you let them play and see what you have. Good prospects don’t always become good pros, and there’s no reason to rush to judgment on C.J. Stroud or DeMeco Ryans as a head coach. We might have a good idea of where this is headed by late October. We might get a crystallizing moment or two in November or December. The Texans are not a baby. They will not make it obvious that they need to feed by bouncing their head against your chest. But the signs that matter are coming and I’m excited to see them, which is a damn sight more than I could say for last season. I will just be over here on my sofa hoping injuries or ideas held on to for too long won’t turn the Will Anderson trade into a flashpoint, as the Sword of Damocles, by law, always dangles over Texans fandom.)
And where that leaves me is: I’m open to opportunities, and I’m not opposed to the idea that I’ll be inspired to write or talk about stuff along the way this year. I am watching and listening to my own signs, as well as the ones other people give me. But I’m also at A Point Of Privilege where I don’t have to do anything but help my son grow up, and that is such a wild disconnect from what I’ve been doing these last 13 years that I honestly can’t tell if it brings me a different kind of anxiety (from a loss of self-identity) or if I’m just not sleeping enough yet. The only thing I am confident about is that what I was putting in to writing about football on a daily basis, in the pre-child model, is not currently returning enough to make me feel like it’s a positive mental or financial decision with the addition of the boy.
I wasn’t really planning on being less-involved in Twitter/X(?) by choice, but the direction of said website is ghastly and every day the uphill battle to want to post gains a little more incline for one stupid reason or another. With Tweetdeck now “improved” and stuck behind a paywall, I’m simply not going to use the website on my computer at all. I would rather have my gums scraped than willingly give Facebook any bit of my life, so that rules out Threads. I’m looking forward to what actually does emerge that’s good again, but we’re kind of in an enshittification cycle as far as social media goes.
So look forward to my next post, which will either be about football or video games or What I Learned About Cloth Diapers And Leakage, and might post sometime this calendar year.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a bit recently is how the Rockets and James Harden are (source-wise) locking eyes with each other from across the hall. Several of our in-town sports personalities are against a reunion for the two sides, even though Harden is (empirically) a great player. Some of that is about where the Rockets currently are, some of it is about how Harden’s work habits aren’t a great example for a young team, and some of it is because it’s comical how checked out Harden has been at the absolute worst moments.
But I think, mostly, it is about where the Rockets are in the narrative cycle. Their storyline post-Harden has been a rebuild. Bringing Harden back doesn’t help the rebuild. It is a sharp turn from nine of your top 10 players in minutes per game being 22 or younger last season, and the 10th being the traded Eric Gordon. It is true that the Rockets owe a top-four protected pick to Oklahoma City next year, but it’s a weird set of motivations to be worried about that when a) it’s exponentially less likely the fifth overall pick is a building block than the top four and b) they could just get a top-four pick and it doesn’t actually matter.
Where the Rockets have been is in a place they’re familiar with: a stalled narrative. They have been rebuilding for three years and haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve accumulated some talented young players along the way, to be sure, but none of them are franchise building blocks yet. And the coaching has not reached them in some obvious ways — be it defense or, well, the effort to at least look like you’re playing defense — that are important. There is no easy narrative step from rebuild to trying to win without growth, and there has not been much growth. So the cultural zeitgeist is: The rebuild isn’t done yet. You bring in an old superstar, and you’re putting a finishing piece on a foundation that doesn’t exist. Maybe in a most optimistic scenario, Ime Udoka is able to get the most out of his crew and it suddenly comes together. Maybe. But bringing Harden is an affront to the cultural ideas of storytelling, and so it is meant to be belittled.
I think the primary reason that the Texans are looked at with tired eyes by what I’ll call the Smart Football Media — even after starting fresh with a pair of who I consider great prospects at head coach and quarterback — is that they’ve never really taken a step that acknowledges they’re in a stalled narrative. The recent New Orleans Saints are — to me — the most famous example of what this looks like. They’re old. Every offseason starts with them over the cap by like $40 million or $50 million or Calvinball Fake Number Dollars and they always restructure everybody and bring back their core. And there could not be a team Smart Football Media at large is more interested in just starting over with, because why would we want to see this run back? Where is it headed? It was one thing when they were 12-4, but now they’re 7-10.
I happen to think that what the Saints are doing rules because a) I hate the salary cap and think it’s a convenient excuse more than an actual deterrent and b) they probably could’ve gone somewhere the last few years with a better quarterback and now Derek Carr gets his chance. It’s not like the NFC South did anything all that scary this offseason, right? We scared of Baker Mayfield and Adam Thielen and Desmond Ridder? And once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. The Arizona Cardinals made the Super Bowl once after finishing 9-7. Catch a team on a bad day, have a matchup they can’t answer for, outcoach them, or some combination of the above … and the record doesn’t matter anymore.
But there are segments of the “national media” that tie up people’s perceptions about money and violating the “intent” of the salary cap into a giant hammer, using it to pound away at the Saints. It doesn’t “feel” fair that the Saints are going this far to exploit the cap, and so they should be punished. Or it should be celebrated when they fail. This kind of groupthink also infiltrated talk about the Rams over the famous “fuck them picks” vintage, where there were no shortage of writers waiting to crush them after they failed this year and had an offseason based on scavenging for picks. Please don’t ask those people who won the Super Bowl two years ago, as it makes them angry. The only correct way to try is to only draft at your spot every time and draft the good players, a strategy that is famously foolproof and has worked for every team that has tried it. Then you’re “building from within” and it’s good that you won, at least until you have to pay somebody. Or until we get bored of it, like we are with the Steelers since they never do anything exciting.
With the scene I wanted to paint set, let’s finally turn to the Will Anderson trade. Certain Smart Football Media members — particularly if they have a model that tells them what draft capital is worth — could not fall over themselves fast enough to praise the Cardinals for taking Houston’s first-round pick in 2024 over Anderson. I wrote about the Anderson trade, and I agree that the Texans got hosed on pure value in a vacuum. I think there are reasons to believe that Anderson is a) worth it and b) that the circumstances dictate a certain logic to the bet for the Texans, especially with how weak some of the picks looked in this year’s draft. But could it be a trade the Texans live to regret? I can’t argue that premise. I also think the Texans have been struggling with the same basic premise the Saints have been doing the last two years — they’ve just been failing at it because they had no core talent base, and the media has noticed and stopped betting on them to fix it.
It is still very funny to watch people praise the combo that forked over a third-round pick to the Eagles before the draft started because they illegally contacted their head coach for playing for the future. The Cardinals were going to look bad no matter what happened this offseason because Kyler Murray is hurt and I’m not actually sure when he’ll play again. But they didn’t have to alienate DeAndre Hopkins and Budda Baker, and they didn’t have to enter the 2023 season with a defensive depth chart of Isaiah Simmons, Zaven Collins, and a bunch of guys who have never done anything. They are another failed Patriots regime in the wild, just bringing in culture fits and leaking talent, hoping to find a star or two in the draft to get to eight wins in 2026. They remind me a lot of the 2020 Texans, and not just because they both got rid of Hopkins.
Meanwhile, the 2023 Texans violated one of the storyteller narrative norms, right? That’s what has happened here. It’s not even that they didn’t draft a good young player, it’s that they were bad and gave up a future asset, narrowing the band of outcomes to exclude a down year with a Kaleb Williams/C.J. Stroud situation that could have resolved with a ton of draft equity.
I have been probably the harshest person writing about Nick Caserio in any real depth, I would say? I don’t want to take any undue credit from someone who is embracing the medium more often than I am that I’m not aware of, but I have been very clear that nothing that he has done has embraced the potential ability to grow value on his roster. The national media at large has had no reason to think twice about Nick Caserio before he made this trade, because the Texans have been NFL-irrelevant outside of where they’d send Deshaun Watson.
But the reason I have been harsh on Caserio is because there was never a logical reason to believe that this team would be a contender from the moment he inherited it. If this team had the core talent that the Saints had when he took over? Sure, go nuts with your special team signings and work the edges of the roster so that your one sneaky May vet can block a punt or notch a sack to win a close game. The context of that roster was not correct for the moves he was making.
But adding two core players to the roster in the draft? That actually changes my mind a little bit about what the Texans did this offseason. It allows them to tell a story about winning the division that isn’t completely implausible and easily laughed out of the room. It is, to be clear, still an unlikely story. But it isn’t so far-fetched that C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson could both be instant impact players and that they can push the players around them into roles they can actually fill. Suddenly I can tell myself the story where this solid depth has an actual purpose rather than just showing up and looking presentable while Jeff Driskel takes snaps in one of the stupidest offenses in NFL history.
Caserio has never done anything for the good of the future Texans, unless you count trading up for umpteen of his picks in the draft and making draft picks as good moves on merit. He has always just put his blinders on for the idea that this team is stalled and believed the answer is “let’s put together the best roster we can for this season, this August, this tomorrow.” I have hated every minute of it, every Justin Britt signing, every Jordan Jenkins taking snaps from young players. If I’m being honest, I still think buying in on Shaq Mason as a long-term fixture is a poorer bet than local media wants to admit. But if he has spiked two core players that actually hit right away, then I can’t help but admit him going as hard on short-term guys was a better move than I gave it credit for at the time. I never really believed he had this kind of move in him on his own. It seemed a step too bold for someone who barely has paid market level for stars in free agency.
Because of the speed and the enormity of football news (really, all news) today, I think the narrative cycles have come and gone faster than ever before and as a society we’re very conditioned to begin thinking about the next thing when what is here isn’t working. Sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Every young quarterback deserves a runway to see what they can do, yet Davis Mills and Zach Wilson each got about 20 starts over multiple years and that was enough. I think both were given enough space, but in 1994 I think we might have seen a different story. Hell, the David Carr Texans somehow lasted five years and that was happening within the last 20 years. Bill O’Brien somehow coached seven seasons here. And I would argue that we knew what we had in him after two, and that for certain after 2018 there was little new to understand.
The bet that the Will Anderson trade has made is: “We understand our timeline better than the outside world does.” The stalled narrative is now unstalled. The quarterback and head coach are here, and the head coach has a defensive linchpin at EDGE and (hopefully) at CB. The narrative was going to actually take a step forward either way with Ryans and Stroud — from failed rebuild to rebuild part II: now with actual optimism attached — but the Anderson trade demonstrates a level of confidence that it can go faster and be feisty right away. To the credit of many Smart Football Media members, betting against the Texans to be right when they go for the heat check has been the correct move for most of the last five years. I have been — in the eyes of this town’s True Fans — obnoxiously negative about how that would go and I’ve been right about that.
But I do have some actual optimism about this working out because I believe in the head coach and quarterback bets. That does not mean Smart Football Media will be wrong, because close games and injuries will dictate a lot and the Texans absolutely have players they cannot afford to lose. But the problem with Caserio’s teams has always been there was no core to supplement.
If there is an instant core, suddenly winning isn’t as implausible as it once was.
On the analytics of the situation, there is absolutely no way a team that is as bad as the Texans have been since 2020 should be trading away a future first-round pick. And yet … I both kind of like the trade-up for Will Anderson and also kind of understand where they are coming from. That doesn’t make the trade without risk.
The certifiable, no-questions asked, thank-your-deities-this-happened moment came at pick two, when the Texans bucked weeks of speculation they’d get cute with quarterback and selected C.J. Stroud. I am already on the record that I think Stroud is the quarterback I’d most like to have of this year’s draft. You can imagine how it felt in this household to hear him paired with a head coach I believe in. That is 80% of the problems that the Texans had last year solved.
I don’t want to belabor this too hard because, well, Stroud is not a flawless prospect and Ryans is not a flawless head coach prospect. But after two calendar years of George R.R. Martin Describing Prison Food football, the Texans have finally secured a potential ticket out of it. Both the coach and the player still need to live up to expectations for that to happen. But it is finally some hope that doesn’t ring hollow in the “Well, wait a minute, Davis Mills might do this!” tone. It has been a long 28 months since the Deshaun Watson trade request dropped, and trading him did nothing but fill the air with the stress of needing to find the right pieces to make this a football team. Thursday, I finally was able to think about the team in a “Well, this team still needs a center” way again. I know that feels like damning with faint praise, but the idea to think normal football thoughts about your football team is something you don’t really miss until it’s gone.
So, let’s talk about the Will Anderson trade:
I can look at these terms and know that from a pure value perspective — opportunity cost and all that — the Texans got fleeced. They dropped down a full round in giving up a 2024-third rounder for a high 2023 fourth-rounder, gave up an extremely valuable pick in 33 overall, and most importantly gave up their own 2024 first-round pick.
But here is the thing: The Texans drafted like they just got their franchise quarterback. I doubt anything that happens in 2023 will make them believe otherwise. So they weren’t hoarding picks to trade up next year. They also reside in a division that I’d describe as imminently winnable. The Jaguars are solid, but barely gained anything but Calvin Ridley this offseason and just narrowly fended off a team starting Josh Dobbs last year. The Titans are well-coached, but in a no-man’s land on talent. The Colts are also going to be starting a rookie quarterback. All of Nick Caserio’s moves in free agency — all of his moves in free agency period — are built to win now in service of a core he had never created. Anderson and Stroud are now that core, cost-controlled for five seasons.
So let’s compare Anderson — who I think is one of four players in this class who I’d consider a worthy top-five pick — to what the Texans could have drafted by waiting until next year. You have Stroud in hand. The most valuable positions on a football team are QB (taken), OT (Tunsil is re-upped, Howard is a solid second tackle), EDGE, and … WR.
The wideout part is what gives me pause. Marvin Harrison Jr. coming out, the Texans playing poorly enough to get a top-three pick, and then handing him over to the Cardinals is the nightmare scenario. The Texans do not have a good enough wideout corps to be a serious contender without a major leap from Nico Collins and John Metchie becoming a major factor. The other theoretical future this trade kills is the one where the Texans win the Caleb Williams (or whichever franchise QB you want to boast about) sweepstakes and perform their own 2023 Bears trade. These are real losses, and I don’t want to minimize them or act like there’s no chance they’ll happen … but we also don’t really know how that future will unfold yet. For all we know, Harrison tears his ACL and is available with the Browns pick because people are concerned about his medicals. A lot can change in a year.
But if you told me the Texans finished with the third overall pick next year and selected a prospect the caliber of Anderson, I think I’d be pretty excited about it. The defense and the pass rush in particular has lacked a building block since J.J. Watt tiptoed away from the Jack Easterby Era in progress. Anderson is not the bendy EDGE — he’s not a sure-fire top-two-in-a-good-draft Von Miller kind of pick — but outside of lacking 95th percentile athleticism and length, he does everything you’d want your franchise EDGE rusher to do. He plays well in the trash. He creates tackles for loss in the run game. He’s a smart enough player to win sacks all over the place instead of just being Guy Who Beat The Tackle To The Outside. As with Stroud, none of this means he’s going to be that player in the pros because this is all some manner of crapshoot — but I think he’s got a chance to be a true No. 1 NFL EDGE when it is all said and done.
I both love the player and admit that this could lead to some queasy Sundays if things do not work out exactly as Caserio has foreseen, Sundays where there are rookie pains and lessons followed by the psychic fatigue of understanding — as with the Laremy Tunsil years — that there is no payoff coming for those losses. I am comforted by two things with this trade — one is that I think Anderson was the best defensive player in this draft and a worthy top-five guy, and the other is that if this trade goes down as a boondoggle, I don’t think Caserio will be around in 2024. We’re all going to remain big Whoever Plays The Browns Fans.
But I don’t quite see it as a boondoggle on the day after it happened. I see it as a confluence of circumstances. It’s a deep draft as far as 1st-2nd round types where the player at 33 may be as good as the player at 56, and also a weak enough draft up top where the player at 12 is much less of a prospect than the player at 3. It’s a dysfunctional war room where we’re not entirely sure who is in charge in the new scenario. It’s a desire for the team to finally be something again and tell everyone about it, to sell some excitement where there was none. And on those specific merits, I understand exactly why it went down the way it did even though the price was more than most would be willing to pay.
It may be that I am just too caught up in that excitement and that come November, I’ll be living the sugar crash of every Halloween night. But I think there’s a better than average chance the Texans have traded away the No. 4 pick, or the No. 7 pick — something that they’ll certainly miss in 2024, but not something that would devastate the franchise. And in that case, the only bad news about opening your present early is that the clock is ticking on creating the team around your new core.
And if it all falls apart, and the Texans did give up the keys to the kingdom, at least Caserio got to fulfill his self-prophecy to go down swinging.
I’ve been pretty quiet of late on the Texans Daily Draft Frenzy because there’s not a lot of reason to log in to what is being shared. Nothing you consume will change the fact that the team will do what it will do. But I have a thought that I need to share, and it’s about the idea of passing on a quarterback in this draft.
That thought is: I sure would love it if the Texans stopped trying to believe they were smarter than the room.
To say that being a fan of this team has been made needlessly difficult by the people in charge over the past decade would be an understatement. We have been eating football gruel since Deshaun Watson filed a trade request. J.J. Watt’s prime was wasted with quarterbacks who weren’t able to get him to the promised land. Not only is this team nationally irrelevant, they are so irrelevant that even trying to talk them up as being a year away over the last couple seasons has been a waste of time. They lacked the talent to have a good team, and they also lacked a coach who could lead the team in a manner of play from this decade. I couldn’t tell you a damn thing about how Derek Stingley’s 2022 play would matter for his future because how he was used in 2022 was so obviously never going to be the long-term play here.
But I want to put that aside for a second and make sure I focus on the one thing I need you all to get out of this: None of the things that got the Texans to where they are today were all that hard to see coming.
I have pointed out many of them along the way since I started actually putting Texans stuff back on the radar in 2018. I’ve been bringing up stuff like this since 2009. I don’t say this to feed an ego — I know I’m not always right, and also that I shouldn’t always be right, as I don’t have the information that teams have — I say this because if someone like me, with little to no inside sources or deeper organizational knowledge can see it happening, then anybody can.
So I sat down and thought about it for twenty minutes last night. This is just a list of things I’ve written about at some point in the past 10 years that were fairly easy to see coming. They are things that weren’t about second-guessing a problem that occurred after the fact, but about first-guessing from the moment it became clear that this would happen. Several of these things have been written about on this very website! OK, no more stalling:
-Lovie Smith was not fit to be an NFL head coach in 2022. -Nick Caserio’s free agency strategy would never deliver long-term value to this roster. -David Culley was not a worthwhile head-coaching candidate. (Did you know, non-Texans fans, that Culley has not even coached at another stop since being fired? He hasn’t even coached for a high-school team!) -Keeping Jack Easterby would drive this team into the ground as he focused on character and chemistry instead of accumulating talent. Keeping him when he was supposedly a main reason that the franchise quarterback wanted out — despite the fact that said franchise quarterback would go on to ill fame — was patently idiotic. -The DeAndre Hopkins trade would be a boondoggle. -The Laremy Tunsil trade would be a boondoggle. -Bringing in Randall Cobb had a whiff of desperation. (Did you remember that Randall Cobb was on this team? It happened!) -Re-signing Whitney Mercilus in late 2019 didn’t bring the team any upside. -The team failed to effectively maximize it’s cap window with Watson on a rookie contract by bringing in star-level talent in free agency. -The Brock Osweiler signing would be a debacle. -Not drafting a quarterback in 2014 would be a major mistake and set the team up for years of cascade mistakes.
Now I could have gone deeper on this list. You probably have your own that I left off — that’s the beauty of a 20-minute list. I did not mention, for instance, looking at this the morning after, that they literally just gave away Brandin Cooks for beans because they pissed him off. I did not mention that it was extremely easy to see that Matt Schaub was falling apart late in 2012 and that relying on him going forward was an iffy proposition. I didn’t bring up firing Brian Gaine out of nowhere! This was quick and from the gut.
OK, so now a much shorter list. This is the 20-minute list of things that I can remember the Texans doing that were widely praised by the national media over the past 10 years.
-Hiring DeMeco Ryans. -Signing Tyrann Mathieu before the 2018 season. -Trading up for Deshaun Watson.
With some hindsight and some research, I think you could add something like “extending J.J. Watt” and “extending Watson,” which were easy calls even if Watson would later use the no-trade clause to destroy the franchise’s leverage. I think people were excited about hiring Bill O’Brien at the time, but I wasn’t sure if that hit the widespread attention that these other things did.
My point here isn’t to say that the Texans should run themselves through the lens of what the national media believes. I think there’s plenty of room to believe different things and evaluate differently through the context of scheme fits than what a former player says in a suit in front of a camera. I also believe they have a lot more information than we do.
What I am saying is … if there is one team that I don’t think has any benefit of the doubt, on any level, from anyone in the damn building, about bucking national consensus … it’s this goddamn team. This team would have been in a markedly better position today than it actually is if they ran the team via fan poll for the last five years.
So when I write what I write about the quarterbacks in this class after the next section, spare me the fan explanations about how they know better than I. The last thing I want to be is the one with a better record on seeing this team’s moves for what they are than the team itself. I want them to succeed. I would love to feel stupid in the service of this team actually being good.
But they can’t get out of their own way, and being “bold” has not been a good look for this franchise.
Houston’s general manager isn’t leaving, per his own words. That does not mean that he won’t be fired. And it doesn’t mean that we believe he’s got much rope left. Lance Zierlein said he doesn’t see Caserio getting out of next year with a job unless things go well and Ryans takes to him. And even in the midst of a ton of gratitude expressed by Caserio on Monday, here was the quote that showed he doesn’t know where he stands with ownership in the long-term:
But there was another answer I wanted to talk about that did not get much public play, and it did not get much public play because a) the answer was longer than a Twitter-length clip and b) because it is a depressing thing to take in all at once.
“If we do that, and with enough people, then … hopefully we put ourselves in a position to have some modicum of success. It doesn’t guarantee success, nothing is guaranteed. Like, we’re not guaranteed tomorrow … there’s only so many things you can control … when you look at some of the things that are going on societally, it kind of puts things in perspective … we have to read Sunday morning about another mass shooting that’s taking place in our country … when you just put it in the perspective of football, I mean I’d say it kind of shows you it pales in comparison.”
Here’s what drives me up the wall about Caserio in a quote. He’s smart enough to understand a lot about being an NFL general manager. By all means, he should be doing better than he is if this were purely about how much he knows. He’s a good human who is aware of his place in the world.
But look at what he said … he says there are no guarantees. It takes ego to be a general manager. It really does. You have to believe that your way is best. Just as it takes some ego for me to write this piece because I believe it is the best interpretation of how this team should run.
Your job isn’t to take in all the world’s information, but to take in all that information, suss out what is the best way to run a team from your research, and act on it. But he has no belief about that, or anything of that sort. He is a man who has taken in all the information of the world and drowned in it. Now the only way he can build a roster is vaguely shrugging his shoulders and saying “if this works out, great, and if not this contract isn’t onerous and I can try again next year.” He sees the downside in every contract and every risk. But building a team is an act of ego that entails risks! The egoless general manager that runs the Texans has made a team that has risked nothing and has gained nothing for it.
The capper is bringing up mass shootings. He did something like that early in the Deshaun Watson Requests A Trade Era, at the Culley inaugural presser I believe, where he wistfully kind of ruminated on the fact that there are bigger things in the world than being mad about what happens with his football team. I understand the sentiment, but … my dude … it’s literally your job to run the football team. It might make you a better citizen of the world to put that perspective out there, but do you know what I care about? You making the football team good. That’s all. I’m here to enjoy my brain watching football get solved by the best minds in the sport.
If Bryce Young was the only quarterback you liked, why — why? — did you not find a way to get the first pick? Lose the final game or have some urgency in a trade up. But even this conviction that Young is the guy is not enough of a conviction to demand a risk.
What I find instead is a man who has more questions than answers. Someone who has so little confidence in what he’s doing that he can’t even say that finding the right people means he’ll have a “modicum” of success.
Listen, when the offseason started, I thought the Texans were in a good place that would only get better. There were two top-10 worthy quarterbacks in the draft. They had the second pick. I’ve got my receipts on the feelings here:
My evaluation is … I like CJ Stroud more than Bryce Young. If the Panthers wanted Stroud, great, Young is still a legitimate franchise prospect even if I’m wincing every time he gets tackled. But if the Panthers wanted Young, well, Stroud’s the quarterback with the most upside in the draft in my book. Nobody played a better game last year than he did against Georgia. I value the high floor his accuracy provides. I think his high ceiling gets dismissed because he played in a dull as a doorknob offense that didn’t ask much of its quarterbacks as far as freelancing. I think his running upside is underrated for much the same reason. I’m not saying that his agent being the agent who got Watson out of town is not a cause for pause on any level, but if I get two years of solid play, three years of elite play, and then trade him for three first-round picks because he hates me … that’s not exactly a terrible outcome, you know? It’s too early to say the Texans came out ahead on the Watson trade but there was definitely a real return. You can’t really have an NFL plan that goes further than the next two years and anybody who says otherwise is kidding themselves due to the injury attrition involved.
But I don’t hold this opinion to the point where if it’s not Stroud I’ll flip a car over, because I acknowledge I don’t have the same information the teams do. I’m open to the idea that I’m wrong. I’m happy to hear an argument on Anthony Richardson being better. I’m more reluctant on a Will Levis argument because it relies on things I can’t see and thus feels like it was crafted in a cocoon, but even if that was a stab I personally wasn’t a fan of at least I could give them credit for taking a stab. I am still a Trey Lance believer to some extent, even if I think it’s a little weird to value his three years of control over a rookie quarterback’s five.
This isn’t a good draft class, but it is one blessed with (in my opinion) two top-10 worthy quarterbacks. Others happily put Richardson in that tier. Then I’ll allow the idea of Levis or Lance to percolate even though I don’t see the same upside. To leave next weekend with Case Keenum and Davis Mills as your quarterbacks in the service or whatever in-house galaxy brain narratives you want to tell yourself — that the team isn’t close enough, that the offense works with Brock Purdy as if Kyle Shanahan is the head coach, that we know better than everyone else on this evaluation — is absolute madness to me.
This is me first-guessing. Acquire a quarterback. You need one. The fans want one. It might fail, because many quarterbacks don’t succeed. But if DeMeco Ryans is the coach we think he is, you may never have a chance to do this again.
2014 is the draft class we need to look back on and learn the lesson of. It took a historic confluence of bad evaluations and a trade up to get Watson in 2017, and meanwhile the Texans were stuck in purgatory on offense for years. You know what? The Texans didn’t love Teddy Bridgewater, and they didn’t love Johnny Manziel, and they didn’t love Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo enough. But I don’t think it really has to be quite this complex. The Vikings don’t love Kirk Cousins and they know what he is. I don’t know that the Cowboys love Dak Prescott now at his salary. Your in-house negative thoughts about Stroud or Richardson (and my in-brain negative thoughts about Levis) could be wrong — you really won’t know until they’re in the building every day and putting up what they put up on the field.
Love is overrated. Carr and Garoppolo turned into long-time NFL starters, and Bridgewater probably would’ve been if he didn’t shred his knee. Manziel would have never even been discussed in the first round if he’d grown up in the live video everywhere environment of 2023. The Eagles just made the Super Bowl with a guy they didn’t love — as evidenced by him being there in the second round — and weren’t convinced would be a star until he did it right in front of their eyes. This is the most important position on your football team and any opportunity you have to upgrade from bad to better has to be explored fully, not dismissed because Trevor Lawrence II isn’t somehow sitting there at No. 2 overall.
All I want is for the team to act like a normal football team, to do something that makes sense so I can be happy about it and we all can start to put the recent past in the rearview mirror. It’s going to be hard to do that if we have to watch the Ryan Fitzpatrick 2014 Texans, Mk. II.
Let’s get out in front of what I’m sure will be the clapback that comes with having an unpopular opinion about Houston’s work in free agency: The team has improved.
Case Keenum, though older, is a good fit in a 49ers-based offense (see work in Minnesota) and should be a safer backup than Davis Mills. Devin Singletary is a damn sight better than Rex Burkhead. The depth at wideout is better. Dalton Schultz is an actual stab at a starting tight end rather than a depth guy stretched out of his current place. Shaq Mason is better than A.J. Cann. Sheldon Rankins and Hassan Ridgeway offer more up front than last year’s Roy Lopez/Kurt Hinish combination. Denzel Perryman (when healthy) is a better linebacker than the team had last season. Jimmie Ward is a much better starter over the course of his career than Eric Murray has been.
These are all things that are true. I would even go as far as to say that the combination of a down free agency market and Caserio pivoting quickly off of the Brandin Cooks contract to snag Schultz showed a deft hand at maneuvering the market in real time.
I have led the column with this because I feel like not saying these things off the bat makes a certain class of fan poster get really grouchy. I do believe Caserio has done a good job at free agency in so far as the way he prefers to run free agency — my qualms with what has happened, as well as my questions about it — are mostly philosophical.
To the extent that I have arguments with posters and commentators about this and they and I have different perspectives, I think it’s mostly about how good each of these players are and what acquiring them really means for the future. As an example, I just said up there that that I think Shaq Mason is better than A.J. Cann. I don’t think Shaq Mason is a fixture for this team in two or three years though.
The Texans didn’t have to give up much to get him — they swapped a sixth for a seventh. They haven’t extended his contract — nor would I advise them to. He’s going to turn 30 this offseason. Two teams in a row have given up on him without finding much of a market for his services in consecutive offseasons. That doesn’t mean he’s not a good player — it just means the NFL doesn’t think he’s a core player. I’ve seen arguments wrapped around something like “the Bucs had to get rid of him,” but those same Bucs were like $50 million over the cap and kept anyone they considered a core player. Lavonte David came back, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin came back, Shaq Barrett came back, Vita Vea and Devin White are back — even Jamel Dean on a huge contract! They probably could have kept Mason if they thought he was one of the ten best players on their team or something. They didn’t.
Anyway, my questions:
Is this team finally going to be good enough for a bunch of one-year commitments to matter?
I don’t think the Texans are going to make the playoffs next year. I think they lack a proven No. 1 receiver, I believe they will be starting a rookie quarterback, and I think there are enough holes on the roster (Center, No. 1 EDGE, places where rookies or younger players are going to be put on the spot to improve dramatically) that a lot would have to go right. Most of the bookies are citing the Texans around 5.5 wins, which is tied for the lowest figure in the NFL with the Cardinals. Their future odds for next season are all drastically behind everyone but Arizona.
But for the first time under Caserio, they look to finally have a good head coach prospect and be headed towards a good starting quarterback prospect. Those are, as they say in the business, “a start.”
My problem with the way Caserio philosophically runs free agency is that it’s hard to generate future value for the franchise out of it. It’s something of a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” idea. The team hands out very few long-term contracts, and also seems extremely comfortable paying veterans as long as they aren’t on the hook for it for many seasons. It is, in my eyes, an underrated factor in how the team has created a roster where there are very few valuable players that aren’t on rookie contracts. Everyone loves to blame the Bill O’Brien contracts for this, but Bill O’Brien didn’t make this team bring back David Johnson in 2021.
Now, to Caserio’s credit, I think he has defied the Nate Tice term “Houston Madden 78s” a bit this offseason. He’s gotten a better class of player than he has the last two offseasons. Maybe they’re close to the Madden 83-85s because of the circumstances of a down market and a more well-regarded coaching staff. And, to Caserio’s credit, I think this team has a non-insignificant chance of competing this season as compared to the previous two offseasons where … well, come on.
But it relies on a lot of instantaneous steps forward in a lot of areas. Like, Nico Collins has to be great. Jalen Pitre needs to be a better tackler. Christian Harris needs to be less lost. The rookie quarterback can’t struggle. The offense and defense have to not have adjustment periods.
On a purely transactional level, there’s not a lot of downside to the way Nick approaches these things. The Texans are not overpaying the market. They’re not in any danger of “losing” one of these transactions. But at the same time, if they aren’t a fringe playoff contender, then none of these contracts really meant anything in the long game. Even the two-year deals they handed out to Woods and Ward come with pretty easy one-year outs in 2024. I philosophically believe the Texans should be playing the long game still — or I guess in general, since they’ve never done that in free agency under Caserio.
If this were the 2012 Texans, or the 2021 Chargers, or the Patriots under Caserio, where a core of good players were locked into place already, this kind of supplementary approach would be … a pretty smart way to run a franchise in my book! But the Texans have almost no core to supplement. They may finally be getting a franchise quarterback this year — we’ll see how that turns out — but they don’t have the kind of up-and-down talent core on the roster that would merit this approach. They haven’t had that for any of Caserio’s offseasons.
To me, this is a situation that calls for a more creative approach than the one that has been taken. They need to unearth core players, guys who will be on the team in three years. And the way that Caserio has approached offseasons — almost no deals beyond two years, no risk — is the exact way that they would never find a core player. Well, except maybe…
Is Dalton Schultz a core player?
This is the offseason’s biggest question, and I want to tell you that I love this signing for a sneaky low-downside reason even if I have my doubts that Schultz is going to be a star: The Texans are 100 percent protected if he stuns me and has a monster year.
Because this is exactly like the Evan Engram situation last offseason. The tight end franchise tag is one of the biggest exploits on the NFL market right now and will remain that way next offseason. I have not seen or read a report that tells me that Schultz is protected from being tagged next offseason. The Dolphins franchise-tagged Mike Gesicki then barely used him in 2022, and tight end is now projected to have the lowest franchise tender of any position in 2024 at $13.6 million. So to me, the major upside in this move is that if the Texans get anything resembling franchise play from Schultz, this isn’t really a one-year deal.
As far as the odds of that actually happening? I’m not sure what to think about that. One thing that stood out to me over the last couple of years is Schultz with and without Dak Prescott in the fold. Schultz played three games without Prescott in 2022 — admittedly, while dealing with a knee injury — and was targeted eight times, catching two balls for 18 yards. In his one game without Prescott in 2021? Two catches, 11 yards, seven targets. 2020 without Dak? 11 games, 58 targets, 44 catches for 390 yards and two touchdowns as compared to 225 yards in just the five games Dak played in.
So is that as easy as “get Dalton Schultz a good quarterback and prosper?” Or is that a specific matter of Prescott being the type of quarterback (pre-snap reads, knows where to go against zone over the middle) who makes a player like Schultz shine? Keep in mind that the 49ers have not exactly targeted George Kittle as much as they could have over the years. He had 86 targets in 2022, and only seven games with more than five targets. He hasn’t had 100 targets in a season since 2019. (Granted he often gets hurt, but…)
I like the signing — I have a lot of uncertainty over whether Schultz will actually become a core player. I do believe Schultz will be a productive TE1, but to me he wouldn’t be a must-roster fantasy football player or anything like that. I’m expecting modest, steady production rather than a bunch of 10-catch games.
Why can’t the Texans find their own D.J. Reader in free agency?
Reader became a free agent after the 2019 season, after years of creating a wonderful Texans run defense with his power up front. The Texans immediately became a bad run defense and never really recovered under Anthony Weaver or Lovie Smith. Reader signed a four-year contract worth $53 million — with $20.25 million in guarantees — with the lowly Bengals. The 2020 Bengals were … still bad! They went 4-11-1. They allowed 5.1 yards per rush attempt. It was hard to say that Reader immediately improved the situation. But … he still played extremely well, and he was a building block to them one day becoming good against the run once they filled some more holes in the front seven.
In 2021, the Bengals made the playoffs at 10-7. Their yards per attempt allowed on the ground fell to 4.3. They improved from 21st in run defense DVOA to 13th. They won the AFC North by a half-game, and every team in the AFC that made the playoffs had seven losses. Had they not signed Reader, would they have ever made the playoffs? Would they have ever made the Super Bowl run that they did? I kind of doubt it.
A lot of what I consider reductive analysis focused on trying to find logic by this team’s fans revolves around the idea that this team simply must have been tanking despite signing oodles of free agents and never getting a compensation pick for their losses in free agency. I think what has actually been happening is that the team has had no real plan to find building blocks like Reader in free agency or out of UDFA or trades. Caserio approaches free agency like an actuary, and his goal is to get out of it with the best players he can at the least risk he can.
The thing is, generating core players goes hand-and-hand with taking real stabs in free agency. If you sign someone expensive, then you allocate the resources around so that someone like Jimmy Morrissey might get a real shot at center because you can’t address it with a low-level free agent. I don’t think Morrissey would have been a star or anything, but it’s hard to argue that the Texans did better with Justin Britt and Scott Quessenberry the last two years despite paying real money for them.
I can understand the nihlist approach to free agency that Caserio takes — most free agents don’t work out, and most money will not be well-spent — but it’s curious to me that he takes almost the exact opposite approach in the draft. He goes out of his way to trade up for players he believes in, at a cost that I’d call fairly high even if it hasn’t sacrificed many Day 2 picks.
At the end of the day, it was a “waste” for the Bengals to sign Reader for the 2020 season. But they weren’t signing him solely for that season. The way that Caserio approaches free agency makes it almost impossible for him to ever create this kind of building block on the roster. The closest thing he has now is Maliek Collins, who he had to pay to keep off the free agent market after a one-year deal. That’s kind of where Schultz would be headed for me if not for the franchise tag exploit. Speaking of one-year deals…
Ogbonnia Okornokwo leaving worries me — will the Texans ever re-sign one of their own free agents to a deal that goes more than two years?
The Texans seemed to have problems properly using Ogo Okoronkwo last season. He was something of a free-agent success story for the team despite that. His pass-rush metrics in the advanced stats were all very good. He had some big games down the stretch once he started getting more playing time, including two sacks in the win over Tennessee. Great find, right? And he even wanted to come back.
But Caserio had only given him a one-year contract last offseason. And he seemed unwilling to match what I’d call a commitment but not a back-breaking deal from the Browns of: Three years, $19 million, $12.5 million in guarantees. Okoronkwo turns 28 in April and I think the market makes it clear that he’s more of a second banana rusher than a superstar, but I think you can argue that he could have been a part of this team’s core after they identified him.
The problem is, well, he’s gone now. Caserio won the free-agent contract — he got more than he paid for. And that efficiency didn’t do anything for the Texans in the end. He didn’t trade him at the deadline. (The only players he’s dealt at the trade deadline are Charles Omenihu, which looks to be a value mistake based on culture … and Mark Ingram, who appeared to ask off the team.) He’s not going to recap compensation picks for Okoronkwo because the Texans have signed plenty of players to respectable AAV contracts. They didn’t get a comp pick for Justin Reid last offseason for much the same reasons. (They did get a comp pick this year because of their record and a lack of comp picks handed out.)
Okoronkwo was one of my favorite players that the Texans signed in 2022 because I thought he deserved a real chance to play and the Texans could give it to him. In my opinion? That’s one of the archetypes of players the Texans should be trying to sign. But the way that contract was structured, Caserio created a no-win situation for the team, because if Okoronkwo played well, no surplus value was being generated for it. I don’t know if I’d say that Okoronkwo was going to be a core player for the team based on last year, but I’d say a good third EDGE rusher is worth $6-7 million a season, and he could play a bigger role until the team found the true No. 1 it needs up front.
What if the Texans had made a big free agency mistake?
I’m not giving Caserio too hard of a time about the record he’s piled up here because, let’s be real, he hired two coaches that were immediately laughable and the best quarterback he employed over this timespan spent the back half of last season platooning with Jeff Driskel. At least some of that can be excused away via in-house meddling from everyone’s favorite local youth pastor and an immediate franchise quarterback trade request. He does own the results, but they are somewhat understandable.
But these past two years could have been spent developing younger players instead of finding the highest floor he could have. With all due respect to the players, who are just trying their best, a big part of the reason I’ve had problems getting invested in this team’s success the last two years is that it never mattered to me if they performed well. Justin Britt playing at his 90th percentile outcome was never going to take the Texans anywhere. Justin Britt playing at his 30th percentile outcome was a colossal waste of everyone’s time compared to just cycling through practice squad and UDFA guys searching for anyone who could do something. So … why?
I’m also not saying if they’d named me general manager in 2021 the team would be in some magically better place. Look at what I wrote about Reader. I very well may have applied that idea to like, Kenny Golladay.
But crucially: If Hypothetical Kenny Golladay had failed for the Texans — and I do think this is more about probability than a default state, he may not have gotten hurt here, etc. — it wouldn’t actually have mattered. The cost of these guys on Houston’s roster is like four veterans who never mattered, and it’s not hard to cut bait with NFL contracts. The only risk is — rich coming from me — a bunch of middle-aged white dudes whining about how some player quit on his contract or is overpaid. But … said people were going to criticize this team either way on account of it being bad.
All of which is to say, if the choice is 2021 Kenny Golladay and four UDFAs on the roster or like, Justin Britt, Andre Roberts, Pharaoh Brown, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Terrance Mitchell? One of those paths had the potential to uncover a block or three for the team to work with. The other one is what the Texans chose. They have signed enough random guys they like because of special teams work or projecting them to a startable linebacker caliber to easily cover a major signing. (By the way, I think it’s great that Caserio has focused on good special teams … but giving a good special-teams unit to a four-win team is like giving a 6-year-old a driver’s license.)
They just … don’t do that.
The longest game
What the Caserio Era has actually delivered is a pristine cap sheet in the year 2025, where the Texans will have (assuming no complete trade-downs) six first-round picks under contract and almost nothing else that takes up real space besides Laremy Tunsil and cap holds for void years. The current number is something like $225 million in cap space, though that will of course be eaten into when the other first-round picks are added along the way if nothing else. They currently lead the NFL in cap space available in 2024 at close to $150 million.
But the way Caserio has approached free agency, why would we believe that he’s suddenly going to start signing big free agents? He’s a value guy. There might be a player or two that break molds for him, but we haven’t seen that player yet. In three years of free agents, you’d think if that was going to happen, it would have happened already. A Jakobi Meyers or Jimmy Garoppolo this year, maybe. A J.C. Jackson in 2022 — not that the signing has worked out or anything, but he’s just a guy I thought the Texans might have some interest in based on his youth and his proximity to Caserio in New England.
When I critique the Caserio offseasons, one very common accusation I get leveled at me is that I want to build a contender in free agency. I’m not stupid. I know the Texans aren’t going to do that, nor have I really argued for them blowing out Osweilers worth of major contracts to Chandler Jones or something like that. All I want to see is the team attempting to find real building blocks rather than guys who will likely be gone in 2024. It’s how the Bengals built themselves a good defense in free agency — on guys like Reader, Tre Hendrickson, Mike Hilton, and Chidobe Awuzie. One or two upper/mid-tier investments an offseason like that can add up quickly if you hit on them, and they honestly cost less than you’d think.
My take is that this is austerity for the sake of austerity. Many teams have turned things around faster than Caserio has. The Lions, the Falcons, the Giants, the Bears, the Jets, the Jaguars … these are all teams that look much better for 2023 than the Texans do. A lot of that is about the quality of the coaching and the quarterbacks, yes, but those teams have also all utilized free agency and trades to find core players. Jared Goff was essentially a throw-in for the Lions. The Bears just reeled in DJ Moore. Hell, the Jets wildly overpaid C.J. Mosley, and it turns out that they didn’t take away any of their wins last season because of that.
There’s just, to me, a metric fuckton of opportunity cost that Caserio has more-or-less squandered these last three years. The Texans could have done a lot with their cap dollars. Let’s say that signing three-year deals is off the table because Caserio refuses to let it happen, that we have to protect the bottom line at all costs. OK, working with that in mind.
They can take on bad contracts for draft picks and profit as the Browns did from Brock Osweiler. (How about Allen Robinson? How about Russell Wilson?) They can decide to only sign released players and actually hoard compensatory picks. They can make the same moves that they were already making, but then actually trade your Jerry Hugheses of the world when they play well and get draft capital in return. They can actually have some UDFAs win camp competitions. (I know a few have for roster spots, but moreso, and let them play as starters on offense or defense because they have a chance to be reasonable cheap starters for a few years.)
The future flexibility of the cap sheet just doesn’t mean a lot to me when paired with a general manager who — I’m just going to lay it out there — doesn’t strike me as especially creative with his moves. This has all felt by-the-algorithm for awhile.
Maybe Caserio will actually spend for some big-name free agents in 2023 — I’ll be happy to praise him for that if I consider the moves good at the time, and I’ve been very on-board with the DeMeco Ryans hiring. I’m not trying to be obstinate for the sake of being obstinate here. Having these takes is honestly terrible for me mentally — I try to avoid the dogpile and I don’t really have a lot of interest in drawing attention to them because Everyone Wants To Be Happy With Their Team.
But if the whole point of this is to cycle one-year deals until a drafted core is in place … there are much faster ways to get to the endgame of this than all of us pretending we care what Eric Murray and Chase Winovich are going to do this season. There just are. We see them happen on every other NFL team but the Texans.
The Texans news-dumped the two biggest pieces of news of their offseason Sunday morning, unloading Brandin Cooks to the Cowboys for a fifth-round pick this year and a sixth-round pick next year, then signing Laremy Tunsil to a three-year, $75 million extension with $50 million in guaranteed money. I have rational takes on each of these moves, and I also have emotional takes on each of these moves.
Laremy Tunsil gets the bag yet again
Rational: I think where I start with is: Thank goodness Caserio actually paid somebody.
I started writing a post about Houston’s foray into free agency — I want to give it some more time — and one of the major bits I came up with was “because of this team’s lack of any commitment to anyone, the 2024 and 2025 caps are absolutely barren.” Even after Tunsil re-signed, the Texans still lead the NFL with $150 million in cap space in 2024 and are second to the Patriots with $225 million in estimated 2025 cap space. Those numbers will, obviously, go down a lot before we actually get there. There will be more draft picks made, if nothing else. But as it stands Tunsil is the only player on the 2025 cap sheet that isn’t on a rookie contract or just eating money because of a void contract.
Tunsil the player has kind of always been a weird concept for me to grasp. I’m not quite as invested in the narrative of “young quarterbacks must be protected” as some that I read — I think the quarterbacks themselves are more important on most plays. In the games that Tunsil has missed over the last three years, I wouldn’t say the team has struggled without him in a material way. Tunsil does his job and he does it well, though I think even his biggest boosters would have to admit he’s a much better pass protector than a run blocker. Regardless, there’s no reason to believe he’s going to decline suddenly and offensive tackles tend to hold their age well, so I see it as a relatively safe contract to hand out. I would say Tunsil is in the top five tackles in the NFL on talent.
I don’t quite see this move as a no-brainer. Tunsil’s stock has risen a lot in the last year because he played a full season. But in 2021 he played just five games and the idea of him coming back to play with what was described as a hand injury was sort of left in murky unanswered question territory, and if I am recalling the discourse of the time correctly, there were many Texans fans that wanted to move on. I don’t think if the Texans tried to trade him after that season, they would have gotten quite what they could have gotten this offseason, which makes me see this as a potential opportunity. But on its face, is handing a great tackle a lot of money a good move? Sure.
I also think the contract structure is fairly favorable to the Texans overall, unlike the last one that kind of forced a move here. They can move on after two seasons if they’d like, and if not he’s probably playing well enough that $28.85 million a season is a reasonable expense.
Emotional: This free agency market has been fascinating to me.
C.J. Gardner-Johnson just got a one-year, prove-it deal after a massive season in which he led the NFL in interceptions. For free agents, if you weren’t in the first wave of the market, you probably took a bit of a haircut from what you were expecting, and this is despite the fact that the cap actually went up unlike the weird situation we had with the COVID-influenced cap. Mike McGlinchey and Jawaan Taylor got major money … but Orlando Brown did not.
Brown turns 27 in May. Tunsil turns 29 in August. Tunsil now makes $25 million a season. Brown makes … $16 million. There’s reporting from Aaron Wilson that the Chiefs were in contact with the Texans, though Ian Rapoport said that trade talk on Tunsil was never “real.”
Now the Texans would have had to overpay Brown to get him here — I think it’s very clear in free agency that there is a loser tax that must be paid. But would the Texans be better off with Tunsil for $25 million a year, or, say, Brown for $20 million a year and some Chiefs draft assets? I think that’s a real question, and I don’t know if Tunsil’s market was fully explored but that probably hints at the true opportunity cost of this contract. I also wouldn’t have been too concerned about moving on from Tunsil and whiffing at this period of time because I wouldn’t mind seeing what Tytus Howard could do with a large sample at left tackle before he hits free agency.
The other thing about this contract is that it feels eerily like the Cooks contract that blew up in Caserio’s face. A three-year extension with a lot of guaranteed money up front for someone who is reaching the twilight of their prime years. Now, Cooks straight up wanted out, which I don’t think is a real risk with Tunsil. But a phrase that Caserio used in his Payne and Pendergast interview of “thread[ing] the needle” while doing contracts leads me to believe this isn’t exactly a long-term contract so much as something to sustain the value for now.
Ultimately there’s not actually a reason to be upset with the contract and Tunsil deserves the money. My only concern is that it stands firmly against a depressed market and there might have been a way to go about it that got you more value.
The end of the Brandin Cooks Culture Era
Rational: This is a massive loss for Nick Caserio and there’s not really a way to spin it otherwise. He was the one who brokered this extension. I don’t know that I would entirely pin the fault on him, depending on what he knew and when he knew it, because I doubt he would have fired Jack Easterby on his own and started the Culture Rebellion of 2022. It’s not his fault that Cooks reacted the way he did to that.
But in the player empowerment era — Texans fans, you may remember something about this, a certain franchise quarterback you were trying to forget about — you have to weight the cost of the relationship against the damage it can potentially do the business. Here’s what Ian Rapoport said about the trade:
Here’s what my ears focused on out of this: “He wanted his say, he wanted where he wanted to go, there was a lot here going on.” This is starting to happen a little more than you’d expect. Jalen Ramsey’s trade was much the same way — how do you trade two firsts for a guy and then wind up with a third-rounder for him a few years later? Well, you do it because that’s where Ramsey wanted to go and he got a lot of new guaranteed money out of the trade. The Dolphins didn’t have a ton of assets to offer. The player picked the trade more than the team did. And I think if you read between the lines here, that’s kind of what happened.
Picking up any salary at all and still only getting this paltry return leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If you listen to Caserio talk about it, I think it’s pretty clear that even he knows he didn’t get great value. He hems and haws about “experts” and says that at some point you have to make deal:
At the end, it kind of feels like the Texans just got worn down and they were tired of waiting. And so, they pulled the trigger. I’m not telling you Caserio got fleeced because, well, we don’t know the whole story here. This isn’t something I’d hold against him, and it felt like a lot of it was circumstances out of his control. But it’s not a return that sparks joy.
The emotional: As I talked about with Tunsil, the market as a whole in free agency and in trades has been very slow. Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers, and JuJu Smith-Schuster all got paid reasonable deals, but nobody got a Christian Kirk contract. Lazard only really got his deal because Aaron Rodgers exists. Darren Waller fetched a third-round pick, but not a second.
You still have a DeAndre Hopkins trade waiting to happen. The Broncos have shopped both Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton. You still have Mecole Hardman and Odell Beckham Jr. hanging around in free agency. The market of teams willing to spend has been capped to some extent and they are waiting things out.
I don’t know how real it is that the Texans had a second-round pick on the table from the Cowboys for Cooks at the deadline if they ate more salary. I’m not entirely sure how much of that to believe, though I’ve heard more than one person report it. But I do think at the very least, Caserio is guilty of mistiming the market. Let’s say the two was a three, or better than anything you got in this trade by two rounds. I think it’s much easier to get someone to pay in-season, when football teams really do become prisoners of the moment, then it is in the offseason when there are unlimited possibilities. The Steelers got a second-round pick for a bad team from Chase Claypool. There’s absolutely no way that would have happened this offseason, especially after the Bears reeled in D.J. Moore as part of their trade down. There’s no way the Bills would give up a fifth-round pick for Nyheim Hines today. Those are prisoner of the moment trades, where someone talked themselves into this being the best available option they had right now. In much the same way that in dynasty football leagues, my draft picks matter a lot more to me in the offseason than they do when I’m one game behind the leader and need a better running back.
And I do think there was an opportunity to do more of that with Dallas, though I wouldn’t get hung up on the idea of the second-round pick. I’d also happily eat more money for a better pick because, well, the 2023 Texans have much more of a chance to be good than the last two years in my opinion … but it’s not a high enough chance to make me not want better draft picks.
Ultimately, and this may be a little vindictive by me — if that was the best return I could get, Cooks is free to just sit out the season. I’m already eating 1/3rd of the contract anyway. I get the need to do right by the player, and I’m not going down the locker room cancer discourse that his teammates have already vociferously defended him from. But if Cooks is such a good locker room guy, such an excellent culture fit, perhaps he can get over it and deal with the fact that this is a new team, with a new offense, likely with a better quarterback, and he is making $18 million so he better show up? Because there’s no way this trade makes the Texans better. It just doesn’t. This is just a trade to get rid of a headache.
Caserio mentioned that quote-unquote better deal in his comments on Payne and Pendergast — he also noted that they had conversations with Cooks after DeMeco Ryans was brought on board. I respect that. But I don’t see a real downside to keeping him if that’s all I’m getting … unless he knows something that I don’t, which could very well be the case.
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.
Emerging from the latest disaster of a Houston Texans season with yet another fired coach under his charge — yes, I’ve heard the tea leaves that he didn’t hire them entirely, but the decision still resides on his record — Nick Caserio did something a little out of character for his tenure in Houston on Monday evening. He talked to the press at NRG Stadium, after Cal McNair said that ownership would have a bigger role in hiring this head coach, and he sounded like a man who had been shaken about his convictions.
Caserio can’t help but dress everything up in Business Jargon Word Salad when he talks, it’s just part of who he is. But beyond dropping the greatest hits like “best interests of the organization” and talking vaguely about processes and organizations, he had to admit that where the process has gotten them is not good enough.
Now, that in and of itself isn’t a news flash. Caserio has admitted several times over the last calendar year that various things haven’t been good enough when asked about it. But he came into this presser and made that a focal point. Something he referred to himself without being prompted by the press. Something that got circled back to in several answers. And, in a surprising twist, referred to himself as someone who very well might lose his job if a new coach comes in and doesn’t think much of his work.
The way that Caserio answered some of these questions, where he speaks about guiding ownership, talked about a bigger tent in the decision-making process, proving counsel — he’s talking like he is the head coach search committee for the team rather than someone who has supreme power. This was not the confident Nick Caserio who vowed to Go Down Swinging after David Culley was fired and talked about philosophical differences. This was not the guy that boasted that he wanted to be on the headset because he’d done it his whole life and didn’t look at it as a title thing.
This was not a talk about being in a better position than they were last year, like it was after firing Culley:
It was a wild shift in tone. Hell, it was a wild shift in tone even from the little press clips they let out after firing Lovie Smith, where they talked about creating a long-term future of the franchise. This was a guy who sounded like he’d already gone down swinging.
I particularly wanted to juxtapose these two answers together. Here’s Nick Caserio’s opening press conference from his introduction in 2021:
It wasn’t much of a concrete promise — there’s that vagueness again — but there was optimism in that answer. The small foundation was part of it, as well as the character of the team later on in the presser. Let’s compare that to what happened here:
“I don’t know if it guarantees results … nothing’s guaranteed, I mean, we’ve seen that, really — a lot of things aren’t guaranteed on a day-to-day basis. We can’t take anything for granted … all we’re guaranteed is an opportunity … the clock is ticking, time is short.”
How can you listen to that answer and have any belief that this man believes what he’s doing will matter?
I’ve been trying to wrestle with my own feelings about this presser for a few hours. It’s not like I want Caserio to fail — I did write most recently that he should feel some heat for this, but it’s not like I thought it would happen this soon or feel like every move he’s made has been bad. I’m earnestly surprised we’re seeing this situation this offseason. Lovie Smith being fired after one season was so predictable that I’m surprised anybody even bothered to care — even when it happened, I was surprised that local media bothered propping up narratives like “Lovie won the press conference!” — but this felt like a public admission that the last two years have been the complete waste of time I’ve been saying that they are. The only thing that matters are the draft picks and the youth, and neither of them have developed in a home run sort-of-way exempting maybe Dameon Pierce.
In many ways I felt like I was watching someone quit without actually quitting. And, well, depending on what happens from here, that can be a good thing or a bad thing for this franchise. I’d love to tell you I have more certainty about what happens when Texans ownership takes the wheel. It certainly doesn’t sound ideal on paper. But as is usually the case with these things, it depends on who they hire to run things. Caserio by his own admission sounds like an ancillary figure in the proceedings.
We can only hope that ownership hires the right person to turn this team around, as we have hoped since the day it was obvious Bill O’Brien was in over his head.