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How Jack Easterby Held on, and Why Deshaun Watson Might Slip Away From the Texans

After a disappointing season in Houston, those expecting change from ownership did not get it. Now, with an embattled executive fighting for his job—and winning—a frustrated quarterback threatening to leave, a staff in crisis and a fan base incensed, a franchise that finished 2020 in a state of constant chaos has invited more of the same.

On the eve of the finale of the Texans’ lost 2020 season, Jack Easterby preached. In the preceding weeks, as scrutiny both inside and outside the building swelled around the character coach turned acting GM, Easterby seemed to some to have been keeping a lower profile. But now, he took acting head coach Romeo Crennel’s place at the head of a team meeting.

Easterby delivered a speech that was described in multiple direct accounts as a lengthy missive intended to be rousing. The discourse centered almost entirely on Deshaun Watson, the Texans’ star quarterback at the end of a historically great—if wasted—season. Easterby, those sources said, was effusive in his praise for the quarterback, but to the dismay of many, he did not extend the same attention to: J.J. Watt, the team leader and greatest player in franchise history, who was on the verge of completing only his second healthy season in the past five years; the turmoil that engulfed the organization; the midseason firing of coach Bill O’Brien; or the future of a franchise seeking new leadership.

Easterby, in answering emailed questions from Sports Illustrated via a team spokesperson, described it as a “brief intro speech” and that “afterward, I was thanked by many players and coaches for my words.” But multiple players texted their representatives that night to describe a meandering address unlike any they’d heard. Others, one source said, left the meeting “pissed off,” believing Easterby’s only intention was to curry favor with the quarterback. Watson, if anything, was embarrassed by the show, two sources said.

Cal McNair, Jack Easterby, Deshaun Watson and the Texans' problems

Four months earlier, Watson had signed a four-year, $156 million extension that tied him to this team through 2025, when he would be 30 years old. But throughout the season, two sources close to Watson say, his frustration grew. Watson was told by team owner Cal McNair he would have input in the search for the franchise’s next general manager and head coach, and the two talked on multiple occasions through the season’s final weeks.

Watson told McNair he wanted to create a “winning culture” in Houston, similar to his experience in college at Clemson, where he won a national title in 2016. He also sought for the franchise decision-makers to “get on the same page,” ending the division created and flamed since Easterby’s arrival in 2019. Watson even made his critiques more public, saying of the organization at his press conference after the season-ending loss to Tennessee: “There’s no real foundation in view.”

The Monday after the season ended, Watson took off for a vacation in Mexico to think about his future. What he didn’t know was that a plan was already underway—one that was not born out of his input or that of multiple high-ranking team executives, prominent consultants or the search firm McNair had paid handsomely to choose the team’s new leaders.

Rather, the person accompanying McNair on a flight out of town Monday morning was the one the owner had asserted would not be part of the team’s search committee, and whose future he said would be decided by the next GM: Easterby. They were en route to pick up the man Easterby had suggested to a Texans employee the previous week that Houston would hire as GM, Patriots personnel executive Nick Caserio. Watson, along with the rest of the world, learned of this news on social media Tuesday night. Dismayed, he decided to ponder his future poolside rather than check in with team brass.

Meanwhile, an incensed fan base was coming to terms with the fact that the embattled executive who played a major role in fueling the Texans’ current state of disarray appeared to have wedged his way into the owner’s plans. But based on his actions in the past week, according to some at team headquarters, Easterby seemed to be scrambling—and ultimately succeeding—to hold onto his role in Houston. And those working and playing for the reeling franchise are left to worry about their futures with the team, as well as wonder whether an end to the chaos will ever come into sight.

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A former team chaplain turned “character coach” in New England and now Houston’s executive VP of football operations, Easterby had made a habit of asking coworkers to take his hand and pray for wisdom when making workplace decisions. He often did so with people who reported to him; some felt they had no choice but to oblige, even if this made them uncomfortable. McNair, though, strongly identifies with Easterby’s Christian faith. The two were among the last people to leave NRG Stadium the night of the season-ending loss. And, according to multiple members of the organization, with the biggest decision for the franchise’s future looming—who would lead the team moving forward—word spread throughout the building that Easterby and McNair prayed for enlightenment.

McNair said, through a spokesperson’s email, that he and Easterby had routine meetings but denied that they met after the final game. In response to a question directed to McNair asking how frequently he and Easterby pray together: “My religious beliefs don’t dictate how we play football.” Easterby, through the spokesperson, said prayer is “not a part of my daily interactions with Cal.” (The Texans did not make McNair; Easterby; Caserio; Watson; or Hannah McNair, Cal’s wife, available for interviews for this story. A team spokesperson provided an emailed list of responses to questions, including some directed specifically to Cal McNair and Easterby, to SI. Any quotes in this story attributed to McNair, Easterby or a team spokesperson were provided via email by the team spokesperson unless otherwise noted.)

The duo flew to New England to meet with Caserio the next morning. Easterby, according to multiple sources, skipped some of Monday’s exit interviews, the ones where players hand over their team-issued iPads and discuss offseason goals.

As Easterby had suggested to the employee, they did not take no for an answer, landing the GM that Easterby most coveted (a team spokesperson declined to respond to a question about this exchange). The Caserio hiring blindsided many because it did not square with the statements McNair had spent the previous month making in public. The owner emphasized publicly, including in a statement to SI, that he wanted to “make it clear that Jack is not on our internal search committee for the next GM or Head Coach.” The team also released a statement saying a star-studded group of advisers, including Hall of Fame coaches Tony Dungy and Jimmy Johnson as well as Texans legend Andre Johnson, would consult. The team now says these advisers provided only “general advice” at the start of the search and did not play a specific role in Caserio’s selection. “Nothing changed,” McNair says. “[Easterby] wasn’t a significant part of the search.”

Jack Easterby and Cal McNair

Easterby (left) and McNair.

In its pursuit of Caserio, Houston did not follow the orderly process adhered to by management consulting firms like Korn Ferry, the one the Texans hired. The Texans had announced on the team’s Twitter account each of the four prior GM interviews set up with the firm: Louis Riddick, Matt Bazirgan, Omar Khan and Trent Kirchner (the fifth, a meeting with Baltimore’s Scott Cohen scheduled for Jan. 8, was canceled after the Caserio hire).

The franchise did not publicize its meeting with Caserio. The people McNair named as being part of the search team—team president Jamey Rootes and Korn Ferry vice chairman Jed Hughes—did not meet with the candidate the team hired, the team confirmed to SI. And if the team had zeroed in on Caserio separate from the firm’s process, which included interviews with two candidates of color, they had made a sham of the good-faith efforts upon which the success of the Rooney Rule relies. A Texans spokesperson says Caserio was not on Korn Ferry’s candidate list because he was “already on Cal’s list at the start of the search. Korn Ferry had recommended Nick since 2017 and we knew their feedback.”

In Mexico, Watson was hoping to process his deep frustration, unhappy with the direction of the franchise that signed him to that nine-figure deal. He had moved quickly past the 2020 offseason trade of his favorite target and close friend, All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, the same source said. Of course, Hopkins’s departure greatly impacted the Texans’ offense. But Watson still put up MVP-caliber numbers, finishing the year with a career-high 4,823 passing yards and throwing for 33 touchdowns against only seven interceptions. As he and Watt, two of the most respected players in the NFL, walked off the field following the 41–38 Week 17 loss to the Titans, the final indignity in a 4–12 season, Inside the NFL cameras caught a dejected Watt telling the quarterback, “I'm sorry, we wasted one of your years.” Many players, according to the same sources, felt the same way as Watt—and support Watson’s doing what’s best for himself moving forward.

Watson hoped McNair would listen to him, but his disappointment went deeper than that: He’d also felt a responsibility to his teammates to use his role as the franchise QB to represent their interests to ownership. Texans players, according to one of those sources, had already decided that Watson should be the person to approach McNair and tell the owner the team needed more unified leadership and a clearer direction. Watson, according to one source close to the QB, met with McNair several times before the season’s end; they huddled almost every week. He asked the owner to include Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in the coaching search, having heard directly from Patrick Mahomes how Bieniemy had helped steer the Chiefs’ QB onto a Hall of Fame career path. The last meeting happened near the end of the season, before Watson addressed the media. When answering a question about Bieniemy as a coaching prospect, he said: “We just need a whole culture shift. ... We need a leader so we can follow that leader ... too many different ideas and too many people thinking that they have this power, and it’s not like that.”

JJ Watt and Deshaun Watson walk off the field after a Texans loss

Watt and Watson might have walked off the field together for the last time.

While on vacation Watson learned, according to the two sources, the franchise that said it wanted his perspective had not yet asked to interview Bieniemy (they would, on Jan. 12, two days after the initial interview window for Bieniemy had closed, and only after the firestorm that followed the Caserio twist in the franchise’s ongoing saga). Watson was further upset by the press conference that McNair held with Caserio, in which the owner said he had read reports that Watson was unhappy but noted he had met with Watson several times and “understood his point of view before meeting with candidates.” Watson found this response, according to another of the sources close to him, to be “patronizing.” (McNair told the Houston Chronicle in an article published Friday that he and Watson “connected over text” after the QB returned from vacation.)

On Tuesday, Johnson, the lone member of the franchise’s Ring of Honor, posted on Twitter that Watson should stand his ground, writing that “nothing good has happened” since Easterby’s hire. When Watson saw the tweet, the first for a person of Johnson’s significance to name Easterby directly, he laughed. Asked why he might find a tweet that heavy in sentiment funny, one of the people close to Watson says, “He just wants out.” Then Watson watched the Houston Rockets play Tuesday night—when he posed for a photo with Johnson, which Johnson posted to his Instagram page, reiterating the “stand your ground” message from hours earlier. Only this time, Watson was in the frame.

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Ronnie Baker ordered from the same place he got all his signs made—the print shop that provided the FIRE BILL O’BRIEN banners early in the year. A season-ticket holder for the past 12 seasons, Baker was making the trip to Indianapolis for the Texans’ Week 15 game against the Colts. He had some extended family in the area, but he was mostly going to deliver a message via two large banners. One read: “Jack Easterby Chaplain or Charlatan.” The other: “Jack Easterby Is A Snake FIRE HIM.”

Texans fan Ronnie Baker holds up a sign—"Jack Easterby Chaplain or Charlatan?"—before a Texans-Colts game

Baker unveiled his sign during pregame warmups at Lucas Oil Field.

Baker, in his red No. 32 alternate jersey (second-year defensive back Lonnie Johnson), was cheered as he unfurled the second banner for a photo op, Texans players warming up on the Lucas Oil Stadium field behind him. Then, those fans were signaling to Baker to turn around—someone on the field was trying to get his attention.

Watson, Baker says, asked him to put the sign down, saying that it was “disrespectful.” Baker, sensing that the request was half-hearted, declined, telling Watson, “I appreciate what you’re doing. You’re the leader of this team, but I’m sorry. I’m over it. He has to go.” Baker lowered it momentarily, and Watson walked away. Whether Watson felt obligated to make this request or was prodded to do so, he found himself in an uncomfortable situation shortly before playing a game.

Two sources were concerned he might have been put in such spots at the behest of another member of the organization to help Easterby, something they say has been a pervasive concern among the team. In New England, where Easterby had built strong relationships throughout the building, he was able to be a conduit between the locker room and Bill Belichick. But in Houston, these sources say, Easterby has looked for others to be this kind of conduit for him. Those people might have good intentions, says one Watson confidant. “But I also think that Jack is really thoughtful about what he’s doing and I’m not sure that everybody knows they’re involved in [his plans].”

In the season’s final weeks, Easterby’s relationships with the business side of the Texans’ operations also frayed. One person was surprised to see him sidling up to Rootes, the team president, at one of the later home games, despite a relationship that many of the same sources considered frosty. “There’s something going on with Jack and Jamey,” the person who saw them told a coworker. After the season, multiple sources heard that Rootes was considering resigning. That he did not, those same sources said, spoke to his desire to fight for an organization he had helped lead for two decades. (Rootes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Meanwhile, the fan base became more agitated. The #FireJackEasterby hashtag showed up frequently on social media and inspired one fan to design a T-shirt and mask with the slogan. Baker, and his signs, were also at NRG Stadium for the Week 16 home loss to the lowly Bengals. He displayed them pregame and security descended on him; he wouldn’t hand over the signs, but he agreed, as he always did, to put them away during the game.

When Baker left to get a beer at halftime he asked Ashley Reidy, a friend and fellow Texans fan, to watch his banner while he was gone. Their seats are directly across the field from the McNair’s box, and Reidy says that, as soon as Baker got up, security descended again.

“They asked if they could see my banner, and I said, ‘You can not. It’s not mine,’ ” she says.

Reidy is a Houston native whose father was a season-ticket holder for the Oilers; she has owned Texans season tickets since 2003, the franchise’s second season. And, through a family connection, she’s an acquaintance of Hannah McNair. They followed each other on Instagram.

She suspected Hannah had asked security to confiscate Baker’s banners when he got up, though her theory drew more of an eye roll when she told her husband. But Monday morning, Reidy had a direct message from Hannah’s now-deleted Instagram account: “I saw y’all on Sunday. Do you feel proud of yourself and your new friends? Y’all have zero basis for your charades. Easy to act that way when you know nothing.” And then she saw she had been blocked. (A Texans spokesperson did not respond to questions about Hannah’s Instagram account or any interactions she had with fans through social media.)

SI Daily Cover

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Cal McNair became the Texans’ vice chairman in 2008, marking an apprenticeship under his beloved father, Bob, who landed the expansion franchise in 1999 and returned pro football to Houston starting in the ’02 season. Over the past decade Bob McNair’s health worsened, as he endured skin cancer and a chronic form of leukemia. In 2018, Cal took over for his father as team chairman, meaning he now effectively controlled an NFL franchise. Hannah became the vice president of the Houston Texas Foundation.

Soon after, many Texans staffers began referring to Cal by a new nickname: Tommy Boy. This was a reference to the Chris Farley comedy where his character, Thomas R. "Tommy" Callahan III, is given an executive job at the family auto plant before his father dies and Tommy generally bumbles through his attempts to keep the business running. Not all his employees felt that way. One longtime staffer called him a “good man”; another said his biggest flaw was being too trusting. “Change is hard,” McNair says, “and I accept that we haven’t handled everything perfectly. I have heard our team’s frustrations and will listen, learn and commit to being better.”

Bob McNair often leaned on several close advisers. Philip Burguières, a limited partner with the franchise who later became Bob’s vice chairman, was among the most prominent, serving in that role until 2012, when Cal McNair replaced him. Rick Smith, the team’s general manager from ’06 to ’17, also served in an advisory role for the family, before he took leave after that last season to care for his wife, who had fallen ill with cancer. When Burguières died in ’16, Smith left the next year and Bob McNair died the year after that, the sequence of events left Cal at the top of the organization without a trusted right-hand person. He never hired a vice chairman and only briefly employed the team’s next general manager, Brian Gaine. Into that leadership void stepped the character coach from New England: Easterby.

Hannah McNair, wife of Texans owner Cal McNair

Hannah McNair, at the Texans' 2019 game in London.

One year after taking control of the franchise, Cal McNair made Easterby his first major hire. The new VP had been looking for an NFL home after his contract ran out in New England, and he found one in a neophyte owner who shared his faith. While players, coaches and staffers say they saw signs that the former team chaplain sought to bolster his power and increase his influence, Easterby’s sway over McNair, according to those same people, only increased. Gaine lasted only 17 months and was fired after the ’19 season. The team’s coach—and briefly de facto GM—Bill O’Brien was dismissed in October.

The relationship between Easterby and McNair was strengthened by their shared faith. The men prayed together regularly at team headquarters, reinforcing their bond. Eventually, the same players, coaches and staffers say that Easterby became the primary voice in McNair’s ear.

When SI published its original story on Easterby’s unusual rise to power and ensuing chaos for the Texans on Dec. 10, many outside the building found the details to be troubling, but few inside were surprised. If the unflattering portrayal did cause Easterby to reflect on his actions, there was no indication to colleagues. Instead, he sought to smoke out or intimidate people he believed had spoken to SI.

According to three sources, Easterby told multiple people inside the building that he had sued, or planned to sue, SI for defamation, and had therefore been provided with a list identifying all sources for that story. That is untrue: SI has not been notified of any lawsuit nor disclosed the identity of any of its sources.

Multiple people who have worked with Easterby also say that he has told people in both Houston and New England, including the McNairs, that the Kraft family, which owns the Patriots, is behind the negative press about him. Some of these people also say he has spread a story that the Krafts are investors in SI or had directly funded SI’s reporting. That is also untrue: SI has no financial relationship with the Krafts or any of their business ventures, including the Patriots. The Krafts declined SI’s interview requests for that story. Easterby denies telling colleagues that the Kraft family has an ownership stake in SI, and McNair says he does not believe SI is funded by the Kraft family.

“The [Caserio] hire made [his influence] even more clear,” says one longtime staffer, pointing to Easterby’s close relationship with Caserio and McNair’s going outside the search firm’s process to pursue him. Easterby and Caserio share an agent, Bob LaMonte, who was well positioned to direct the pursuit of Easterby’s preferred candidate.

Pro Football Talk reported a “well-timed phone call,” from LaMonte to McNair which, if true, shows how he leveraged his two clients. Easterby did not push Caserio to the Panthers as a candidate, according to a source in Carolina with direct knowledge of the search, but did give a positive recommendation when asked and said Caserio would mesh well with coach Matt Rhule.

By the time Caserio interviewed with the Panthers, though, they already had strong indications that he was nearing a deal with the Texans. In fact, only hours after the afternoon meeting, news of Caserio to Houston was widespread. While the Panthers never offered—nor had time to offer—Caserio anything more than an interview, the mere appearance of that possibility gave LaMonte the upper hand in negotiations with the Texans. McNair says he did not believe Caserio’s taking the Panthers job was imminent, but he acted quickly because Caserio was “a well-sought-after candidate and had the potential to not be on the market for long.”

Nick Caserio

Nick Caserio

Back in 2019, when Gaine’s ouster as the Texans’ GM created an opening, Easterby, according to two sources, told confidants there was something aside from roster-building experience that he liked about Caserio: He would be coming from an organization where he wasn’t in charge, so in Houston he wouldn’t expect to run everything. Easterby denies making that characterization of Caserio and adds, “It is my understanding Nick is running things here in Houston.”

Their pursuit of Caserio back then was quickly thwarted; the Patriots filed a tampering charge but dropped it when the Texans backed off—they learned a clause in Caserio’s contract prohibited him from interviewing with other teams. This time, his hiring appeared to be possibly the last avenue for Easterby to keep his job in Houston. “No legitimate person was going to walk in with [all the Texans’] baggage,” the staffer says. “They were going to say they needed a fresh start. It’s a dysfunctional environment.”

Even the star quarterback came to worry about the franchise’s leadership above Easterby. “He’s very concerned,” says one source close to him.

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Last Friday, McNair introduced Caserio as the team’s new general manager. Easterby did not join them, but his presence was felt by anyone watching the live stream on the Texans’ YouTube feed, where viewers peppered the live chat with variations of “FIRE JACK EASTERBY!,” the social-media rallying cry for the team’s fan base.

When asked, Caserio described a “really special relationship” with Easterby from their six years working together with the Patriots. McNair added that Easterby is “very gifted in a lot of different areas,” though he didn’t specify which areas. His continued role in the organization seemed to be affirmed.

In recent days, Easterby seemed to be scrambling again. Reports about Watson’s rift with the organization sent seismic waves through Houston over the weekend, and Johnson’s tweet Tuesday afternoon was an unexpected aftershock. It wasn’t just because Johnson is a beloved franchise legend; he’s just as well-known for his quiet demeanor. Some joked that the last time Johnson displayed this kind of fire publicly was during one of his on-field tussles with rival cornerback Cortland Finnegan. But people who have worked with Johnson say his tweet was not the first time he’d expressed distrust of Easterby and believe that it was one factor in his distancing himself from the organization in recent months. (Johnson declined an interview request through his publicist. When asked whether the organization has a response to Johnson’s tweet, McNair said, “No, but we feel Andre’s passion.” McNair answered a question about whether Watson would be in a Texans uniform next season and whether he had asked for a trade with, “Deshaun is our quarterback. We handle all personnel conversations directly with our players.”)

According to multiple sources, Easterby has reached out to several players this week with a personal plea. Often through tears, he’s shared accounts of his receiving death threats and his family’s having to relocate to a hotel. He implored these players to support him to prominent Texans, like Watson, or publicly, these sources say.

“I have called players to see how they’re doing and check in, per normal process,” Easterby says. “I have not asked anyone to speak to Cal or Deshaun on my behalf. I ask players to tell the truth when asked.” He adds that, for security reasons, he cannot address SI’s question about death threats.

At least one person Easterby called did not take him at face value. And, as one longtime staffer noted, there are some people worried for Easterby’s safety and others who doubted him, which, to the staffer, reflects how his credibility has eroded in Houston and the culture of mistrust the once-celebrated character coach has stoked.

Caserio is an experienced personnel executive, something the Texans haven’t had in a while. With a six-year deal believed to be worth between $5 million and $6 million per year—making him one of the three highest-paid GMs in the league, as a first-timer—he isn’t going anywhere. He will hire the team’s next head coach. But he also must grapple with the rebuild of a 12-loss roster that lacks salary-cap space ( projects Houston to be nearly $18 million above the projected 2021 cap) and draft capital (the third pick, earned with a season-ending five-game losing streak, belongs to the Dolphins). And he must manage an organization that’s well aware of his ties to the unpopular executive who brought him in, as well as the frustrated franchise quarterback.

With Watt a candidate to be traded this offseason to free up cap space, Watson seems poised to be the face of the Texans’ franchise for the next decade. If he stays, the majority of an organization will be looking to him to not only carry the team on the field, but help reset the course for the franchise as a whole, an enormous responsibility for the 25-year-old star. But if it is too late, and the organization has no choice but to trade him, the franchise will carry the burden of watching its quarterback continue his ascent in another uniform. Many who have devoted their careers to the Texans are grappling with the weight, and potential lasting effects, of these two chaotic weeks following a forgettable season.

Deshaun Watson

On Thursday, following Easterby’s alleged direct pleas to players and Andre Johnson’s expression of solidarity with Watson—and after SI emailed interview requests and a list of questions regarding details of the story—word spread through the Texans’ building that Easterby had a meeting with McNair. Past and present members of the organization braced for word on Easterby’s future with the team.

Instead, the answer came Friday in a report from the Houston Chronicle. “No,” McNair told the newspaper, when asked whether he would fire Easterby, adding that he did not believe he would resign. The article said that while Caserio will oversee roster-building, Easterby will handle other football operations, including “strength and rehab, medical, nutrition—anything involving the non-business side of the operation.” McNair called the scrutiny on Easterby “unjustified” and put on himself any franchise missteps.

Easterby says players had “reached out to me in an effort to support me. For that I’m appreciative but I’ve not asked them to speak to Cal on my behalf. I haven’t felt that was needed.” And, apparently, he was right.

“They got the owner to take the blame for everything,” says one longtime staffer. “Never heard that.”

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