HOUSTON -- Nineteen seasons into the franchise's history, the Houston Texans are still searching for an identity and developing a culture.
And, of course, they're still seeking a championship.
Now, team CEO Cal McNair has empowered a duo that has been a part of building a winning culture. In hiring Nick Caserio, the former New England Patriots director of player personnel, as the fifth general manager in Texans history, McNair pairs him with another person from his Patriots past: executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby.
Regardless of how fans associate Caserio's and Easterby’s names and what they think of trying to create an organization that is run similarly to the Patriots, this is a step in the right direction for the Texans. Caserio has helped build three Super Bowl-winning rosters, while Easterby was among the most influential team employees during the Patriots' multiple-championship run.
Winning a Super Bowl is the goal, and Caserio and Easterby played a role in making it happen.
The McNair family has hired from the Bill Belichick tree before. Former coach/GM Bill O’Brien spent five years as an assistant with the Patriots before leaving to coach Penn State, and the Texans hoped he would bring some of what made the Patriots so successful with him to Houston.
Seven years later, the Texans are not just going back to that strategy, they’re doubling down. Caserio, who joined the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001, has earned six Super Bowl rings.
McNair gave Easterby responsibility over personnel after O’Brien was fired, yet he said Easterby would not be named general manager going forward. McNair also told people in the organization the new general manager and coach he hired would have some say in Easterby’s future role.
Caserio’s hiring all but ensures Easterby will remain a prominent figure with the Texans. Easterby was part of the traveling party that accompanied Caserio to Houston on Tuesday, a source told ESPN.
In June 2019, the Texans tried to hire Caserio away from the Patriots, but after New England filed tampering charges, McNair dropped the pursuit. Caserio’s contract was up after the 2020 draft, and when he signed a new contract with New England last year, it contained different language that allowed him to pursue opportunities such as this one.
Now, a year and a half after trying to hire him, McNair gets the person he wants to run the front office.
Since the Texans fired O’Brien in October after an 0-4 start, McNair has been clear to those in the organization that he knows he has to get these next two hires right to build around the franchise quarterback they have under contract through the 2025 season: Deshaun Watson.
O’Brien tried -- and failed -- to create a winner around Watson, instead trading away key playmakers after the Texans fired former general manager Brian Gaine in June 2019. And while several other former Patriots executives and coaches tried to make it on their own and failed, Caserio has a true franchise quarterback in place, as the Patriots had in six-time Super Bowl champ Tom Brady.
However, Caserio is tasked with building a winning team despite being over the salary cap and without first- or second-round draft picks.
According to Over the Cap, the Texans are projected to be at $17.8 million over the estimated 2021 salary cap. Caserio will have ways to decrease that number, as the Texans have several veteran players on bloated contracts. One of the first decisions he will have is what to do with defensive end J.J. Watt, who is owed $17.5 million in 2021, the last year of his contract. Watt’s salary is not guaranteed, and he has said several times since the Texans were eliminated from playoff contention that he’s not certain he will be back in Houston.
Caserio and the Texans’ front office can also save space by moving on from running back David Johnson (saving $6.9 million), linebacker Benardrick McKinney (saving $7 million), running back Duke Johnson (saving $5.1 million) and guard Zach Fulton (saving $3 million). Houston could also restructure some contracts, perhaps signing wide receiver Brandin Cooks to an extension with guaranteed money to lower his $12 million cap hit.
Houston was 4-12 this season but could contend with a shrewd offseason, as the Texans went 2-8 in one-score games and are one year removed from securing back-to-back AFC South titles.
McNair said it was important for him to hire a general manager before a head coach because he wanted his GM to have a significant say in the decision.
On Monday, Watson was asked what he wanted in a head coach. He talked about wanting a "whole culture shift,” discipline and structure.
But he also remarked how everyone needed “to be on the same page.”
“There’s too many different minds, too many different ideas and too many people who think they have this power and it’s not like that,” Watson said.
Whether or not this is what Watson meant, he got it: an organization led by the former Patriots director of player personnel who will pick the team’s coach, and will be helped by Easterby.
While neither man is Belichick, they have both been a part of what Watson and the Texans are chasing: a Super Bowl title.