Texans’ head coach job description: Seeking a true leader with a modern approach, preferably with expertise on the offensive side of the football and a detailed plan for staff, personnel and an ability to work collaboratively within the building with players and staff.
Help wanted immediately.
It’s a tall order to fill for the rebuilding AFC South franchise after firing Lovie Smith hours after he went 3-13-1 in his lone season as head coach.
The Texans are seeking stability at the all-important position after years of losing constant flux, disarray and not being on the same page. In the past three seasons, the Texans have had four different head coaches, including Bill O’Brien, interim coach Romeo Crennel, David Culley and Smith
Their next coach, to be determined by chairman and CEO Cal McNair in partnership with general manager Nick Caserio, needs to be the right choice to get the franchise back on track after going 11-38-1 in the past three seasons despite playing in the weak AFC South division and going winless at NRG Stadium this season for the first time in franchise history.
Among the reasons for Smith’s dismissal and concerns expressed by sources about Smith’s management style: not being receptive to suggestions and feedback regarding strategy, scheme, practice routines and the use of analytics and other data to inform decisions.
Communication within the building had deteriorated dramatically.
“Lovie would meet with players, but he would never use any of our suggestions and ideas,” a Texans player said. “It was bad. We wanted to be heard, and he ignored what we had to say. It was very frustrating. Talking with him became a waste of our time.”
Smith didn’t implement suggestions from staff, and kept a close counsel instead of embracing an interactive approach with several departments and subprograms in the building.
Smith was hired after a coaching search a year ago that drifted between former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores as he sued the Dolphins, the NFL, Texans and Denver Broncos alleging discrimination and unfair hiring practices, former NFL quarterback Josh McCown, a favorite of former executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby who nearly landed the job, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who interviewed twice, and Smith.
“Ultimately, Lovie was a bad hire,” a source said. “He’s a good man and a good coach. It was just a poor fit.”
Smith, 64, was characterized as an old-school coach who was as advertised in terms of applying a hard-nosed and hard-working approach to the game, but was unwilling to adapt his patented and outdated Tampa Cover 2 scheme despite its predictability.
“Nick Caserio and I spoke with Lovie Smith tonight and informed him that we will be moving in a different direction as an organization,” McNair said in a prepared statement. “I appreciate Coach Smith and his entire family for their contributions over the last two seasons. We are grateful for his leadership and character, and we wish him the best moving forward.
“While we understand the results have not been what we had hoped for, we are committed to building a program that produces long-term, sustainable success. Our fans and city deserve a team that they can be proud of. I will work alongside Nick Caserio throughout this process and I’m confident we will find the right leader for our football team.”
A highly respected Eagles defensive coordinator Gannon ranks as a top candidate the Texans’ wish list for a potential new head coach with mutual interest between the Cleveland native and former Louisville safety and an organization bereft of a solution at head coach, according to multiple league sources.
Several league sources have labeled Gannon as a top candidate for the Texans’ potential opening after he made a strong impression during his interviews with the Texans last season.
Gannon could possibly assemble an experienced staff with his connections to former Colts coach Frank Reich and Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Eagles quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson.
Gannon interviewed with the Texans, Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings during the last hiring cycle.
Gannon “knocked it out of the park” and “crushed” his meetings with NFL teams, impressing them with his knowledge, creativity, detailed plans about strategy and staff and his passion for the game, according to league sources.
One member of an NFL search committee said of Gannon: “He knows the answer before you even ask him the question.”
One NFL executive described Gannon as having some similarities to Los Angeles Chargers coach Brandon Staley 2.0. Staley and Gannon are close friends who grew up competing against each other in youth sports in Ohio.
“Incredibly intelligent and passionate,” a source said of Gannon. “This guy is a superstar. He’s worked with great people like George Paton and Rob Brzezinski with the Vikings. It says a lot that those guys think the world of the guy.”
Former NFL defensive coordinator Gregg Williams worked with Gannon when he was a scout for the Rams and with the Tennessee Titans as a quality control coach. Now, Gannon coaches the NFL’s second-ranked defense for a prime Super Bowl contender.
“Jonathan is a really good person with a great upbringing who’s never been afraid to outwork everyone around him and never afraid of any tasks,” Williams said. “He’s had to work his way up in the business. Those are the guys I love the most. If he winds up as a head coach, you have to have a working understanding of all of the other people at all of those levels and those positions they occupy.
“”I think Jonathan does a great job of being a great people person. He’s sharp. He’s a detailed person. He’s a good football man. When you start out as a defensive assistant and quality control, no one can do their job without the information that’s passed on from him. Players want to know, ‘How can I be better? And he has a knowledge and a feel that is really impactful to help someone improve.”
Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero are other highly regarded candidates. Former Broncos coach Vic Fangio could be in play as a defensive boss if Johnson, who has done a commendable job with quarterback Jared Goff, was the choice as a potential successor to Smith.
Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator from tight ends coach. The former North Carolina walk-on quarterback, a former college teammate of Texans personnel director Ronnie McGill, has previous stints with the Miami Dolphins and Boston College.
Known for his creative play-calling, Johnson oversees the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense. The Lions didn’t qualify for the playoffs, so Johnson is available for interviews this week
“Johnson is impressive, very sharp,” a source said. “He’s done a very nice job with that offense.”
Former Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans, the San Francisco 49ers’ highly-rated defensive coordinator, is not expected to pursue the job, according to sources. The Texans do have interest in Ryans, though, per sources.
Ryans once filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Texans and the NFL seeking damages and alleging issues with the field surface’s design and construction after suffering a torn Achilles at NRG Stadium on Nov. 2, 2014. Ryans is expected to be picky as he pursues head-coaching opportunities and isn’t in a rush to leave the 49ers’ high-caliber defense.
The Texans are expected to run a wide-ranging coaching search.
Other highly regarded candidates include Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks, Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich. Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is a perennial candidate for jobs and has interviewed with the Texans previously. Former Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell is expected to draw interest around the NFL, as will Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
The Texans interviewed seven candidates last year: Smith, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, now a Pittsburgh Steelers senior defensive assistant who sued the Dolphins, Texans, Broncos, Giants and the NFL for alleged discrimination and unfair hiring practices, McCown, Gannon twice, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and former Steelers wide receiver and current XFL coach Hines Ward.
The Texans are considered an attractive job destination.
“That’s a great situation to walk into,” a source said. “The Texans have money to spend and some good young players. It’s not like the cupboard is bare. They’ve got some guys you can build around.”
The Texans have two first-round draft picks in 2023 and 2024 following the blockbuster trade of three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns executed by general manager Nick Caserio along with a projected $47.7 million in salary-cap space.
They hold the second overall pick and the 12th overall selection, acquired from the Browns in the Watson trade. They have 11 draft picks overall in 2023 currently.
A former New England Patriots executive who worked under legendary coach Bill Belichick, Caserio has been the architect of a difficult rebuild after contractual mistakes and lopsided trades during the O’Brien era left the organization without valuable draft capital and salary-cap space.
Several sources said Saturday they would have been extremely surprised if Caserio didn’t remain in place to hire a third head coach. And now Caserio is back.
“Nick has had a lot of heavy lifting to do in Houston,” a source said. “They practically had to start from scratch. That’s not an easy job.
“Has he been totally perfect? No, but who is as a first-time GM. And that’s not an easy situation to deal with. If you look closely, you can see they’re trying to build through the draft and do it the right way.”
The Texans have some talent under contract, including Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce, right tackle Tytus Howard, wide receivers Brandin Cooks, who’s likely to be traded this offseason after nearly being dealt at the NFL deadline, Nico Collins and John Metchie III, who missed his rookie season while being treated for leukemia, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Jonathan Greenard, linebacker Christian Harris, safety Jalen Pitre and cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Steven Nelson.
The Texans have made several facility improvements in recent years, including a futuristic, upgraded locker room and training room. There are large red and blue lockers featuring spacious leather seats. Every player has a safe for their valuables, shoe and shoulder pad dryers, a helmet ventilator and personal television screens that feature the daily schedule. There are fuel bars located in the locker room that includes customized healthy snacks. Every piece of fabric is anti-microbial to provide a sanitary environment.
The capital investments in the new-look locker room and expanded training room cost an estimated $4 million.
The facility improvements, many orchestrated under the stewardship of Easterby, who parted ways with the Texans in October, and other team officials along with multiple new player programs, the hire of his protege, former South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson as director of team development, LED board projects for instant replay, tracking biometrics at practice, hiring more sports science and analytics staffers in a move to a more data-driven approach that represents the wave of the future not embraced by Smith, a bubble project, improvement of the culture in the building and support of charitable endeavors.
Easterby was a strong advocate for McNair hiring Caserio, who remains in place after overhauling the roster, helped improve the salary-cap situation and placed an emphasis on adding high-character players to the locker room and moving on from players who fell short of organizational standard.
The balance between cash and salary cap, including Pro Bowl left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s contract, are examples of improvement under a reboot for the franchise.
After power struggles in the past between O’Brien and former general manager Rick Smith, the dismissal of Brian Gaine and the constant churn of head coaches, the Texans are looking for stability.
The Texans are obviously hoping to find a long-term solution at head coach who can work constructively in tandem with the personnel department and teach and develop young players.
“On behalf of the entire organization, I would like to thank Lovie Smith for everything he has contributed to our team over the last two seasons as a coach and a leader,” Caserio said in a statement. “I’m constantly evaluating our football operation and believe this is the best decision for us at this time. It is my responsibility to build a comprehensive and competitive program that can sustain success over a long period of time. We aren’t there right now, however, with the support of the McNair family and the resources available to us, I’m confident in the direction of our football program moving forward.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.