When former general manager Rick Smith left the organization, the Houston Texans went all-in on head coach Bill O’Brien. Seventeen months later, they’re doubling down on that bet.
When Smith took his leave of absence, ownership gave its head coach the keys and allowed him to have significant input on their search for a new general manager. O’Brien got his guy in Brian Gaine, someone with whom he said he was "aligned philosophically." At the time, O’Brien said though the Texans “interviewed some great candidates,” Gaine was “head and shoulders above everybody." The Texans gave Gaine a five-year contract and signed O’Brien to a four-year extension to match the new general manager’s deal.
Seventeen months, a division title and another embarrassing home playoff loss later, the Texans are back where they started. Except this time, Houston has gone through free agency and the draft, and training camp is less than two months away.
It is astounding that a head coach who has won one playoff game in five years (against the Connor Cook-led Oakland Raiders after the 2016 season) will be working for his third general manager, yet here are the Texans and O’Brien.
Last season, after Houston went 11-5 -- the second-best record in franchise history -- and the Texans won O’Brien’s third division title, the team had holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Houston entered the offseason with more than $70 million in cap space, but as of June, the Texans still have more than half of that left.
The Texans lost defensive back Kareem Jackson and safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency. Gaine was outbid for Mathieu, who signed with the Chiefs, another team with AFC title aspirations. The Texans' biggest hole entering the offseason was their offensive line, which Gaine addressed by signing veteran Matt Kalil, who did not play last season because of a knee injury, and re-signing Seantrel Henderson, who broke his ankle in the season opener last year and was put on injured reserve. Though the Texans did use two of their first three picks on offensive tackles, neither Tytus Howard nor Max Scharping is guaranteed to make an immediate impact.
So here we are. O’Brien with all the power and the Texans looking for someone to run their personnel department, almost certainly with the head coach having significant input, again.
Whatever the Texans believe they did wrong in hiring Gaine, they cannot afford to do it again. The roster is top-heavy with superstars on both sides of the ball. Deshaun Watson has already played two years on his rookie contract and will soon command an extension that will further hinder the Texans’ ability to build around their franchise quarterback. They also have to figure out what they’re doing with Jadeveon Clowney, who has not shown up at Houston’s organized team activities after the Texans placed the non-exclusive franchise tag on him in March, and he is not expected to show up at the team’s veterans minicamp, either.
By firing Gaine, CEO Cal McNair has made his first big move in charge of the franchise. McNair took over for his father, Bob, who died in December. Now, Cal McNair has to hire the right guy to replace Gaine.
In their previous general manager search, which took place in January 2018, Houston interviewed two candidates: former Texans vice president of player personnel and assistant general manager Jimmy Raye III and Gaine. The four-person search committee of Bob McNair, Cal McNair, O’Brien and team president Jamey Rootes also brought in Brian Gutekunst for an interview, but the Packers hired him as their general manager less than 24 hours after he arrived in Houston because they didn’t want to risk losing him to the Texans.
Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay declined to interview with Houston because he wanted to stay in Dallas, and the Eagles denied permission for the Texans to interview vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas. On Friday, shortly after the Texans announced that they had fired Gaine, the New York Jets hired Douglas to be their general manager, signing him to a six-year contract.
In 2018, Houston also requested permission from the New England Patriots to interview director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort, but the Texans were denied. O’Brien has a good relationship with Caserio from his time in New England, but if he is not interested or if Bill Belichick does not allow him to interview, Ossenfort could be a top candidate this time around.
With this drastic action, McNair is showing he's clearly committed to winning. Gaine was less than two years into his five-year contract, and the Texans are still paying Smith as well. McNair has given an indirect vote of confidence to O’Brien and further aligned the organization with its head coach. Since the Texans last did that, they added another division title, but made little progress in their quest for a Lombardi Trophy.
While many other AFC contenders have made noise with their offseason moves, Houston has been characteristically stagnant. Though the Texans were 11-5 in 2018, they still haven't proven that they belong in the conversation as an elite team.
And if the Texans don’t make the right hire here -- which is not something that can properly be evaluated for another year or two -- they will be in this position again, but perhaps without that core group of players or the financial flexibility.
In 17 seasons, the franchise has never advanced past the divisional round in the playoffs. They have a roster that appears ready to take that step.
But first the team needs a general manager.