The Texans have gone off the rails since CEO Cal McNair took over the franchise after the passing of his father Bob McNair in late 2018. The organization gave Bill O’Brien too much power, officially adding the title of general manager to his head coaching duties in January 2020. O’Brien quickly ran the team into the ground, which culminated in the organization firing him after an 0-4 start to the 2020 season.
O’Brien most notably traded star WR DeAndre Hopkins for RB David Johnson at the start of the last off-season, which was the beginning of Deshaun Watson’s disenchantment with the direction of the Texans. Watson still signed a $156 million extension six months later but his mistrust for the franchise would continue to grow after playing at an elite level in 2020 and the team still finishing with a 4-12 record.
Watson’s frustrations came to head when he formally requested a trade in January. The organization gave him little to no say in the hirings of Nick Caserio as GM and David Culley as HC despite being told at the end of the 2020 season that his input would be considered. We’ll see if Watson ever plays another snap for the Texans but, if he does, Culley will obviously play a big role. Culley is well respected among players and fellow coaches, but he still came from out of nowhere to get one of the 32 NFL head coaching spots. He never even previously held an offensive coordinator position despite being in the league coaching ranks for the past 27 years.
The Texans hired Culley to bring stability to the franchise after a rocky stretch since Bob McNair’s death. Culley brought in Lovie Smith to be his defensive coordinator, who brings with him plenty of experience as a head coach. The Texans also retained offensive coordinator Tim Kelly and they brought in Pep Hamilton to be the team’s quarterbacks coach to appease Watson. The biggest situation to follow in the NFL right now is if Watson will even give the new staff a chance or is his relationship with the Texans beyond repair.
Culley, 65, was one of the more unexpected coaching hires in recent history given that he’s never been a serious candidate for any other head coaching positions in his three decades as an NFL assistant coach. He may be a first-time head coach but he brings 41 years of coaching experience to the table, including the last 27 years in the NFL.
Culley has primarily worked as a wide receivers coach in Tampa Bay (1994-95), Pittsburgh (1996-98), Philadelphia (1999-2012), Kansas City (2013-16), and Baltimore (2019-20) with a brief two-year stint as a quarterbacks coach in his second-to-last stop in Buffalo (2017-18). He’s been mostly linked to Andy Reid during his career having worked on Reid’s staff throughout his 14-year stay in Philadelphia before following him to the Chiefs for Reid’s first four years in Kansas City.
Culley spent the last two seasons as Baltimore’s passing-game coordinator on top of his wide receiver coaching duties under John Harbaugh. The Ravens ranked first in passing DVOA in Lamar Jackson’s 2019 MVP season before sinking to 17th last season. Culley is regarded as an extremely player-friendly coach for his ability to cultivate relationships and motivate his players, which is likely the biggest reason the Texans hired him as they try to repair their relationship with Watson.
Smith, 62, is back in the NFL after a five-year run as the head coach at the University of Illinois. He compiled an 89-87 record in 11 seasons as a head coach in the NFL between the Bears (2014-12) and the Buccaneers (2014-15). He won Coach of the Year honors in 2005 and he led the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. Smith previously held the title defensive coordinator just one other time with the St. Louis Rams (2001-03), which included a Super Bowl appearance in 2001.
Lovie brings plenty of experience and a strong track record of success to Houston over three decades of coaching, but his last two stops have left a lot to be desired. The Buccaneers fired him after two miserable seasons with an 8-24 record, which included a 2-14 campaign in his first season in 2014. Smith then tried his hand against Big Ten competition with the Fighting Illini, but the university fired him last December. He failed to post a winning record in any of his five seasons and he finished with a 17-39 mark overall.
Smith will find himself devoid of talent for the eighth straight year in his coaching career as he takes over one of the league’s worst defenses from last season — former Texans DC Anthony Weaver said “we need help” when asked about his defense last December. The Texans allowed the sixth-most points per game (29.0) and the third-most yards per game (416.8) in 2020, and just released the face of their franchise — and one of their only good defensive players — in J.J. Watt.
Smith will bring his Tampa-2 defensive scheme with him to Houston, which he helped popularize in the early 2000s along with his good friend Tony Dungy, under whom he coached from 1996-2000 with the Buccaneers. A Tampa-2 scheme uses a 4-3 front with the middle linebacker covering the deep middle of the field and the safeties covering the deep halves. The cornerbacks also typically wideouts to force inside releases before dropping into their zones.
The direction of this offense for fantasy will completely hinge on if Watson stays or if Watson leaves this off-season. Culley’s hiring is unlikely to make much of an impact on what this offense looks like in 2021 since Kelly will still be in charge of the offense. Culley, who signed a five-year contract, will likely take on more of a CEO role for this dysfunctional team, delegating offensive control to Kelly and defensive control to Smith.
The organization clearly valued keeping Kelly in the fold for 2021 and beyond, which could be a big reason why they opted for Culley to be the next head coach as opposed to an Eric Bieniemy type, who would’ve wanted complete control of the offense. Kelly, 34, had potential suitors for his services in January but the Texans denied permission to the Lions and the Jaguars to interview him for their offensive coordinator positions.
He also had an ally in Watson, who said of Kelly in early January: “Tim over the past two years has really taken my game to a whole nother level as far as just knowledge, reading defenses, understanding run points and run schemes, understanding the way of different concepts and different situations.”
Kelly has built a strong bond with Watson over Deshaun’s first four seasons in the NFL, and Kelly’s play-calling improved throughout his first season as an offensive coordinator in 2020. Watson had by far the best season of his career setting new personal bests in YPA (8.9), passing TDs (33), and passing yards (4823) — he also led the league in YPA and passing yards.
The Texans averaged the most yards per pass attempt and the fourth-most passing yards per game (283.6) last season, but this passing attack would crater without a player of Watson’s caliber running the show next season. It also won’t help if Will Fuller departs during free agency, which would be a major blow for the downfield passing attack for whoever quarterbacks this offense next season. The Texans have a disgruntled quarterback who is ready to win now but they have a roster that’s going to take years to rebuild with little draft capital. No matter which direction the Texans go with Watson, this is going to be a pivotal off-season for a franchise that’s quickly headed toward the bottom of the league.