In retrospect, maybe we all should’ve paid a little more attention on April 2.
That was the day that former Patriot culture coach Jack Easterby—who chose to walk away from New England in the aftermath of Robert Kraft’s solicitation charge—was hired by the Texans as their executive vice president of team development, choosing Houston from a host of NFL options he had for 2019. It was also the day, evidently, that the wheels started spinning on what would go down late in the day last Friday.
Now that this is over, and the Texans have fired GM Brian Gaine, Houston is head coach Bill O’Brien’s operation more than it’s ever been. Which is interesting, because that’s exactly what we were all saying when Gaine was hired from Buffalo 17 months ago.
So here’s the takeaway from the Texans stunner: The NFL is a coach’s league.
In New England, Easterby’s title was character coach/team development, and some characterized his role as the team’s “life coach.” He touched a little bit of everything on the football side of the franchise and, just as important, graded it all for Bill Belichick. As one ex-co-worker there described him, “He’s smart as sh--, has really good perspective on a lot of things, and is an incredible resource for the head coach.”
Those who know Easterby swear it’s unfair to see him as O’Brien’s assassin. That’s not who he is as a person, they say. But it’s not hard to see where those on Kirby Drive were adding Easterby’s old job description to his new title, and figuring that everyone could be on notice. Predictably, tension followed.
Just as clear was who was responsible for his hire.
Easterby landed in Houston two months ago because O’Brien wanted him badly—badly enough for the Texans to outbid the Panthers and Dolphins, among others, for his services. As a result, Easterby got the EVP title. Subsequently, Easterby’s hire quietly set into motion an unofficial assessment, top to bottom, of where Houston’s football operation stood.
Again, the NFL is a coach’s league. The four coaches who played in the conference championships in January—Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Sean McVay and Belichick—all carry a big stick in their respective organizations, and it doesn’t stop at the white lines. If you have a good one, and the Texans believe they do, chances are that guy’s voice will resonate. Accordingly, history tells us sustained winners generally empower their coaches.
While the McNair family surprised many by siding with O’Brien in his power struggle with former GM Rick Smith in early 2018, it was never hard to figure the logic. And just as O’Brien won over Smith, 15 months later, O’Brien got Easterby, which would ultimately lead to a second GM being pushed out in a span that encompassed all of 17 games for the franchise.
What’s next? If you follow the above breadcrumbs, Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ VP of player personnel, is next. Or at least, that would be the outcome the Texans would want. We’ll explain.
In this week’s MMQB, we’re going to …
• Talk to Norv Turner about the status of his quarterback, Cam Newton, following shoulder surgery.
• Fill in some details on Joe Douglas’s arrival as Jets general manager.
• Explain why the Eagles did great in the Carson Wentz deal.
• Ask a Patriot captain why this offseason feels much different from last year’s offseason.
• Review the Tyreek Hill situation in Kansas City.
• And much, much more.
But we’re starting with another team betting on its head coach, and why that bet might land the Texans a GM candidate who has eluded so many other teams.
One thing that should be made clear: Gaine didn’t deserve this fate—and I think even O’Brien and Easterby would probably concede that. Gaine signed a five-year deal in January 2018. He got Tyrann Mathieu in on a discount in free agency. Despite not having first- or second-round picks in the 2018 draft, he got production from a rookie class that included promising receiver Keke Coutee and safety Justin Reid. The Texans went 11–5 and won the AFC South.
Yes, Deshaun Watson took a beating behind a weak offensive line, but that was as much as a result of the team’s awkward spot in the anthem situation of 2017, which led to the forced trade of franchise left tackle Duane Brown, as anything.
So with that established, why would the Texans pull the plug? Fit. Alignment. O’Brien’s vision for the franchise. And, perhaps, the opportunity to do what teams have failed to for the last half-decade—pry Caserio from New England.
Along those lines, here is some of what I know about this offseason and where things are going from here in Houston …
• There wasn’t disagreement over the Texans’ handling of Mathieu or Jadeveon Clowney, both of whom had contracts expiring. The brass was well-aware of Mathieu’s desire to become the highest-paid safety in football again, and the team wasn’t going there if it got to that point, which it did. As for Clowney, the team was open to doing a deal last year on its terms. That didn’t happen, so the Texans franchise-tagged Clowney this year, making it so they’d have to go into the $20-million-per stratosphere to sign him long-term.
• The coaches have been happy with Mathieu’s replacement, Tashaun Gipson, who came at about half the price for which the Honey Badger went to Kansas City.
• O’Brien is a big fan of Alabama State OT Tytus Howard, and the scouts were thrilled to draft him, regardless of whether he was taken higher than the league consensus. Meanwhile, second-round OT Max Scharping has already impressed, as has third-round TE Kahale Warring.
• That said, if there was a criticism of Gaine’s final draft in Houston, it may tie to that league consensus and the possibility he could’ve gotten Howard a little later on. The Texans didn’t make a single draft-day trade—they had an extra second-rounder from the Brown deal, and moved their fourth-rounder and swapped sevens with Denver in the Demaryius Thomas trade. One can argue that if Texans loved Howard, it wasn’t worth losing him (especially given the need), but the lack of trades is absolutely relevant given that O’Brien and Easterby came from an organization that’s routinely trade-happy on draft weekend.
• O’Brien and Caserio (offensive coaches together in 2007, O’Brien’s first NFL season) are very close. Easterby and Caserio are very close. And here’s one thing I found interesting—three guys that know all involved well told me over the weekend that they saw O’Brien as good a fit for Caserio as a coach as Caserio’s college teammate, Josh McDaniels. Or maybe an even better fit.
• Perception has long held that Caserio won’t leave New England. But he’s come closer than people think—and he really considered taking the Dolphins job in 2014. The deal breaker there? Owner Steve Ross wasn’t going to let him fire Joe Philbin and bring in his own coach, I’m told. Which explains how important being set up with the right coach is for Caserio.
• Caserio’s position in New England may not be what some would consider a “real GM job,” because Belichick has final say. But he’s been given a broad set of responsibilities, which he may not be able to duplicate in every other situation. One part of the job that Caserio loves is his role as a quasi-coach—he’s actually on the headset, from the booth, with McDaniels during Patriots games. So going to a place where he can shape the job as he sees fit, and with a coach who understands what he does, could certainly be a factor.
• Easterby’s whereabouts the day before Gaine’s firing? Brookline, Mass., for the Patriots’ ring ceremony. Caserio and Easterby hanging out there isn’t huge news, because, again, they’re good friends. But it certainly stands to reason that Caserio’s future may have come up as they.
Now, add that up. The Texans hardly face-planted under Gaine, who’s got a strong rep in scouting circles and is very well-liked, nor was there massive philosophical disagreement on any one move. But—and this is a big but—in January 2018, when Gaine was hired, it looked like Easterby was going to Indianapolis with McDaniels, and the Patriots denied the Texans permission to talk to Caserio (and college scouting director Monti Ossenfort).
Since then? Easterby became available. And soon enough, we’ll find out if Caserio did too. Maybe this winds up being Ossenfort (who’s well-respected) or even someone like Scott Pioli (who had Easterby in Kansas City). But I’d be surprised if either of those guys landed the job without making a hard run at Caserio first.
That is, assuming something isn’t quietly done already.
This week, Cam Newton will practice for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in January. And no, it won’t be full-on practice, but the fact that he’ll be out there throwing is significant for a franchise that’s been waiting for five months to see its quarterback actually sling it to his teammates again. Every step’s important, and this is a big one, even just for the symbolism.
“He’s really attacked this rehab, and he’s done everything he could possibly do physically to get back to where he is with the shoulder,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said Sunday morning. “The rehab’s gone great. Obviously, part of it he did on his own, a big part of it, before we got back. But since April 20 or so, when we got back, he’s been totally engaged, both physically and mentally.
“It’s been fun to watch him. He’s very serious about the rehab, but he’s been Cam. Everyone likes being around him. He brings energy every day, and he’s very helpful with the young quarterbacks.”
Throughout his rehab, he has, quietly, been working on throwing. A couple weeks ago, a rogue amateur cameraman caught him tossing it around during a rehab session, and the video went viral. The truth is, by then, he’d been doing that for a while.
“He’s been throwing—spot throwing—for the last month,” Turner said. “And this will be a chance to get out and throw individual, and potentially throw to some new receivers. The whole plan is to be ready when camp starts. There’s only so much can do, without throwing. And he’s really grown there, without being able to throw.
“It’s been good for him to concentrate on the mental part of it. And it’s good that the other three [quarterbacks] have gotten the reps.”
It’s easy to forget now, but there was a point last year where Turner had Newton rolling in a revamped offense. At midseason, the Panthers were 6–2, and the QB’s passer rating was 100.8, buoyed by a 15-4 TD-INT ratio. Even as the team slipped from there, Newton’s rating rose to 103.7 (22-7 TD-INT) at the end of November. The wheels came off thereafter, as the team had to manage Newton, first giving him Wednesdays, then Wednesday and Thursdays off.
“The hardest part for all of us was that middle stretch where we were still playing really good offense, and he was limited on Wednesdays and Thursday,” Turner said. “It’s really hard to play at a high level if you’re not practicing those days, he’d only get Friday. But Week 11, we play Seattle, and he’s still 14-of-14 at the half, and finishes 25-of-35, taking us up and down the field, and playing at a high level. But it catches up to you when you can’t practice. Hopefully that’s behind us.”
As Turner said, the plan is to have Newton throwing without limitation when the team reports to Spartanburg, S.C. for training camp in six weeks. Hopefully, the offense will pick where it left off before Newton got hurt as one of the more innovative and diverse attacks in football.
“His second year in a system, there was change for Cam last year, change for me,” Turner said. “With the young players, their second year, we should see some real growth—D.J. [Moore], and Curtis Samuel, and even Christian [McCaffrey]. I think that we can be a really, really explosive offense, and his ability to do so many things makes it really hard for defenses, and we’ll still mix some things in where he’s the featured ballcarrier. We know it starts with him.”
That it will again is a big win for Carolina.
JOE DOUGLAS AND THE JETS MAKE IT OFFICIAL
I said this when the Jets fired Mike Maccagnan, and I’ll say it again now. For all the pain the Jets went through to get here—the bad press, the outsized contract for a first-time GM, the awkward offseason, all of it—there’s a better-than-good chance that hiring Joe Douglas will be worth it.
That’s because Douglas is among the most respected scouts, at any level, in all of football, and one of the few who you really never hear anything negative about. To try and illustrate that, I hit up the last two guys he worked for to get their feedback on Sunday.
“Joe is so prepared for this opportunity,” Eagles EVP of football operations Howie Roseman said, via text. “He’s been with three great organizations and contributed to [Super Bowl]-winning rosters. He knows what it looks like on and off the field. He’ll take some from everywhere and put his own spin on it. He’s a great listener but also passionate about what he believes in.”
“Start with being an excellent evaluator—not just good at accurately grading players, but also painting a picture of the player to everyone in the room,” texted Bears GM Ryan Pace. “Joe is great with the coaches. Great listening to everyone’s opinions and being respectful as you go through the process of establishing final grades on players.
“His personality and disposition is unique in that he’s very likable, yet he’s not afraid to stand his ground and strongly convey what he believes in. … Throw in high-end work ethic and you have someone that’s going to be successful in the GM position for the Jets.”
With that established, a few leftovers from the process during the last few weeks in Florham Park, N.J. …
• We mentioned it before, but one of Douglas’s greatest strengths comes with his Rolodex. Connected in the scouting community like Chris Ballard was going to Indianapolis two years ago, Douglas should be able to build a robust department. The first two names I’d keep an eye on are the two rising stars he poached from Baltimore upon getting to Philly: director of player personnel Andy Weidl and director of college scouting Ian Cunningham. Maybe Roseman lets him take one of the two. Among the other names that have been out there as possibilities to join Douglas in Jersey are Chicago’s Champ Kelly (who interviewed for the Jets’ job) and ESPN’s Todd McShay.
• One name that’s an important one going forward: Hymie Elhai. The SVP of business affairs and general counsel has been more active in football operations of late, and is one of three now (joining Douglas and Adam Gase) reporting directly to ownership. How Elhai fits into the overall framework figures to be one element to watch going forward—he was right there with Gase and owner Christopher Johnson in the interview process, which is a pretty clear indication of where he stands in the organization.
(Quick update: I'm told Elhai actually reports within the Jets structure to team president Neil Glat on the business side. But as we said, he’s been more involved in football ops and has the ear of ownership as well.)
• The Jets were prepared for Douglas to turn them down. The team was talking contract figures with Seattle director of player personnel Scott Fitterer’s camp as they were negotiating with Douglas, which was smart business. Fitterer impressed them enough to where they were comfortable with the idea of hiring him. In the end, they got their first choice, and certainly Gase’s first choice.
• I’d consider the six years on Douglas’s deal vital, mainly because of the lingering unknown of how secure the new GM would be when Woody Johnson returns from the UK, which could happen as soon as next year. It’s also interesting that Douglas’s deal goes two years past the four-year deal Gase signed in January.
• Don’t weep for the Eagles. Howie Roseman’s stocked his staff well, and ex-Browns exec Andrew Berry was hired in part because Philly knew it would probably lose Douglas sooner rather than later. The challenge for Roseman now will be deciding who to let go with Douglas to New York, particularly when a couple of those guys have deals expiring after this season (meaning they could just walk after next year’s draft).
• My belief is that Sam Darnold’s presence was a significant draw for the candidates involved, mitigating some of the pratfalls that were on the display the last few months. So interestingly enough, the trade that Maccagnan and VP of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger made in March 2018, their most impactful move in four years there, wound up being a catalyst to finding the right people to replace them.
And ultimately, I’d say between Douglas and the guys he’ll likely bring with him, the Jets have done just that. All’s well that ends well, I guess.
1. We’re going to have more on Carson Wentz’s contract extension this week, but this is a big win for the entire Eagles organization—and a good sign for where he is coming back off last year’s back injury. As I’ve heard it, there wasn’t any sort of breakthrough moment during organized team activities. He’s just been himself again (if a little leaner physically), and that’s enough. The four-year, $128 million extension with $66 million fully guaranteed at signing should be taken as it appears, the team doubling down on the quarterback they invested so much draft capital in three years ago.
At the same time, if the Eagles are right about Wentz health-wise, the deal should age exceptionally well. At a time when quarterbacks having been topping one another at crazy rate—from Andrew Luck to Derek Carr to Matthew Stafford to Jimmy Garoppolo to Kirk Cousins to Matt Ryan to Aaron Rodgers to Russell Wilson—Wentz didn’t move that needle. His $32 million average fell $3 million short of Wilson, and when you fold in the two existing years (and add $4.4 million in leftover cap debt), the Eagles will be managing an average of under $27 million per year against their cap between now and 2024, which is pretty reasonable considering the current value of franchise quarterbacks.
The alternative? Waiting til next year, which would be risky. If Wentz were to have the year the Eagles think he might, then it’d be hard not to justify giving him a market-topping deal. And if Patrick Mahomes’s new contract gets done first (he’s eligible for one in January), that market could be close to $40 million per). So, in the end, this was smart business for Philadelphia and for Wentz—who gets life-changing money, mitigates injury risk and will be in line for a third contract in his early 30s.
2. I was at Patriots’ minicamp last week, and it struck me how quiet this offseason has been for them, as compared to last year. I asked Matthew Slater, who’ll probably be a Patriot captain for the ninth time, about it on Wednesday.
“Around here, around anywhere, you lose a Super Bowl, you have a broken feeling,” Slater said, referencing early 2018. “A lot of things up in the air, you have to see how your team’s going to respond. And certainly for us to finish the season the way we did last year, it left everyone with a good feeling. But we gotta turn the page. We’ve done such a good job around here of turning the page, living in the moment. There’s a lot of change going on around here this year, we got a lot of work to do. We’ve always tried to ignore that noise. Yeah, I think the feeling around this team is a little bit different. But for us, it’s always going to be the same.”
And so then I asked him then if he’s noticed it externally, too. “In talking to friends that live locally, they’re pleased with the way things ended last year, they’re excited, lot of gratitude, which we certainly appreciate,” Slater said. “But for this team, the hunger is the same. It’s a new year, this is not last year’s team, our thought process is the same. It always is this time of year.”
3. One name to watch in New England: Jamie Collins. The ex-Browns linebacker has lost weight, and his play speed has caught the attention of the staff in the spring. And the interesting thing with him is that, when the Patriots traded him to Cleveland in October 2016, there was feeling that he was too caught up in his contract situation. At that point, he’d made about $3 million as a pro football player. Over the last two years alone, he made $27 million. So … that’s less of a concern now.
4. The NFL and the Chiefs remain in wait-and-see mode on Tyreek Hill, after the criminal charges in his child abuse case were dropped. The league is deferring to the child protective services proceeding involving Hill’s young son as of right now, and will wait for the green light from the Kansas Department of Children and Families to interview Hill. The Chiefs, as a matter of course, are staying out of the way of the league’s investigation, and Hill remains home, on a form of paid leave.
As we’ve said before, the fact that Hill is even on the roster right now is because of the level of player he is. I feel comfortable saying there’s no way that the Chiefs, or any other team, would stick by a player with Hill’s history through a situation like this one, if that player wasn’t a cornerstone on the field. So, really, we are where we were in the NFL a few years ago—if a player is deemed replaceable (hello, Kareem Hunt), teams will take a stand. If he isn’t replaceable, well, then due process is necessary.
5. The 49ers’ two-year extension for Joe Staley was another reminder of the job former GM Scot McCloughan did in his five years in San Francisco. Incredibly, three of the first four first-round picks McCloughan had, all taken between 2005 and ’07, are still in the NFL: Staley, quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis. And the fourth, linebacker Patrick Willis, was probably the best of the group. And two others from those three classes (Frank Gore and Delaney Walker) are also still playing. Staley, by the way, was part of a trade with New England, who wound up with the Niners’ 2008 first-round pick as a result and, after a trade down, took Jerod Mayo (who, as you may have read on Thursday, could wind up being the Patriots de facto DC this year). Safe to say that one worked out for everyone.
6. The Cardinals’ rookie receiver haul of Andy Isabella, Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson (all taken within the first 175 picks) got the attention of a lot of people, but the spring has shown that those guys are gonna have to fight for their playing time. Word is, second-year pro Christian Kirk has been the best receiver on the roster this spring, and low-end free-agent acquisition Damiere Byrd has been a very tough cover in OTAs. What does this mean? Kliff Kingsbury and Co. could have some tough calls coming down the pike on who to keep on the roster—which of course is a good problem to have.
7. John Ross will have to prove he can stay healthy, but the ninth pick in the 2017 draft has shown the new Bengals staff good things so far. In particular, the coaches have been pleasantly surprised by the change-of-direction skills he flashed, on top of the speed everyone knows about. Add to that what looks like a good free-agent pickup in guard John Miller, promising signs from rookie tackle Jonah Williams and tight end Drew Sample, and good springs from Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd, and it looks like Andy Dalton’s going to have every chance to show Zac Taylor and Co. he’s worth committing to beyond the 2020 season, when his contract expires.
8. Name to watch in Green Bay going into minicamp, and training camp: Second-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The 6' 4", 206-pound 24-year-old is faster than the new staff anticipated he’d be, and has quickly picked up Matt LaFleur’s system, which is significantly different than Mike McCarthy’s. You know how big Aaron Rodgers’s arm is, and the Packers quarterback hasn’t been able to overthrow him in OTAs. Add Valdes-Scantling’s emergence to Jimmy Graham surprising the staff with his still-there movement skills, and it looks like Green Bay is going to have ways to take the pressure off No. 1 receiver Davante Adams.
9. Everyone’s eyes will be on Clelin Ferrell in Oakland early in the season, but he may not be the only Raider rookie defensive end to make an impact—keep an eye on fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby. As always, with linemen, you have to wait for the pads to go on to make any sweeping judgment, but the coaches have been impressed with the Eastern Michigan product’s work ethic and motor, and he’s shown enough potential off the edge to where it’s expected that when we get to August he’ll be competing for a serious role in Paul Guenther’s defense.
10. When Dallas media asked Randall Cobb about his new home a few weeks ago, he said, “I feel like a little kid—lost.” But he hasn’t looked that way to the coaches there. I’d expect to hear out of minicamp this week that Cobb is carrying significant momentum into the summer, in part because he’s been such a pro early on. And if it works out, the 28-year-old’s acquisition could look like a coup for the Cowboys’ front office. Signed to a one-year, $5 million deal, Cobb replaces Cole Beasley in the slot (with versatility to play outside. Beasley got a four-year, $29 million deal in Buffalo that will net him more than twice ($11.4 million) what Cobb will make in Dallas this year. What separated the two value-wise was durability. Beasley’s only missed one game over the last five years. Cobb has missed 11 games over the last three years.
… OF THE WEEK
“I don’t think anybody knows what it’s like to be me, what I go through on a daily basis. Like, every single thing I have to deal with, that’s something that nobody else I feel like has to deal with. I feel like I’m in a way different position than anybody else in the NFL. I feel like I deal with more. I take more. There’s things I’ve done in the past. But as a man I’ve tried to grow a lot and tried to put a lot of stuff behind me, and it’s like it just keeps getting brought up.’”
Browns WR Odell Beckham. Beckham’s a great player, but that’s not the reason why he’s picked apart the way he is. He’s called attention to himself in the past, and that’s fine—a lot of it has helped build a brand off of which he’s profited handsomely, and he should be applauded for that. But you can’t do that, then act surprised when people make a big deal out of what you do. That’s just the life of a star, and it’s not unique to this particular 26-year-old.
Terrelle Pryor was actually in his third NFL season when that happened—and he’s been in the league a year longer than Nick Foles. Which is crazy to think about.
Takes one to know one.
This is pretty fair, from old injury guru Will Carroll.
That’s a championship effort. (Key, always, is being able to open your throat.)
Warriors coach Steve Kerr wins again.
I don’t need to add much to that one.
Not sure what the best part was—the cameraman’s instigation, that an undercard broke out 20 seconds in, or that Stone Cold Steve Austin’s walk-up music kicked in as if it was planned. A-plus all the way around.
I’m with Will Brinson on this—all for Apple making Patrick Mahomes the new Siri.
Brady should make this happen.
S/O TO …
The Bears, for making Gayle Sayers a prominent part of their 100th anniversary weekend. Sayers was diagnosed with dementia five years ago, and traveled 130 miles from his home in Indiana to be there, where he got a rousing round of applause from the crowd.
“That’s a tough thing,” Bears legend Dick Butkus told the media there. “I call and check on him quite frequently, and it’s a sad deal. You’ve just got to be thankful with what you’ve got. I’ve got my problems with neuropathy and my balance. But I’ve got no pain. At least I still know who I am. I’m happy about that.”
Those are pretty chilling words—at least I know who I am—to hear from one football legend about another. I can’t imagine how an NFL player would process that. But good for the Bears being comfortable making Sayers such a prominent part of the weekend, even though his presence reveals some ugly truths about the game.
SIX FROM THE SIDELINE
1. It’s not often that you watch an athlete and say, that guy is good at everything. Kawhi Leonard, the way he’s playing right now, is good at everything.
2. If this how it ends for the Warrriors, what a weird way to go out. I still think they can compete without Kevin Durant. But they aren’t as deep as there were pre-Durant, and the super teams that come out of this summer will not make it easier on them.
3. The U.S. men’s national team’s loss to Venezuela on Sunday ... wasn’t great.
4. Rafael Nadal won his 12th French Open, his 18th Grand Slam title, on Sunday. And I don’t know how I missed this before, but it wowed me—Roger Federer (20), Nadal (18) and Novak Djokovic (15) are 1-2-3 all time in Grand Slam titles. Pete Sampras won 14. Bananas.
5. Frank Gore Jr. committing to Florida Atlantic as he heads into his senior year of high school makes me feel old.
6. Game 7!
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The NFL never sleeps—and this week’s fallout was this column getting blown to smithereens on Friday night, when the Texans fired Gaine and Jets announced the Douglas Hire ... as I was with my family at the Island Creek raw bar in Duxbury, Mass. (I was the anti-social jerk carrying my Sankaty Light out to the docks so I could get phone service.)
While the league really shuts down for a month starting a week from now, football never really stops. Three years ago, the Andrew Luck contract broke during this break. The year before that, Jason Pierre-Paul had a pretty bad mishap with some fireworks.
Whatever happens, we’ll have you covered here at the site. We’ll have some pretty cool quarterback stuff (originally planned for today) in Thursday’s Game Plan. And we’ll see you then.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.