Houston Hoodwinked: Where there's smoke, there's fire. And NRG Stadium is figuratively ablaze with Texans problems.
Let's begin with the most recent case of ...
It was Tuesday, January 5. Nick Caserio was excited and poised to accept the Houston Texans GM job, and owner Cal McNair was excited and poised - as has been the case for some time - to give it to him.
There were no real obstacles, two sources tell SI's Mike Fisher, except that McNair was, as one put it, "a little slow on the draw.''
So somebody involved in the talks, Fisher reports, decided to speed up the process.
Somewhere in the conversation/negotiation, Caserio agent Bob LaMonte mentioned to McNair that the owner was under more pressure than the owner realized.
LaMonte informed McNair that as much as Caserio desired to take the Texans job, the Carolina Panthers were essentially "on the other line.''
Furthermore, LaMonte pulled at one additional McNair heartstring: Not only was Carolina desirous of stealing Caserio away from Houston - the Panthers also specifically mentioned wanting to steal away from Houston another LaMonte client - Jack Easterby.
As Houston fans who watched McNair at the ensuing Caserio introductory press conference can easily envision, the owner got flustered. He'd assembled his "Dream Team'' ... and it was about to crumble, just as so much of McNair's franchise has done in recent years.
McNair "stepped up.'' He offered to Caserio a six-year contract making the first-time general manager-to-be one of the three highest-paid GM's in the NFL.
READ MORE: Caserio Texans GM Salary: Top 3 In NFL
So any Texans idea of hiring any other candidate (like Steelers "business administration'' exec Omar Khan) was dismissed. And any idea of contacting QB Deshaun Watson, who as the locker-room leader was to have at least a voice in the conversation, was forgotten.
Because McNair had to hurry. ... or else.
LaMonte smiled. Caserio arrived. Easterby stayed.
There is one especially troubling aspect to the story, according to Fisher's sources: Caserio, though he is among the 15 people interviewed by the Panthers, was never a top candidate in Carolina. And "non-football guy'' Easterby certainly was not.
Coach Matt Rhule is largely running that search and sources tell us the organization's preferred hire is more of an "analytics/cap'' person than a "personnel guy'' (Caserio's background).
Meanwhile, it's highly likely that the people running the Panthers don't even really know who Jack Easterby is.
In short, Cal McNair got hoodwinked by the people he most trusts. And amidst a chaotic 4-12 season for the Houston Texans, an atmosphere of frustration, tension and mistrust is now not just the dark cloud hanging over NRG Stadium ...
It's also part of the foundation beneath it.
The O'Brien Saga
Throughout the tenure of boss Bill O'Brien, there were rumblings around Houston of frustrated players.
Questionable decisions were commonplace, whether they came in the form of paying former Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler $72 million to join the team, trading left tackle Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks, hiring Brian Gaine as GM before firing him just 17 months later, putting together a mammoth trade for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, or letting long-time starting defensive back Kareem Jackson walk after a career year.
O'Brien's notorious temper and vice-like grip on any information leaving the facility meant little was ever heard about the ins and outs of his coaching and leadership style.
Until Jack Easterby arrived.
The former "character coach'' for the New England Patriots was well-regarded in Foxboro for his ability to mentor people and get the best out of those around him. His mentor Bill Belichick has praised him for this, while also fairly pointing out that Easterby is "not a football guy.''
Nevertheless, Easterby engineered a meteoric rise up the organizational chart that landed him the job of "executive vice president of team development'' in 2019, followed by a promotion to "executive vice president of football operations'' under O'Brien.
And in 2020, when O'Brien was ousted, somehow the "not-a-football-guy'' became the (interim) general manager of an actual NFL franchise.
Easterby's arrival added to the questionable moves - and leaks of dissent from inside the building. The decision to trade All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins for a bag of balls, a decision made by O'Brien but endorsed by his top aide, was worthy of questioning and dissent. Both were the result of a supposed O'Brien in-house "meeting in which the coach compared the (Hopkins) situation to one he had in New England with Aaron Hernandez, the tight end who was convicted of murder in 2015 and killed himself in prison," per ESPN.
O'Brien did not survive the moves. Easterby - increasingly glued to McNair's ear - did..
The Players Revolt
If a franchise can get its GM, coach and team leaders rowing in the same direction, success can follow. Anything short of that, and others involved will quit rowing - or even row in the opposite direction.
Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, frustrated all season, reached a boiling point following the loss to Cincinnati n Week 16, when he called out teammates for their attitudes.
"If you can't go out there and you can't work out, you can't show up on time, you can't practice, you can't want to go out there and win, you shouldn't be here, because this is a privilege," said Watt.
"It's the greatest job in the world. ... If you can't care enough to go out there, give everything you've got and try your hardest, that's bullshit."
If Easterby's background makes him "the character coach,'' and the team's top character guy says this, it should demonstrate to McNair that Easterby's presence wasn't having the desired impact.
After the season, quarterback Deshaun Watson issued a well-meaning criticism of the organization.
"We just need a whole culture shift," said Watson. "We just need new energy. We need discipline, we need structure, we need a leader so we can follow that leader as players. ... There’s too many different minds, too many different ideas and too many people who think they have this power ...''
Who are those "too many people''? By this time, there was only McNair (well within his right to have "power'') and the interim coach Romeo Crennel (no power-broker, he).
That leaves one person as the "too many.''
This fire was stoked further by a December SI exposé revealing the extent of the damage caused by Easterby.
"Undermining other executives and decision-makers, including the head coach who helped bring him to Houston" ... "Fostering a culture of distrust among staff and players to the point that one Texan and two other staffers believed players were being surveilled outside the building,'' wrote Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop.
And then, just days into 2021, the heat of the fire intensified, flamed by Watson's anger toward McNair and company for failing their promise of locker-room representation. The franchise quarterback the team had long searched for was fed up.
Why didn't management contact Watson? Yes, LaMonte's bluff had hurried the process. But doesn't McNair have an executive who is a "people person'' who specializes in "team chemistry''?
Was Easterby too busy to call?
It is an overblown issue that McNair ignored search firm Korn Ferry's recommendation. It is not overblown to say that McNair listed to "the one-man search firm'' of agent Bob LaMonte, who locked up the new job for his client at GM, is surely trying to do the same for a client at head coach, and secured handsome continued employment for his client Easterby ... a move that ignited a "revolt'' of sorts from a McNair associate and franchise icon.
On Tuesday, January 14, former Texans All-Pro receiver and Ring of Honor member Andre Johnson took Twitter by storm with a post supporting Watson and assaulting the franchise's continued embrace of Easterby.
There is no figure in Houston football more respected than face-of-the-franchise Johnson. It is out of character for him - especially as a member of the Texans inner circle - to issue a "stand your ground'' statement against his own franchise.
READ MORE: Andre Johnson Rips Texans & Easterby
But it's also instructive. Johnson isn't just a former player; he's worked for the front office, he spent 2019 as a special advisor to O'Brien, and he surely was down the hallway from Easterby.
Even if Watt, Watson and Johnson were lone voices, there are powerful ones. But they are not alone. Other former and current Texans appear to be in support of Johnson's stance, essentially showing their solidarity with Watson.
So far, former Texans Deandre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, Wade Smith, Duane Brown, Charles James, Kareem Jackson, Kenny Stills, Aaron Colvin, and current Texans Justin Reid and Jordan Akins have all either retweeted or remarked on Johnson's post.
After years of issues being kept quiet under O'Brien, a revolution seems underway in Houston.
The Ultimate Test
Leaders face tests. This is as important and daunting a challenge as McNair will likely ever face in his professional life.
Over the past few weeks, he has spouted the same rhetoric every time he's been heard from, repeatedly stating how this franchise is "committed to excellence" and that they operate with "a winning mentality."
However, critics can argue that his actions do not match his words.
We will argue that winning requires putting personal allegiances aside for a greater good. The prioritization of friendships, favors and favorites cannot be the driving force. Just as in a locker room, in a front office, no person can be bigger than the team - or exempt from criticism.
Easterby's continued presence - despite a level of criticism from those within the building that may be almost unmatched in NFL history - is a sign that personal allegiances and manipulation reign supreme over everything.
Even over the desire to win.
This is always a recipe for disaster, but never more so than now.
McNair now faces the risk of losing his franchise quarterback, of losing the trust of anybody on his staff who isn't an Easterby crony or a LaMonte client, and of losing the loyalty of a fanbase that has stuck by the McNair family business despite two decades of consistent mediocrity.
This franchise's sole focus at the moment should be on demonstrating to the top coaching candidates and top free agents that Houston is a "destination franchise.'' Instead, what is on display is not "Patriots South'' (not necessarily a bad thing) but rather that it's an "Easterby franchise.''
What players and coaches want to sign on here knowing they'll be watched over by Easterby, knowing that he's had hiring-and-firing (and trading) authority, knowing that falling in disfavor with "the culture coach'' is a death knell?
Meanwhile, why should anyone want to work for an owner as easily manipulated and blinded as McNair?
Easterby's appointment initially had its merits: A faith-based Belichick disciple in charge of "mental coaching''? But his involvement has spider-webbed its way into contributing to a bad football team, a thin roster, a botched hiring process, a "revolt'' led by the franchise's best-ever players ... all because of a non-football guy?
READ MORE: New GM Caserio Job 1: How To Fire Easterby?
We have in this space suggested that Caserio should fire Easterby - ironic, because Easterby's connection is part of how the GM got hired. But now we'll suggest that a more powerful message must be sent, to benefit Watt, Watson, Johnson and all of Texans Nation.
If McNair ever wishes to ever get this franchise moving forward, and regain the respect of those involved in the team, it is McNair who must make the decision to dismiss Jack Easterby. In doing so, he will establish that an agent isn't the puppeteer who is running his franchise. He will establish that while Caserio runs the football team, Easterby - the non-football guy - isn't part of that football team and therefore comes directly under the umbrella of the owner.
He will establish leadership of the Houston Texans, without which the smoldering remains of this franchise will be reduced beyond just 4-12; it'll be reduced to being the laughingstock of the NFL.
Bob McNair talks of having a "vision.'' And that's very grand. But all he really needs to see is this one, simple thing ... a simple thing that's difficult to see when one is being hoodwinked.