Zach Cunningham was already down to his last strike before the former Texans standout linebacker showed up late for a mandatory COVID-19 test Sunday morning and was held out of a game against the Indianapolis Colts for disciplinary reasons as a healthy scratch.
Cunningham was informed Wednesday morning by general manager Nick Caserio that he was being released and is now subject to waivers. Texans coach David Culley had previously put the NFL’s leading tackler from last season on notice that one more infraction would lead to him being removed from the team permanently.
With Cunningham’s recurring lateness issues, having already been disciplined twice this season, and a pattern of violations of team rules, this represented the last straw for the former second-round draft pick from Vanderbilt.
“It’s not about chances, you feel it, you know,” Culley said Wednesday morning at NRG Stadium. “I sat down and had a talk with Zach prior to this, the last time we had a conversation with a situation and told him this was it. Any more of these kinds of situations and we’re going to move on, and that’s what happened. .. Standards and culture is the same, that’s why he’s not here.”
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.
Cunningham has excelled in the past as a fast, run-stopping linebacker, but has earned a reputation off the field for not observing the team rules.
“It was time,” a league source said about Cunningham being released. “A long time coming.”
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. However, that wasn’t the end of Cunningham’s problems.
“We have standards and I didn’t feel like those standards have been met consistently,” Culley said. “I felt like I made a decision that was best for the team. This is about the team. This isn’t about any individuals.
“It wasn’t tough at all. It’s about the team. It’s not about any individual player. The one thing we always talk about is that it’s not necessarily trying to be the best player on the team but being the best player for the team. That’s our motto.”
Cunningham is eager for a fresh start and is happy about being released from the Texans, according to sources.
Cunningham never made a formal request for a trade, per sources, but did express that sentiment in passing during the preseason before reporting back for practice days later.
“Listen, we are 2-10,” Culley said. “If there was more of a production, it’s a different deal. It has nothing to do with production, it has something to do strictly with not meeting our standards that we have here. He didn’t meet those.”
The Texans previously 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 if the disciplinary issues is a reflection on leadership.
“It’s just a reflection of guys not doing what we want done,” he said. “ When they are not doing what we want done, we deal with it.”
Is there a message that Cunningham’s release sends?
“That if you don’t meet our standards, and if you are not consistently meeting our standards, you are not going to be part of this team,” Culley replied.
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 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 is due $275,000 in total remaining salary for the remainder of the season plus $147,060 in per-game active roster bonus, but has a $10 million injury guarantee for 2022 that becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. That could lead to him clearing waivers. The Texans have $5.5 million in dead money involving Cunningham this year and $12.8 million in dead money in 2022 with $1.9 million saved in cap room and $10.5 million in salary and per game active roster bonuses saved.
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 19 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.”
Culley was asked why cut Cunningham not and not wait until the end of the season. He had a fast answer.
“Well, I got a locker room full of players in there that understand what our standard is,” Culley said. “We preach it all the time. When guys aren’t going to those standards, they are looking at me cross-eyed when I am not practicing what I preach. He didn’t follow what we needed to get done and I made the move.”