HOUSTON -- Deshaun Watson was on vacation in Mexico, when he saw the breaking news.
Sources: The Houston Texans are hiring Nick Caserio to be their next general manager.
That’s how the Texans quarterback found out the former Patriots director of player personnel was going to be the GM, according to multiple sources -- not from the team. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Watson was unhappy with the process because, according to league sources, “Watson offered input on potential general manager candidates, but the Texans neither considered nor consulted with those endorsed by their franchise quarterback.”
Soon, there were several media reports Watson was upset with the organization and speculation he was angry enough starting fresh with the new coach and GM won’t be an easy fix.
But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising it has come to this with McNair in charge.
In the two years since McNair took over the day-to-day operations of the Texans after his father, Bob, died in November 2018, the organization has gone downhill. (Not that the end of Bob McNair’s time as team owner wasn’t problematic, either.)
Since Cal McNair took over, the Texans:
• Fired general manager Brian Gaine less than 18 months after he was essentially handpicked by coach Bill O’Brien.
• Didn’t hire a replacement for Gaine, instead choosing to give O’Brien more control over the personnel after the Patriots filed tampering charges because the Texans requested permission to talk to Nick Caserio.
• Waited until after the franchise tag deadline had passed to trade Jadeveon Clowney, so the team that traded for him could not sign him to a contract extension, thus lowering his value. The Texans got two players and a third-round pick in return, while paying half of Clowney’s salary when they finally traded him to Seattle.
• Traded two first-round picks to the Dolphins for Laremy Tunsil. One of the picks will be No. 3 overall in 2021.
• Handed out several large contracts during the season, including a deal to outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus that averages $13.5 million per season.
• Made O’Brien general manager in addition to head coach.
• Agreed to take on David Johnson’s full contract, which paid him more than $11 million in 2020.
• Made Tunsil the highest-paid offensive tackle in NFL history, by $4 million more than the previous high.
• Fired O’Brien four games after he had been named general manager.
Yes, O’Brien made a lot of those personnel decisions, but it was McNair who gave someone with zero front-office experience the keys to an NFL front office and later had to deal with the repercussions.
“It’s important to start with how we got here,” McNair told ESPN in November. “I gave Coach O’Brien the chance to be the leader of our organization on the football operations side. He was in charge of coaching and personnel. I decided I wasn’t comfortable with the direction of the team four weeks into our season. I made a change that I thought was in the best interest of the team.”
Unfortunately, McNair made that decision after O’Brien had traded away valuable players and significant draft capital, while committing huge amounts of money to players who haven’t played up to their contracts.
McNair also hired Jack Easterby, now the Texans’ executive vice president of football operations, to work for O’Brien. Easterby, a former Patriots character coach, had a lot of responsibility under O’Brien. After McNair fired O’Brien, he put Easterby in charge of personnel until the Texans hired their next general manager.
Easterby, likely because of his association with the final two seasons of O’Brien’s time in Houston, has become a divisive figure that fans and some around the team have chosen to shift their blame to.
If I’m @deshaunwatson I will stand my ground. The Texans organization is known for wasting players careers. Since Jack Easterby has walk into the building nothing good has happened in/for the organization and for some reason someone can’t seem to see what’s going on. Pathetic!!!
— Andre Johnson (@johnson80) January 12, 2021
But it was McNair who put Easterby -- whose former boss Bill Belichick said was “not a personnel person” -- in charge of running a front office after O’Brien was fired.
Then, it was McNair who wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire search firm Korn Ferry to help find their next general manager. The Texans ultimately went in a different direction. After McNair heard that the Carolina Panthers might quickly make a move to hire Caserio, the Texans pivoted from the two finalists -- Pittsburgh Steelers vice president of football and business administration and ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick -- the search firm had come up with, a source told ESPN.
“We had a terrific list of qualified candidates and learned a lot about our organization by talking to them,” McNair said during Caserio’s introductory news conference. “While Nick was always high on our radar, we began a new search because we knew Nick was a well-sought-after candidate who had multiple options to pursue. It says a lot about our organization that he chose to be a Texan.”
Instead of taking advantage of a star quarterback on his rookie contract, Houston will enter the fifth year of Watson’s rookie deal coming off a 4-12 season, without a first- or second-round draft pick and with one of the NFL’s worst defenses.
Without even taking the newest issues with Watson into consideration, Caserio has a lot of work to do to rebuild this roster. The Texans are projected to be $17.8 million over the estimated 2021 salary cap, according to Over the Cap. The general manager will have many ways to decrease that number, as Houston has several veteran players on bloated contracts.
One of the first decisions Caserio will have to make is about J.J. Watt’s future with the team. Watt is owed $17.5 million in 2021, the final year of his contract, but that money is not guaranteed. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has said multiple times that he’s not certain he will be back in Houston in 2021.
Caserio can also save space by moving on from David Johnson (saving $6.9 million), linebacker Benardrick McKinney ($7 million), running back Duke Johnson ($5.1 million) and guard Zach Fulton ($3 million).
Houston could also restructure some contracts, including signing wide receiver Brandin Cooks to an extension with guaranteed money to lower his $12 million cap hit in 2021. How Caserio handles Cooks’ contract may have a significant role in whether the Texans bring back wide receiver Will Fuller V. Fuller, the team’s top free agent, was suspended in November for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. He will miss the first game of the 2021 season, but Watson said he hopes the team re-signs Fuller.
And Caserio has to hope Watson is willing to sit down with him after McNair said Friday that he hadn’t heard back from Watson since hiring the new general manager. Otherwise, not only does Caserio have to replenish a roster that is void of potential stars under the age of 25, he will also have to make sure his franchise quarterback is in for the future. The Texans took one potentially positive step on Tuesday, requesting a head-coaching interview with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, for whom Watson has publicly stated his admiration.
After the Texans’ season finale, Watson walked off the field with Watt, and the longtime Texans defensive end apologized to the quarterback.
“I’m sorry,” Watt told Watson in a clip released by NFL Films. “We wasted one of your years. I’m sorry.”
The way McNair has run the team the past two years, the Texans have wasted not just the 2020 season, but after finally finding a franchise quarterback, have wasted his inexpensive years.
It should be noted that Caserio is arguably among the most qualified personnel people ever hired as a first-time general manager. He played a significant role in building three Super Bowl-winning teams in New England and three that finished as the NFL’s runner-up, including duties that ranged from coaching to scouting.
But because of McNair’s mistakes when it came to giving O’Brien more and more power and the poor moves he made, Houston finds itself in a big hole to dig out from. Fortunately, the Texans have the most important piece: a franchise quarterback.
If the Texans cannot turn things around -- and quickly -- they might be wasting the $156 million contract extension he signed in September, as well.