Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Texans, a team that was on the doorstep of hosting the AFC championship game just a few long months ago and is now in search of a new coach (and possibly more). Operations are currently being run by Jack Easterby, a one-time character coach who has ascended to the upper rung of Houston’s power structure.
1. What went right this year?
The Texans took one major step toward repairing their organizational health by removing Bill O’Brien from the head coaching and general manager posts. However, as Sports Illustrated detailed in a recent investigation, it’s unclear what the qualifications and intentions of their current head of operations are. This makes gauging what the Texans did well quite difficult given that we don’t know where the organization is headed and who will be left if Easterby can continue pulling the levers.
2. What went wrong this year?
O’Brien, with Easterby’s encouragement, dealt the team’s most dynamic weapon amid a flurry of moves that were desperate and decidedly unpragmatic (we deemed the DeAndre Hopkins trade a colossal mistake at the time). The Texans were maxed out to win a championship this year but instead bottomed out due, in part, to the weight of all this administrative chaos. Now the organization is totally stripped of draft capital and won’t have a first-round pick this year to begin quickly rebuilding around franchise superstar Deshaun Watson. So much was riding on this Texans season with some of their better players rapidly reaching the end of their athletic prime. The team did not shed any more contracts at the deadline in an attempt to recoup some of that draft capital, either.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Not to belabor the point, but who is running the Texans and what is their plan? There has not been a less inspiring “offseason” so far. The Texans gave themselves an incredibly long runway to hire a coach, and all we’ve heard leaked from the process so far is that a search firm is pushing Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for the role. This is a team with one of the five best quarterbacks in the sport and yet it seems to be unintentionally self-sabotaging a coaching search that should sell itself, even with the lack of draft ammunition. Related to that point, the biggest question is how many good candidates will be scared off by the spectacle to this point. If you are a hot coordinator prospect, are you looking at this borderline Machiavellian setup with any confidence that you can bring in the players you need to win and keep them there?
4. Coach/GM outlook
Easterby is the acting GM. Romeo Crennel is the acting head coach. Will Easterby remain in place for next season, and what will his involvement be in the coaching search? This is going to be an interesting process because coaches will probably have just as many questions for ownership as ownership will have for their perspective candidates. It seems like the club is looking for someone to take the day-to-day operations from its hands, hence the attractiveness of a team president type like Easterby. Would it look at someone in the O’Brien vein who comes in with the desire to run all facets of the organization, or does it want a cog in the machine?
5. Key free agents
• Will Fuller, wide receiver
• Brennan Scarlett, linebacker
• Vernon Hargreaves, cornerback
• Gareon Conley, cornerback
• Dylan Cole, linebacker
• Michael Thomas, safety
6. Top priority
The Texans’ top priority, regardless of who takes over as head coach, will be to map the team’s near future financially and help them get into a healthier position both in terms of draft equity and cap space (The Texans are currently over the cap for 2021, according to salary cap analysis site Over the Cap, and while they can easily get back under with a few painless cuts, they will not have the kind of space to make them immediate power players in free agency.) In time, we might better understand O’Brien’s desire to cook the roster and solve all personnel deficiencies with medium-range expensive free agents. It worked for his mentor, Bill Belichick, in New England, and for a while it was good enough for O’Brien in Houston. But now all of those bills have come due, and the Texans are going to need to navigate a more pragmatic road ahead, while still supplying Watson with the help he needs.
7. Positions of need
Interior defensive line, cornerback, safety, linebacker, wide receiver, running back.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
The sensible move here would be to allow a new coach, whoever they might be, to have the option of keeping Easterby and to make that known early in the hiring process. This roster can be competitive in 2020 with fewer distractions and a more positive energy circulating around the facility if the looming idea of some coming power play is taken off the table.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
You’ve already traded Hopkins, so why not deal J.J. Watt as well? I floated this idea before the trade deadline, and, while Watt will be 32 before the start of the 2021 season with a lot of physical football behind him, you could sell it as the Texans' doing right by one of their franchise legends, allowing him to finish up his career with a competitor. Watt’s contract wouldn’t hammer the Texans with dead money (there are no guarantees left) and, at least before the season, he didn’t seem super interested in renegotiating anyway (which is not the same thing as saying he doesn’t want to play for the Texans). Is Watt going to net a first-round pick at this point? No. Might he do a little better than the compensatory return they’d get for letting him walk the year after? Yes. It would also get the Texans underneath the cap and spare them from trying to borrow money from a player like Watt, which would serve only to further perplex the fan base.
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021 with the right head coach. This is still a good roster, and, if the Texans decide to hold on to their talent, clean out their emotional cobwebs and pair Watson with a capable mind, it’s not going to be difficult to traverse a division where the Colts may be starting over at quarterback and the Titans continue to try to squeeze one gargantuan season out of Derrick Henry after another.