Although the Houston Texans are increasingly becoming “Patriots South,” general manager Nick Caserio wanted to add an element of the Pittsburgh Steelers to the franchise.
“When you look at Coach (Mike) Tomlin, you look at the organization, basically three coaches over the course of the Rooney ownership,” Caserio told reporters on Jan. 14. “They went from Chuck (Noll) to Bill (Cowher) to Mike (Tomlin). When Mike was hired, Mike was a coordinator for one year in Minnesota. He was maybe 31-years-old and at the time, I don’t think people knew Mike Tomlin was going to not have a losing season in 15 years. I think the Rooneys saw Mike Tomlin and said, ‘You know what? That’s our guy, we believe in him and we’re going to give him the runway and opportunity.’”
The vision was clear: Houston wanted a young, dynamic coaching candidate to come in and partner with Caserio for years to come. It was the only explanation for moving off of David Culley, despite a win total that was in-line with expectations coming into the year and a group of players that clearly played hard for the career assistant with 27 seasons logged prior to joining the Texans.
The Texans’ coaching search followed closely in line with Caserio’s vision. 40-year-old Brian Flores, fresh off of consecutive winning seasons with the Miami Dolphins and with strong New England ties, was interviewed within 24 hours of Culley’s departure. Los Angeles Chargers’ offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and Florida Atlantic receivers coach Hines Steelers, who has big Steelers connections, were interviewed soon after.
Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and former backup quarterback Josh McCown emerged just a week later as the clear front runners with Flores for the job. Gannon had stunning reviews from his time in Indianapolis and Philadelphia in addition to guiding the Eagles to a top-10 defensive finish in 2021. McCown, despite no experience in coaching, clearly had a great connection with Caserio and executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby.
Despite the differences amongst the three candidates, there was a clear common thread: they were young. McCown was the oldest at 45 while Gannon and Flores are 39 and 40 years old respectively. Each would bring a dynamic voice to the locker room with the opportunity to imprint a vision that could last for years to come.
Since the announcement of the three finalists for Houston, it’s been nothing short of disaster on Kirby Drive. In a brave and unprecedented move, Flores’ moved to sue the NFL for discriminatory hiring practices following his termination as the Dolphins’ head coach. Flores stated publicly that he was still open to coaching in New Orleans or Houston but the move all but guaranteed it would be unlikely for Flores to coach in 2022.
It was rumored that Jonathan Gannon was in heavy discussions to become the next head coach however that seemingly fell apart, with an announcement on Sunday that Houston had informed Gannon he would not become the next coach. Later on Sunday, announcements came that McCown was told he would not be the next head coach in Houston.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the other shoe dropped. Lovie Smith was in discussions for the coaching position and considered a heavy favorite. The 2021 Texans’ defensive coordinator who had guided them to 25 turnovers forced, despite finishing second to last against the pass and 22nd against the rush, is now likely to be announced as Houston’s head coach any hour now.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Caserio has failed yet again in his second coaching search in two years as Houston’s general manager.
For Houston to preach their desire of finding a young candidate and interview a wide cast of up-and-coming coordinators to settle on the 63-year-old Smith is a damning indictment on Caserio. How a process lands on a candidate they had not even interviewed until the 11th hour is embarrassing and a strong example of how the Texans are viewed around the league.
Last year it was understandably hard for Caserio to hire a new coach. The Deshaun Watson situation was in limbo, the team had no first or second round pick, and nobody knew what to make of the Caserio-Easterby relationship. A year later, the organization had seemingly recovered. Houston had a great 2021 draft with their respective lack of capital, Davis Mills had progressed further than anyone expected, the team has additional draft capital for 2022 and anticipates a Watson trade with a large return following settlements in court.
Nonetheless, Caserio’s own inflexibility was enough to sink the coaching search in 2022. The vision the team so confidently preached when firing Culley has been throwaway in favor of saving face amongst failing to secure a desired candidate. Smith’s age and previous track record in the league, 8-24 during his last stop as the head coach in Tampa Bay, make it likely Houston will be searching for their sixth head coach within the next three years.
The NFL’s most hands-on general manager has nowhere to look but the mirror for why Houston could not land a top candidate this year. For as great as Caserio’s acumen for talent may be, refusing to give coaches the autonomy that generally comes with the position around the league may be a move he cannot overcome. As becoming general manager was the downfall of former coach Bill O’Brien it suddenly looks very possible that coaching selection will be the downfall of GM Caserio.
The part where he traded two first-rounders and a second-rounder for Laremy Tunsil, or the part where he traded DeAndre Hopkins for a second-rounder and David Johnson? https://t.co/QgVfqC6iZc
— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) February 7, 2022
On the surface, the Texans’ have moderately upgraded for the moment. Smith will manage games in a better manner than Culley and any offensive coordinator, including McCown, is a likely upgrade from Tim Kelly.
However, there’s no denying that Houston ultimately failed to capitalize on this moment. Flores represented redemption and immediate credibility towards the Texan’s franchise, Gannon represented young hope and a scouting background Houston lacked previously, even McCown represented the echo chamber of self-confidence the front office has in itself.
Instead, their search to bring in the next face of the franchise has turned into only an assurance that this is Caserio’s franchise more than ever.