David Culley was a strange hire by the Houston Texans in 2021, and it wasn't a surprise he lasted only one season.
The Texans went 4-13, though in Culley's defense they didn't have four-win talent on the roster. Culley made plenty of in-game errors. He wanted to run the ball in a pass-first league. Culley was honest, maybe sometimes too much, like when he discussed how general manager Nick Caserio and senior adviser Romeo Crennel would talk to him on headsets during games, giving advice. He admitted he didn't understand why they were telling him to let the New England Patriots score late in a close game.
"I go back again to the New England game, I can remember just like it was yesterday that the conversation went, 'Let them score,'" Culley said. "I heard the conversation, and then all of a sudden it didn't compute to me at that time."
Yet, Culley being fired says a lot about the Texans' direction. The men in charge of the franchise hired him in the first place.
It was a curious match, a 65-year-old first-time head coach who had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator in the pros. The Texans should have known he wouldn't be a strategical wizard and would make rookie mistakes. He did OK, given the awful situation, and he got fired anyway.
"I think philosophically there were some things in the end that maybe we saw a little bit differently," Caserio said when Culley was fired.
The ordeal brings up a few questions: Why didn't the Texans understand those philosophical differences in the first place? How could they have expected much more than Culley gave them? And why should Texans fans have much faith in the team's brass making the correct decisions going forward?
Culley going one-and-done speaks to the state of the Texans, even as Caserio said "our situation right now is a lot better than it was" after firing Culley. The Texans went on a strange hiring process for the second straight offseason, seemingly enamored with Josh McCown — the former quarterback whose coaching resume consisted of being a volunteer high school assistant — but were ultimately unwilling to take that leap for whatever reason. Instead they gave everyone a big surprise by hiring Lovie Smith.
Like the Culley hire, tabbing Smith at the last minute was curious. Unlike Culley, at least Smith has experience. He's also 64 years old and has been a part of eight straight losing teams, between his time as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and University of Illinois, then as defensive coordinator of the 2021 Texans.
It's not the worst thing for a team to fire a coach right away if they don't believe he's the answer. It's also hard to think Smith was the home-run hire Houston needs.
Smith steps into a rough spot. The Texans didn't have one Pro Bowler last season, and not many young players who look like future stars. They once had a superstar trio of Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins. They're all gone. Quarterback Davis Mills, a 2021 third-round draft pick, was a nice revelation last season but also far from a sure thing.
The Texans' talent level should be better after a promising draft and some offseason additions, but it's still lagging behind the rest of the NFL.
This rebuild will take a while. It is being led by a head coach whose last winning season came with a 2012 Chicago Bears squad led by Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. Houston's best players, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Brandin Cooks, will both be 28 on opening day. The best thing you can say about the Texans' 2021 season is they weren't the worst team in football, as they were expected to be.
Houston might be the worst team in football this season. And there's not a lot of hope for a dramatic turnaround in the next year or two.
The Texans didn't do much in free agency, signing solid vets like guard A.J. Cann, cornerback Steven Nelson, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive end Mario Addison to fill in gaps. No free agent signed by the Texans got more than $4.5 million per year.
The Texans had to be careful in part because they have a shocking $52.2 million in dead salary cap space. Deshaun Watson accounts for $16.2 million of that. Credit the Texans for getting a lot of value for Watson after they sat him out all last season amid his trade request and still-unsettled legal issues over alleged sexual misconduct.
Getting rid of Watson is looking better with each passing day. Houston sent Watson and a 2024 fifth-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for first-round picks in 2022, 2023 and 2024, a third-round pick in 2023 and a fourth-round pick in 2024. That draft capital has to be the foundation of the rebuild.
In this year's draft the Texans took cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., a phenom as a freshman at LSU in 2019 who was limited to 10 games in 2020 and 2021 due to injuries, with the third overall pick. Stingley is a great talent but risky.
After trading the first-round pick from Cleveland to move down a couple spots to No. 15 overall, the Texans took guard Kenyon Green. Safety Jalen Pitre, receiver John Metchie III, linebacker Christian Harris and running back Dameon Pierce were Houston's other picks through the fourth round. It's a class the Texans need to hit big, and it could.
Most picks used on quarterbacks past the first round are wastes. The bust rate is surprisingly high. But maybe the Texans found a good starter in Davis Mills with the 67th overall pick of the 2021 draft.
The third-rounder improved as the season went on. The rookie who looked overwhelmed in an ugly four-interception game at Buffalo in Week 4 (Houston had minus-23 net passing yards at halftime, the fewest in a first half since 1999) looked a lot better by season's end. He was instrumental in a 41-29 upset win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 16. His 41-yard touchdown pass to Chris Conley in that game was a thing of beauty and showed his maturation.
In a deep rookie class that had five first-round QBs, Mills' 88.8 passer rating trailed only Mac Jones among those who had at least 100 passing attempts. By the end of the season it was clear Mills deserved a shot to be the Texans' starter in 2022.
The Texans are tied for the lowest win total in the NFL at 4.5. That's better than last year, when it was 4. The Texans also have the longest odds in the NFL at BetMGM to win their division (+2500) and they are 250-to-1 to win the Super Bowl. No other team is longer than 150-1. It's fine to take the Texans over 4.5 wins because that's a low bar, but be prepared for a long season getting over that total.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It would be dishonest to suggest Brandin Cooks didn’t miss Deshaun Watson’s talent last year. Cooks, after all, lost almost 3 yards per catch and 2 yards per target. But Davis Mills was surprisingly competent as a rookie, and Cooks proved to be a target hog in the Houston offense, drawing 134 targets, a whopping 74 more than second-place Nico Collins. Opportunity remains king in fantasy football, and Cooks was able to produce despite facing defenses that could focus on him from the opening snap.
"It’s odd to see Cooks on his fourth team, discarded by three of the most successful recent franchises, the Saints, Patriots and Rams. Cooks has proven to be situation-proof and mostly quarterback-proof; last year’s respectable WR20 showing backs that up. Cooks is currently being drafted as the WR29 in Yahoo rooms and WR26 in NFFC contests. If he stays healthy, he should easily beat either of those acquisition costs. Fantasy football is largely about acquiring young players, but sometimes a boring veteran can be the right jam."
The Texans had one player (Brandin Cooks) who had more than 446 receiving yards. No running back averaged more than 3.5 yards per carry. Only one player (second-year end Jonathan Greenard, a rare bright spot for the future) had more than four sacks. Nobody had more than three interceptions.
No offensive lineman on the current roster ranked higher than 22nd at their position in Pro Football Focus' grades last season. That No. 22 mark belonged to center Justin Britt; no guard or tackle ranked higher than 53rd. It's hard to find building blocks on this Texans roster, outside of the 2022 rookie class.
Why Lovie Smith?
Of all the hires in the most recent coaching cycle, Smith was the most surprising. Smith was 81-63 with the Bears, though that seems like a lifetime ago. The hire also had some controversy given that Brian Flores' lawsuit against the NFL was filed when he was still being considered for the Texans' job. The hiring process went into February and there were reports that the three finalists were Flores, Jonathan Gannon and Josh McCown. Smith wasn't mentioned as a candidate until late in the game. He was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator for the Texans last season, but nobody figured on GM Nick Caserio promoting someone from the staff of a 4-13 team.
Smith wasn't the only 2021 Texans assistant to get a promotion: Pep Hamilton, the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator for last season's Texans, was bumped to offensive coordinator. Frank Ross was retained as special teams coach.
Smith was a surprising hire, though that doesn't mean it's a bad one.
"Coach Smith is one of the most respected figures in the league," Caserio said. "He's well respected throughout the league. He's well respected in the halls of NRG. I think a lot of us were able to see that this year. As I worked through this and got to the end point, realized the best decision and the best opportunity for this organization to move forward was with the choice of Lovie Smith as the next head coach."
The good news is the Jacksonville Jaguars are still in the AFC South. Last season the Texans avoided last place because the Jaguars were an even bigger mess, and maybe that happens again. A good season for the Texans would consist of getting over that win total of 4.5, finding out Davis Mills is a keeper at quarterback and seeing some young players emerge. Also, not having to fire another head coach after one season would be nice.
The positive about having such low expectations is things can't really get that bad. If Davis Mills falls apart, the Texans will be in position to draft a prime prospect at quarterback. If Lovie Smith is one-and-done, it's not like the hire energized the Texans' fan base in the first place. Nobody would be that surprised if Houston won fewer games than the four from last season. Again, this is a long-term rebuild, and there's no guarantee the step taken this season will be forward.
The Texans were battling hard late last season. The upset win over the Chargers was impressive and they almost beat the Tennessee Titans in the finale. The roster is likely better, not that it could have gotten much worse. It might take a few more years for the Texans to rise, once the draft classes after the Deshaun Watson trade bear some fruit. This year, getting to five wins with a competitive spirit all season seems feasible.