What the Lovie Smith hiring really means.
The cord attaching the Houston Texans fanbase to reality is frayed and distended. The last few years were too difficult to face. Bill O’Brien was the epitome of medicority feasting on the AFC South to bloat his record, and harvested the bare minimum out of a talented roster year after year. For the majority of his time, he at least had Rick Smith to add top talent in the first round, allowing him to produce average results, and flail in the playoffs over the years. The facts weren’t faced. If only this, and next year that, his disciples continued to defend a coach who never pulled a talented franchise to the heights they should have achieved.
Houston’s downfall was the result of attrition until cataclysm. Players get old and their performance drops, and unless the talent in exceeds the talent out, things turn bloated and gray. Jonathan Joseph, and Whitney Mercilus turned Jurassic. Duane Brown was traded after a contract dispute. J.J. Watt couldn’t stay healthy. Jadeveon Clowney turned into Jacob Martin and Gareon Conley, when Houston was trying to go all in for a Super Bowl. D.J. Reader, Kareem Jackson, and A.J. Bouye left in free agency. This was all attrition.
Cataclysm happened when the Texans fired Brian Gaine, in an attempt to bring in Nick Caserio as the general manager. After tampering charges forced Houston to pullback, the Texans were without a general manager, making O’Brien work two jobs, when he couldn’t adequately execute the first. This was the comet, the great asteroid. Houston’s flat structure couldn’t circumvent extinction.
The Texans went all in for the 2019 season to blow a 24-0 lead that was handed to them in Kansas City. Then O’Brien decided to turn DeAndre Hopkins into David Johnson, Brandin Cooks, and Ross Blacklock, paid Zach Cunningham over Reader, and overpaying Eric Murray was his way to fix the secondary. This was their attempt to get over the Kansas City hurdle. Houston went 4-12 and didn’t win the close games they won the year before. Deshaun Watson asked for a trade, then the sexual assault allegations came in. Then the Texans went the 4-13, playing just like those with an objective grasp on reality expected them to play, and Houston went out to find another head coach after firing David Culley.
Houston’s luck ran out. The things those had pessimistically clamored about finally did them in: the run heavy offense, failing to run an offense that met Watson’s skillset, the awful secondary and pass defense. The end results, win and losses, matched the problems that had been masked the years before. The stadium was empty, pumped with crowd noise, the star players who were limited by the previous coaching staff were longed for, and this football team became some nihilistic cloud of unmet and lost desires.
Hope springs eternal every offseason, and for a fanbase that has been out in the desert without good news for two years, anything can be twisted and masqueraded into a positive. There’s a mask to cover any face. Houston’s inability to bring in a candidate they interviewed, and naming Lovie Smith the head coach, who didn’t even coach a competent defense in 2021, now has the big job.
This has been cause for celebration for those were dying for some semblance of normalcy. Smith went to a Super Bowl during the 2000s, he’s coached great defenses before, he knows what it takes, insert whatever cope that brings delight and optimism here. All of this is illusion. A refute from the truth. It’s a false attempt to bandage the wounds that had been bleeding all these years.
There are three aspects that of Smith’s hiring that stand out the most from an objective stand point.
First, the Texans didn’t even want to hire Smith. We were told there were four candidates who made it to the final cut: Kevin O’Connell, Jonathan Gannon, Brian Flores, and Josh McCown. O’Connell chose Minnesota, where can plug himself into an offense already built for play action and outside/wide zone running. Kirk Couins is now underrated, and the Vikings have the slew of weapons needed for him to play at a top ten level. Gannon interviewed well, but still has only coached a middling defense, most likely because of the lack of defensive backs and linebackers at his disposal. Flores runs a convoluted high blitz defense that sends quarterbacks into convulsions. After failing to hire a competent offensive staff, see George Godsey co-offensive coordinator, and fighting with the front office over the quarterback position, the team chose building aroundTu’a Tagovailoa over him. The lawsuit may have played into him being passed over in Houston, but that’s all speculation.
And finally, there’s Josh McCown, who is an FCA athlete, a Jack Easterby faith, football family, wet dream. McCown was a backup quarterback who roamed offenses all over the league, and spent a season undressed in Houston’s locker room. His only coaching experience is his son’s high school football team. It’s absurd in the NFL to hire someone for this role without NFL or collegiate head coaching experience. The hours are absurd—unless you are eating nachos and watching horror movies—and implementing a scheme and gameplan, managing a roster, and making ingame decisions are all difficult. Until you proved to have done this, you shouldn’t be hired to do it.
For whatever reason, optics, lack of talent, organizational dysfunction, we will never know, the Texans weren’t able to land anyone they had their eyes own during this process. Every option was marked out in black. Rather than start the process all over again, they looked internally, and named Smith the head coach.
Houston did what they had to do. Play this up as them getting their guy, the process being fluid, having the answer in front of their nose the entire time, and having great respect for Smith because they almost hired him in 2014 before he failed at Illinois. But the truth isn’t that. Houston’s head coaching hiring process failed. They were left with no options. They needed a head coach, and Smith was the one in house with any sort of experience.
Second, the Texans defense was abysmal under Smith in 2021. They ranked in the bottom of league in every measure except for DVOA, where they were below average at 23rd overall, because they were 11th in turnovers forced. The takeaways were expected to increase by default. Houston was 32nd in 2020 after forcing 9 for the entire season. Last year they finished 10th with 25. The Texans defense, like every defense in the history of football, was great when it forced turnovers. The problem is their play by play defense was abhorrent.
Smith is one of the rare coaches who has coached defenses who have consistently created turnovers. His Chicago teams were nearly always in the top ten in the league at stealing the football. His teams in Tampa Bay fared differently. They were average at forcing turnovers during his time there, and even jumped to second in the NFL under Mike Smith’s watch the year after he left. And don’t forget, Romeo Crennel coached two defenses in Houston that finished in the top ten in takeways.
It’s unexpected for Smith to to be this takeaway generating outlier in Houston. Once Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Julius Peppers, Tommie Harris, Danieal Manning, are in Houston, maybe then, that will change.
Turnovers are the result of taking advantage of the offense’s mistakes. The Texans did this last year. Lonnie Johnson Jr. hauled in Josh Allen missing the dig route high, playing the center of the field in cover three. His interception against New England came through a similar vein.
Interceptions like the one Kamu Gruiger-Hill had against Tennessee were less seen. Houston shows double A gap pressure, and then rolls to Cover 6. Ryan Tannehill assumes man coverage based on the pre-snap look, and throws the hook to Gruiger-Hill for the interception.
The one plus Smith provided Houston in the takeway front, was coaching his defense to punch at the ball. Terrence Mitchell provided a great punch out to save a touchdown against New England, and others did the same. The Texans also missed the fifth most tackles in the league.
Houston’s defense was exactly what we thought it would be in the preseason. It was an archaic spot dropping cover two. What you see is what you got from the Texans. Throughout the first half of the season Houston was picked apart by the intermediate corner, two on ones against their safeties, the seam, and slant routes. Pass catchers would stand flat footed and open in the middle of their zone coverage. This is what Houston’s defense looked like the first half of the season.
Lovie changed his defense up some against the Miami Dolphins. They blitzed without much success, but they finally disguised their coverages. A gap pressures rolled into something entirely different.
Their coverages changed as a result. Houston turned into more of a cover three team after the midway point of the season. The show and play cover two that Lovie started the season with failed. He switched things up to stop getting beat up the seam and along the corners, and ended up having problems against inside breaking routes.
For whatever reason, roster turnover, slowly piecing together the defense, Smith’s defense the first half of the season was absurd for a NFL team to run, with the personnel he had, and the day and age we are living in. The changes made in the second half of the season, and rotating his defense around helped matters, but play by play, it was a simple NFL defense, that was consistently beaten.
Smith didn’t get this job based on his scheme, or defensive performance the Texans had in 2021. He was awarded the job because no one was left.
Third, and finally, Smith is just a better version of David Culley. Watch Culley’s press conference last year, and Smith’s this year. The same notes and themes were hit on. A love of one’s family, there being only 32 of these jobs, reflecting on one’s high school and hometown, winning football games the right way, and running the football. It’s the same defensive scheme, the same overall strategy and culture, the difference is Smith has had success at the NFL level, and Culley was dragged behind speed boats with his foot wrapped around the handle.
This offseason the head coach hire isn’t what’s important. Getting good players is what matters. The Texans need talent more than anything. This team has maybe two cornerstone players in Tytus Howard, who should be the team’s left tackle for years to come after a Laremy Tunsil trade, and Jonathan Greenard, who could be the third best player on a good front seven. Davis Mills is still an unknown, becoming an interesting prospect by the end of the season. Roy Lopez is a nice run stopper who will start on the front seven for years. What Houston needs is young talent they can build around.
The point of concern is if Houston tries to build a defense out around Smith’s cover two defense. This defense needs coverage linebackers, and a front four pass rush more than anything. Hopefully Caserio doesn’t ignore the cornerback position because of who their head coach is right now, when it’s more than likely, he won’t coach the next good Texans team.
Here’s the reality. Firing Culley and hiring a head coach this offseason offered the chance for Houston to bring in a head coach that could grow with the Texans during the rebuild. This was the goal they were trying to accomplish, and they failed. What they acquired was a better version of the man they had the year before. Smith’s hiring shouldn’t bring out the picnic blanket. Smith’s hiring is a reflection of Caserio’s failed head coaching process. The same process that led to Culley being one and done, led to Smith being named the head coach for 2022.
We all need something to feel good about. Fill your cup once Caserio trades Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil, acquires new talent through free agency, and finally has the chance to work with top draft capital. Gloating over Lovie as the coach is merely a contorting of reality, your brain deceiving you, so you can feel something about your football team, a football team that has done nothing but let you down over the years.