HOUSTON -- Now that the Houston Texans will no longer pursue Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, CEO Cal McNair has a decision to make.
Houston has interviewed two candidates for its open general manager position since McNair fired Brian Gaine on June 7, but if McNair is not happy with any of the available candidates now that Caserio is off the table, the Texans could choose to stick with the structure currently in place.
If head coach Bill O’Brien is in control of football operations for the rest of 2019, he could be on the hot seat for the first time during his Texans tenure -- if McNair’s unexpected dismissal of Gaine is a sign of things to come on how McNair will run the team after his father's death last November.
Houston could choose to not hire a general manager until after the season, when there is a larger pool of candidates. For the next seven or so months, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports, the Texans could have the staff already in place divvy up responsibilities: O’Brien could run personnel, Jack Easterby could run football operations, Chris Olson would continue being in charge of contracts and team president Jamey Rootes would continue in an administrative role. All four would report to McNair.
By doing this, McNair would be giving O’Brien more power, something the coach said last week that is “not anything that I even think about.”
“[I’m] really just trying to do my job as the head coach,” O’Brien said.
But less than a year and a half after Gaine was hired to be O’Brien’s teammate in Houston, O’Brien is in a position to gain more authority in the Texans’ operations.
If McNair stays with the status quo, O'Brien and the Patriots' Bill Belichick would be the only coaches who have total control of personnel decisions. While it's been a resounding success in New England, it's been far less successful in other places in recent years, such as with the tenures of Chip Kelly in Philadelphia and Mike Shanahan in Washington.
And while O’Brien is entering just the second season of an extension that takes him through 2022, he said last week that McNair was “very clear” with him one what he needs to do to improve, as well as “his vision for the football team and his vision for the organization.”
O’Brien wouldn’t divulge what it is exactly that McNair has said should improve, but clearly there is work for the coach to do, even as the team comes off an 11-5 record and its third AFC South title in four years.
Even if the Texans ultimately do hire a general manager this summer, the pressure will likely intensify on O’Brien. O’Brien took over a 4-12 team and has made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, with the exception when quarterback Deshaun Watson tore his ACL and missed most of his rookie season. The Texans have been content with making the playoffs under O’Brien and were further sold on him by Watson’s success as a rookie.
Their best record came in 2018 (11-5) against a weak schedule, and Houston’s season ended in a blowout loss at home in the playoffs to the division-rival Colts. This offseason, the Texans lost two defensive starters (Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson) to free agency and weren’t active in pursuing top talent on the open market. They will enter 2019 relying on unproven talent on the offensive line to protect Watson, although an elite pass rush could help cover up some of their deficiencies on both sides of the ball.
How much they can cover up could have a big effect on O’Brien’s future. The Texans are running out of time before they have to pony up a big contract for Watson, and they are yet to prove capable of beating the NFL’s elite teams.
If O’Brien has even more control over personnel this season and the Texans don’t make the playoffs -- or even suffer yet another blowout playoff loss -- he could face pressure on having not built on an 11-win season, regardless of the stability of his contract. If the results are more of the same, would that be enough? Or if Houston does finally break through and achieve postseason success, how much credit can O’Brien take for it and how much credit should go to the roster that Gaine and his predecessor, Rick Smith, put together?
In his statement after firing Gaine, McNair said, “While the timing may be usual, this decision was made in the best interest of our organization in our quest to build a championship team for the City of Houston.”
Perhaps the timing will be right to hire Caserio in January, or McNair will find his general manager before training camp next month. But if not, O’Brien will face even more pressure in his sixth season in Houston.