Cal McNair walked up to the podium inside the Texans’ auditorium Monday night one day after firing coach Lovie Smith and launching a coaching search for the third consecutive year.
It’s the same room where Smith used to lead team meetings until his dismissal.
For the Texans’ chairman and CEO, he’s embarking on an unpredictable, subjective process that hasn’t created the kind of results the Texans want and need to engineer a turnaround from the losing cycle they’ve been stuck inside.
Since firing former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien three years ago and finishing that 4-12 season with interim coach Romeo Crennel, the Texans have had four different head coaches during that span. The Texans are drawing plenty of criticism after firing former NFL Coach of the Year Lovie Smith after a 3-13-1 season one year after dismissing first-time coach David Culley after he went 4-13 in another one-and-done season. The Texans have gone 11-38-1 during this three-year span as each coaching direction they chose ended in failure.
Now, McNair is vowing that things will be different this time. Normally a relatively hands-off owner compared to colleagues like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, McNair is advertising he’ll be more personally involved in the hiring process while working in tandem with general manager Nick Caserio.
The Texans have requested interviews with Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, regarded as their leading candidate after interviewing twice and impressing the search committee last season, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans, a former Texans linebacker whom sources don’t expect to agree to interview with the AFC South franchise, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and Denver Broncos defensive coordinaor Ejiro Evero, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
“Now we’re committed to getting this one right,” McNair said. “I have full confidence in Nick. He has led our football operations through a difficult stretch and continues to prove he is an elite talent evaluator. We talk constantly and have a plan for this process that we’ll execute together over the next days and weeks. For this hire, I’ll be taking on a more active role in the process.”
One year after hiring Smith after nearly going with former NFL quarterback Josh McCown on the recommendation of former executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby after interviewing Gannon, Smith, McCown, former NFL wide receiver Hines Ward, now-Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, now the Pittsburgh Seelers senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach after filing a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL, the Dolphins, Giants, Texans and Broncos, the Texans are right back where they were a year ago: starting from scratch.
Unlike a year ago, the job is significantly more attractive with two first-round draft picks this year and next year after trading three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns along with $47 million in salary-cap space after years of bad contracts executed during the O’Brien era.
The Texans struggled mightily under Smith with a thin roster that struggled to stop the run due to shoddy tackling and poor gap integrity and discipline along with an ineffective offense that lost its most dangerous weapon, rookie Pro Bowl alternate running back Dameon Pierce to a high-ankle sprain.
“He’s our coach, we’ve got to go out and perform,” Texans right offensive tackle Tytus Howard said. “We only won three games. Yeah, we’re partly at fault in that..Two years in a row we had a coach fired. I think we should take some ownership in that also.”
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the business. He’s done a lot of things for us to help us grow as players…I’m excited for the future of this team and we got to support Nick in every decision he makes.”
That’s the basic stance presented by McNair.
Nonetheless, McNair has grown beyond tired of the annual cycle of losing seasons followed by lengthy coaching searches and constant criticism of the franchise founded by his late father, Bob McNair
Between Watson requesting a trade and facing multiple sexual assault and sexual harassment legal allegations after signing a $156 million contract extension and a constant churn of coaches, the franchise has been through a lot. The latest setback: firing Smith, a former Super Bowl coach after he was unable to engineer a turnaround.
“These decisions are extremely difficult, and we appreciate everything Lovie has done for us over the last two years as a coach and a leader,” McNair said. “We just felt this was the best decision for us at this time. We know the last two seasons have not been what we had hoped for, but we’re committed to building a program that’s successful long-term. We’ve dealt with unprecedented circumstances over the last several years, but we’re excited about our future and where we’re headed.
“We’re constantly evaluating where we are as an organization, looking for ways to improve and reaching out to our fan base. Whether that’s exploring uniform changes or making head coach changes, we’re always looking to up our game in every area and take our organization to the next level. We feel there’s a strong list of potential head coach candidates, and we’re excited to work with them. We’re going to pick the best coach to take this team into our future with significant draft capital, salary cap space and talented young roster. I’m excited.”
Caserio said he will involve more people and accept more input than he has previously and will increase the sphere of feedback.
“We’ve already talked about implementing some different techniques and tactics that we feel can help us,” Caserio said. “And relying on more members and people in the organization to make it a more inclusive process and not just make it about one individual or one person.”
“So, we’re going to try to find ways that we can improve,” he said. “We’re going to try to make sound decisions. We’re going to try to make better decisions. And that’s the only way we’re going to move this organization forward. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Going forward, the plan is to hold virtual interviews this week with job candidates and then interview them in-person after the wild-card playoff round. Then, Caserio will make a recommendation to McNair, his wife, Texans foundation vice president Hannah McNair, and co-founder and owner Janice McNair.
“We’re going to be respectful of each other’s perspective, which is ultimately we’re going to do what we feel is in the best interest of the Houston Texans organization,” Caserio said. “But in the end, I think the owner has a trump card.”