When the Texans hired general manager Nick Caserio, he met with Tim Kelly and made it a priority to get to know the incumbent offensive coordinator.
The Texans even denied permission from the Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars to interview Kelly for non-head-coaching positions, according to league sources.
During the hiring process of new coach David Culley, the Texans decided to retain Kelly. Kelly had made strides as a play-caller as Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards while throwing 33 touchdown passes last season.
Watson, who subsequently requested a trade and is dealing with legal problems that include 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints and hasn't been charged with a crime, had strongly endorsed Kelly privately to chairman and CEO Cal McNair and publicly in interviews before asking out in the wake of signing a $156 million contract that includes a no-trade clause.
Now, the Texans are blending Kelly’s philosophies with Culley’s belief in a physical running game. The Texans became a one-dimensional, pass-first team last season as Watson excelled, but the team had the fewest runs in franchise history and finished 4-12.
The process is ongoing in the shift from a previously dynamic passing game headlined by Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, to a more controlled passing game led by new QB1 Tyrod Taylor, a less freewheeling style of passer, to a run-centric offense built around a committee approach of running backs Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and third-down back David Johnson.
“Each year is different, so once we got through the first weeks of training camp, you get a feel for what the identity of your team is going to be,” Kelly said. “Even going back to the first time I interviewed with coach Culley, he made it very clear that he wanted to make sure we had a very tough and physical football team. We’re going to do what we can to make sure this team reflects the image that he wants, and our guys are doing a good job of putting in the work to get that done.”
Toward that goal, that means Kelly adapting his play-calling style.
The Baltimore Ravens, where Culley was assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and receivers coach, were led by star quarterback Lamar Jackson and his multidimensional skillset. They run the football a lot, including Jackson scrambling, and pounding the football behind J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.
Constructing game plans for Taylor, a more conservative style of quarterback who has mobility and accuracy working in his favor, is another adjustment.
“The philosophy here has always been to formulate a game plan that’s best going to fit our skill set and put us in the best situation in terms of matchups,” Kelly said. “We’re accustomed to doing that and making sure our game plans are fluid and really able to adjust and base it upon, again, who do we have up available and who are we going up against and what’s going to give us the best chance to score.”
The Ravens ran a lot of bully formations with extra tight ends, often deploying them as fullbacks. Based on preseason games, including having reserve tight end Paul Quessenberry line up in the I-formation as a lead blocking fullback, the Texans are going to be committed to the running game and some of the Ravens’ offensive concepts that they’re mixing with what the Texans ran previously.
While the Texans don’t have a running back as dominant physically as, say, the Tennessee Titans powerhouse Derrick Henry, they do feel confident that they can pound the football behind a reshaped offensive line led by Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil that has shifted right tackle Tytus Howard to left guard, added gritty veteran center Justin Britt, shifted Max Scharping to right guard and inserted Charlie Heck as right tackle.
Sharing the workload is intended to have a lot of energy in the backfield. The Texans have three former Pro Bowl selections in Ingram, Lindsay and Johnson.
“Ideally, you want to be able to run the ball to win the game at the end,” Kelly said. “So, what that allows us to do is that when we get in those situations, we are able to have fresh backs with fresh legs come in there and continue to keep throwing different looks at those guys. We are very lucky to have those backs, the type of players, the type of men they are, they are doing a great job leading not only that room but being strong voices in the offensive room.”
Blending a power style with some other wrinkles is an emphasis for the Texans.
How they orchestrate the shift from a scrambling quarterback in Watson buying time to find receivers downfield and operating something of a high-wire act to more of a run-first attack.
“I think it’s becoming more and more common when you look at some of the different schemes that have been run throughout the league,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a lot of smart coaches on our team who have run a lot of different schemes, and everybody has good ideas. We are going to figure out what fits our team best.
“We want them to be tough, physical and smart. We want to be able to depend on them when it’s 140 degrees out here. We want a tough football team. That means coming out and being able to grind some of these tougher practices. Our guys have responded really well and put in a lot of work over the past couple of weeks to try and build that.”
Kelly’s ability to oversee all of this change has been praised by Culley and offensive players.
And Watson, who’s now the fourth-string quarterback on the depth chart as he awaits a potential trade and deals with his unresolved legal issues. has also been highly complimentary of Kelly.
After a season-ending loss last season to the Titans, Watson endorsed Kelly and how much chemistry they had built together.
"Most definitely, I mean, Tim over the past two years has really taken my game to a whole another level as far as just knowledge, reading defenses, understanding run points and run schemes, understanding the way of different concepts and different situations," Watson said. "His knowledge of just the game of football is very, very bright and he really helped me take my game, especially this year, the best football I’ve played in my career.”
One point that’s been underscored multiple times this preseason: players consistently saying the coaching is better this preseason after the shift to Culley and his staff from O’Brien.
“I would say that the guys we have in this locker room right now, they are doing a great job coming to work every day, being professional and working hard and really holding each other accountable,” Kelly said. “It's early, but we are pleased with where we are at as far as that's concerned, and hopefully we can continue to take strides in that area.
“Obviously, there's an impact with the culture and the attitude of the team all the time. It's impacting me, but I would say I still come to work every day and try to do my job as best as I can.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.