If there was any remaining need for further clarity about where the standard lies inside the Texans’ locker room, then coach David Culley and general manager Nick Caserio powerfully removed it by removing former standout linebacker Zach Cunningham from the roster after multiple disciplinary issues.
Late for a mandatory COVID-19 test and made a healthy scratch for Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts, previously benched for the first quarter of a game against the Cleveland Browns for recurring lateness issues, skipping a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and refusing to come to practice before that August contest after being sent home for showing up late, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly, Cunningham definitely earned his dismissal.
One year after being signed to a four-year, $58 million contract as one of the highest paid off-the-ball linebackers, Cunningham is now subject to waivers. And his former teammates are heeding the message Culley reinforced about what’s expected from them.
“Yeah, I think they’re just trying to do things in a certain way,” said wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a former New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams starter. “And I think that message is being made loud and clear.”
As one league source said regarding Cunningham, the NFL’s leading tackler a year ago whose role was reduced this year with his multiple violations of team rules, “It was time. Long time coming.”
Cunningham isn’t unhappy about being released by the Texans and is embracing a pending fresh start with a new NFL employer, according to league sources.
Although Cunningham’s talent and athleticism are undeniable, especially his elite run-stopping skills, he was a liability in pass coverage. Off the field, Cunningham is regarded as a free spirit with a laid-back personality who didn’t prioritize being on time and complying with the Texans’ rules and regulations.
It’s fairly simple. The Texans expect timeliness, attention to detail, a strong work ethic and a desire to continually improve.
There was an obvious disconnect between Cunningham, a former Vanderbilt standout selected in the second round by former Texans general manager Rick Smith, and the new regime.
Culley emphasized that he had already put Cunningham on notice that another infraction would be his last and would end his tenure with the Texans.
And Cunningham’s former teammates understood the situation.
“It’s kind of like an unspoken rule what the standard is,” Texans defensive end Jon Greenard said. “Obviously, take care of your business, show up on time for meetings, all the little basic stuff that’s kind of self-explanatory. I’ve handled it the majority of the team’s handled it, everybody is doing their job. As what you all have seen, he was inactive last game, obviously something was up. Stuff got to be done. It wasn’t the first time, so stuff had to be done.
“I didn’t think there was a message. If you aren’t handling your stuff to a certain standard then boom, that’s what goes on. If you take care of your business, you shouldn’t have nothing to worry about. It’s pretty obvious what you all heard, so just run with that.”
Greenard echoed a sentiment several players expressed. They liked Cunningham as a person. They also acknowledged that he came up short as far as meeting what the team expected from the rest of the players.
“It was tough, Zach’s my dog,” Greenard said. “He’s a good friend of ours, but it’s a business. You have to take care of your business at the end of the day. Team made a decision and we ran with it.
“At the end of the day, he’s still another player. That’s one thing about it. People come and go all the time. Of course, you would hate to see him go, obviously. He’s a good player. But at the same time it’s not going to be the last stop for him. All we can do is control what we can control here. When we got the news, it sucks, but, hey, we still have to play ball.”
Greenard said that the Texans learned that Cunningham was being released when they saw him Wednesday morning after he was informed by Caserio that he was being placed on waivers
A team leader, Cooks emphasized that he sees the buy-in and effort from himself and his teammates despite a 2-10 record.
“I think from a standpoint of guys, for the most part, are always trying to do the right thing, and coach made that clear from the moment that he stepped in,” Cooks said. “That’s what’s expected from all of us, is just trying to do the right thing the best that we can. I think the biggest thing, whatever the standard is, it doesn’t shift. It stays the same for everyone. As far as what that standard is, every team is going to have a different standard. But one thing I did notice from those other teams, like I said, it never shifted regardless of what was going on.”
On a winning team, which Cunningham played on until last season when the Texans cratered to 4-12 and coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start, perhaps his issues wouldn’t be so glaring. Winning can mask a lot of things.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Cooks said. “But at the same time, those cracks won’t stay cracks for long regardless if you’re winning or not. If you don’t address them, sooner or later they’re going to bust open to a huge gaping hole.”
Cunningham wasn’t alone in being disciplined this year.
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.
In spite of all of the issues, Cooks expressed confidence in Culley, a 66-year-old first-year head coach who was previously an assistant head coach with the Baltimore Ravens under John Harbaugh and a longtime assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles under Andy Reid.
“Well, I think he’s doing a great job,” Cooks said. “I think he’s doing the best that he can. He has a lot on his plate. One thing I have a lot of respect for him, he never changes. Every single day he comes in here, he upholds his standard.
“He remains the same and that’s the same thing he’s asked for from his team, and the fact that he is able to do it with everything going on, we should be able to do that as well. Got a lot of respect for him from the standpoint of being consistent no matter what’s going on.”
Running back Rex Burkhead, a former Patriots player, said that he’s accustomed to a strict, demanding environment from his time in New England.
“You came in expected to do your job and not get caught up in things off the field or distractions,” Burkhead said. “I feel like that’s how it is at a lot of places and how it should be. What you do out on the field sometimes correlates with what you do off the field. So, there’s that trust factor there that has to be established with a team. You just want to be able to show that you can be trusted by the team.”
If there’s any takeaway from what happened with Cunningham that resonates, it’s a reminder about what not to do to maintain employment and be in good standing.
“It’s kind of an unspoken rule,” Greenard said. “If you tell me I got to show up somewhere, I’m going to show up. That’s the type of person I am. That’s the type of person I was raised to be. All the things they ask me to do, I do it.
“That’s how I at least give myself the best chance to stay here. Everything else, I have to take care of myself on the field and it goes off of my plate after that, but they are not going to be able to say anything disciplinary or any of that stuff that you read, none of that, about me.”