Texans veteran starting linebacker Zach Cunningham’s recurring issue with lateness triggered consequences for the second time this season Sunday when he was a healthy scratch for disciplinary reasons.
Cunningham was not on time for a mandatory COVID-19 testing Sunday morning in the hours prior to the Texans’ 31-0 shutout loss to the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium, which led to the decision to punish him, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
"We have standards and we've got rules and he wasn't there,” Texans coach David Culley said. “So, internally, we made the decision.”
Culley was noncommittal on whether Cunningham will play next Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
Cunningham was previously benched for the first quarter against the Cleveland Browns due to lateness issues that have been a problem on multiple occasions, according to sources.
The former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt has excelled in the past as a fast, run-stopping linebacker. Cunningham missed a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for "personal reasons," as a no-show after not attending a practice session leading up to that August contest before rejoining the team two days later and getting back to work.
One week ago, the Texans benched starting safety Justin Reid as a healthy scratch for disciplinary reasons following a disagreement in a team meeting with Culley that also involved an argument with wide receiver Chris Conley, per league sources. Reid returned to the starting lineup this week.
The Texans also disciplined cornerback Desmond King against the Los Angeles Rams after unexcused absences at mandatory team activities, according to sources.
Culley was asked how he feels to still have to discipline players this far into the season.
“Disappointed, yes, very disappointed,” he said. “I am surprised."
One year ago, the Texans rewarded Cunningham with a four-year, $58 million contract extension that included $32.5 million guaranteed as he became one of the highest paid off-the-ball linebackers in the league and he led the NFL in tackles. The Texans restructured his contract this offseason after general manager Nick Caserio was hired for salary-cap reasons as Cunningham's cap figure was reduced to $5.73 million. Cunningham is due remaining base salaries of $10 million, $11 million and $12.5 million in 2022, 2023 and 2022.
Cunningham has 67 tackles and one forced fumble this season.
Cunningham was replaced collectively by Christian Kirksey, who returned to the active roster after undergoing thumb surgery, Kevin Pierre-Louis and rookie Garret Wallow. And linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill had a franchise-record 20 tackles with three for losses and one sack.
“I just can’t really speak on that,” Grugier-Hill said when asked about Cunningham’s situation. “I love Zach, Zach’s a great guy. I can’t comment on that.”
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.