David Culley paced up and down the sideline so vigorously that his feet were having a loud conversation with him following his first regular-season game as an NFL head coach.
Although his feet were aching mad, Culley couldn’t stop smiling Sunday at NRG Stadium.
Not after working diligently behind the scenes for four decades as a valuable assistant coach who built a reputation with his intuitive people skills and creativity.
Not after his team dominated the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 37-21 victory that makes Culley 1-0 as the replacement for Bill O’Brien and the Texans, frequently derided and predicted by many to be the worst team in the NFL, in first place in the AFC South division.
“Let me just say this: this football team expected to win,” Culley said after quarterback Tyrod Taylor passed for 291 yards and two touchdown passes and the defense intercepted Jaguars rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence three times. “We're not surprised, simply because we played good football today. I thought at the very end we lost our composure a little bit with some penalties, but this football team expected to win. And we knew if we did the things we had been practicing, we did the things that are winning football, that we'd have a chance to win the game. And we did that.”
A head coach for the first time at any level, Culley received the game ball inside the locker room after the game from wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Predictably, Culley had denied getting the game ball only saying that it went to the Texans as a team.
“I was happy, man,” middle linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “Coach, he’s a good guy and also he’s a good leader. He’s a good person. When you see how much he loves the game and how much he loves his players, it’s the best feeling in the world to see him smiling and get that first victory as the head coach of the Texans.
“We actually presented him with the game ball, so it was pretty good and emotional in the locker room. We gave him the game ball because we know how much it means to him. He keeps everybody going. He’s such a positive person and he has a bunch of energy, so he deserves it.”
When the Sparta, Tennessee native was informed by chairman and chief operating officer Cal McNair and general manager Nick Caserio that he was being offered the Texans’ head coaching job in January., it was such an emotionally charged moment that he nearly lost his balance.
Under Andy Reid, Culley was a receivers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and an assistant head coach and receivers coach with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Under Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott, Culley was Josh Allen’s quarterbacks coach as a rookie.
Under Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Culley grew in responsibilities as a key voice orchestrating a multidimensional run-dominated offense headlined by former NFL Most Valuable Player quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Culley had never been a coordinator. That mirrored the career arc of Harbaugh, a Super Bowl winning coach hired by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti in 2008 after previously coaching the Eagles’ defensive backs and special teams, and Reid, a former Green Bay Packers tight ends and quarterbacks coach.
Now, Culley is running the Texans and is undefeated as a head coach.
“It was huge,” Cooks said. “Obviously, it's been a while, but he's here now, and we're just so thankful for what he means to this team, the energy that he brings and the way that we all work hard together. It was great to see him get his first win and the first one being the first game of the season as well.
“His biggest message was it was about us, all the work that we put in this training camp and this off-season, that's what we have to focus on, just going out there and not beating ourselves. You can get high with the first game but just focus on the little things that we've been doing all off-season and training camp and then I think we'll be all right.”
Through the offseason and preseason, the Texans were widely criticized as a hopeless team with an overhauled roster that has 32 new players on the 53-man roster. Their best player, embattled Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t at NRG Stadium on Sunday because of his standing trade request and legal problems that include 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault, 10 criminal complaints and a parallel NFL investigation.
To a man, the Texans emphasized that they don’t pay attention to what’s been said and written about them. Now, Culley is shifting the focus to preparing for next Sunday’s road game against a talented Cleveland Browns team.
“Let me tell you this about the noise,” Culley said. “The only noise that matters to this franchise and this team is the noise inside this building and in this room, and that's the only noise that's mattered to us. That's the reason, as I said before, when we went out and played this game today, and if we did things the right way, we'd have a chance to win the game. And we did that today, and we won. I'm going to enjoy this for 24 hours, and after those 24 hours, we're going to get on to Cleveland.”
Did the perceived lack of respect affect the Texans?
If anything, the unfavorable opinions appears to have provided additional motivational fuel for a team loaded with older veterans who are primarily working under one-year contracts and determined to prove they should be retained by the Texans or signed to a larger deal elsewhere.
“We don't care about them people,” running back Mark Ingram said. “We don't care. If you doubt us or doubt someone, like we don't really care. We all believe in each other. We all have faith in each other. We all hold each other accountable, and we believe we have what we need in order to have success. We don't really care about nobody else that don't support us or nobody else that don't believe in us. It's irrelevant.”
Culley took over a 4-12 team dealing with a dispute with Watson and major personnel and salary-cap issues.
Now, he’s working in tandem with general manager Nick Caserio to turn the franchise around.
Once called the “energy in the building” by former Texas A&M coaching colleague Gary Kubiak and the “vitamins” of the program by former Aggies coach R.C. Slocum, Culley is a high-energy coach known for his positive nature and deep Christian faith.
A former Vanderbilt quarterback, Culley was an offensive coordinator at Texas-El Paso and the receivers coach in College Station. Now, he’s an NFL head coach.
McNair hired Culley after interviewing Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, new Chargers coach Brandon Staley, former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady and Texans quarterback Josh McCown, a candidate for the Houston coaching staff.
“I know it means a lot to coach Culley and definitely hats off to him,” Taylor said. “He's done a great job of leading us from day one. His message has been strong, and as far as the players, they've done a -- we've done a great job of just responding.
“No one complained throughout training camp. We put our heads down, we worked, and we all got better and continued to keep building that chemistry, and we're going to continue to keep building chemistry and working and playing for one another as the season progresses.”
For Culley, this is an encouraging start. It’s also kept in perspective by the fact that the Jaguars were 1-15 last season, are coached by Urban Meyer, a career college coach who’s never coached an NFL game before, and have a lot of obvious holes on their team.
And that’s why Culley’s post-game message resonated with Ingram.
“He said, ‘Obviously, it's great to have a win, we did a lot of good things today, but there's a lot of things that we can improve on. We're going to enjoy this for 24 hours and then we're going to start working on our next opponent,’” Ingram said. “ We're all happy for him that we got his first win as a head coach. Nick's first win as a GM. We're happy for those guys. They assembled this group of guys, so we appreciate that, but there's a lot more work to do. It's only one game, 16 more to go. Got a lot of improving to do.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128