HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans took a step toward moving past their 4-12 season and previous regime when they hired former Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio as their general manager on Thursday.
According to Adam Schefter, McNair paid search firm Korn Ferry hundreds of thousands of dollars, but ignored their recommendation of hiring Pittsburgh Steelers vice president of football and business administration Omar Khan or ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick -- both minority candidates -- and instead went with Caserio, a close tie to Texans executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby.
Now, as McNair and Caserio focus on finding the right head coach, they have to worry about mending fences with their franchise quarterback because he did not have a say in the general manager search.
How did we get here?
Watson’s frustration with the Texans’ organization started in March when the team traded wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson without letting the quarterback know about the deal before it happened.
While many feel the Texans did not get adequate value for the All-Pro receiver -- the Texans also received a 2020 second-rounder (which became DL Ross Blacklock) and a 2021 fourth-round pick and sent a 2020 fourth-round pick to Arizona (which became DL Rashard Lawrence) -- former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien was right about one thing: Watson didn’t need Hopkins to put up big numbers.
Will Fuller V set career highs in receptions (53), receiving yards (879) and touchdowns (eight) in 11 games before he was suspended, and the addition of Brandin Cooks (team-high 81 catches and 1,150 yards, along with six TDs) helped Watson finish with an NFL-best 4,823 passing yards, as well as a career-high 33 passing touchdowns and career-low seven interceptions.
The frustration came back -- and increased -- after the Texans hired Caserio last week.
In November, the month after the Texans fired O’Brien, McNair had dinner with Watson. They discussed the direction of the franchise, McNair told ESPN, and he wanted to hear Watson's opinion on who should be the next head coach. In November, McNair told ESPN “that he welcomes Watson's input, respects his opinion and wants the star quarterback to be happy.”
Watson and his agent David Mulugheta later spoke to McNair again over Zoom to discuss potential candidates.
However, on Thursday, the day the Texans announced the hiring of Caserio, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Watson was not happy with the process because, according to league sources, “Watson offered input on potential general manager candidates, but the Texans neither considered nor consulted with those endorsed by their franchise quarterback.”
Regardless of whether there was a miscommunication or McNair misled Watson about what the quarterback’s involvement would be in the hiring process, now Watson is not returning McNair’s calls.
“I've come to understand that it's been reported that Deshaun feels left out of the process, but he and I had several visits and I understood his point of view before meeting with candidates," McNair said Friday. "I've reached out to Deshaun about Nick's hire, and I look forward to him getting back to me when he returns from his vacation."
How bad is it?
On Sunday, Schefter reported that after the Texans traded Hopkins, Watson’s anger level was "a 2. ... This time, it's a 10."
According to Schefter, Watson found out on social media that the Texans intended to hire Caserio. While there have been several reports about his unhappiness, Watson’s lone reaction about the general manager hire came in the form of a since-deleted tweet that stated, "some things never change ...”
Watson said after the season that the organization needs “a whole culture shift.” By hiring Caserio, who spent 20 seasons in New England, it may be that Watson believes the Texans went back to the same well that brought them O’Brien, who was with the Patriots for five years before becoming the head coach at Penn State. O’Brien stayed with the Nittany Lions for two seasons before moving on to the Texans.
The Texans also have Easterby, who spent six seasons in New England. Easterby was part of the Texans’ traveling party that went to pick Caserio up before his interview and McNair said he “sought out Jack [Easterby]'s feedback on Nick [Caserio] as a leader” during the process of hiring a general manager.
Easterby was given responsibility over personnel after O’Brien was fired, but McNair made it clear Friday that Easterby will not be in charge of the roster or free agency going forward.
“Those are the GM jobs that Nick [Caserio] is doing, and he will look to Jack [Easterby] to do some of these other things that Jack has done really well in the past,” McNair said.
What happens next?
According to multiple sources, Watson has not responded to texts and calls from McNair and others in the organization, but he is on vacation. The team is hopeful, a source says, that Watson will return calls as they continue their search for the franchise’s next head coach.
According to a league source, Watson has been assured by the organization his opinion will be taken into account during the search for a head coach.
Watson hasn’t publicly listed head coaches he wants considered, but did mention them to McNair during the Zoom call. In his end-of-season news conference, Watson said he spoke to McNair about keeping offensive coordinator Tim Kelly around for “as long as possible.” Watson has credited Kelly with taking his game to another level “over the past two years.”
“His knowledge of just the game of football is very, very bright and he really helped me take my game [there], especially this year, the best football I’ve played in my career,” Watson said in early January.
Watson has publicly stated his admiration for Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who got a ringing endorsement to Watson from Patrick Mahomes. According to multiple sources, the Texans have not requested an interview with Bieniemy.
What options does Watson have going forward?
Play for the Texans: This seems like the most likely scenario for Watson, who signed a five-year, $156 million contract extension in September, making him the second-highest-paid quarterback (with an AAV of $39 million) behind Mahomes.
The new NFL league year begins March 17 and not a lot will happen before then. The best-case scenario for the Texans is McNair and Caserio can talk to Watson and get on the same page. The Texans want Watson’s input into the head coaching hire because McNair knows how important it is to get this move right, so as to not waste any more of Watson’s NFL career.
Force a trade: A team source says the Texans will not trade Watson, although there is certainly a chance the quarterback refuses to show up to optional organized team activities and mandatory minicamp this spring (if those even happen in person due to the continued COVID-19 pandemic).
If they do trade him, how does that work? Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract, so he would have final say on any deal. According to Schefter, if the Texans did trade Watson, they would have to absorb a salary-cap charge of $22 million. For a team already projected to be more than $17 million over the cap in 2021, that is a large amount of money for a player who isn’t on the roster. Even if the Texans got significant draft capital for Watson, the team would still have to make several money-saving cuts and would have a hard time building via free agency.
Of course, if the Texans made it known they are taking calls for Watson, there will be a long list around the league of interested teams. It’s hard to even estimate a price for Watson because this is such an unusual situation.
Sit out: Ultimately, because Watson is under contract, the Texans don’t have to do anything about this situation. If he sits out, the team could choose to fine him up to $40,000 per day for every day he skips during training camp. He would also be subject to additional loss of money if he does not report for the start of the season and misses games.
Retire: In an extreme circumstance, the 25-year-old Watson could choose to retire instead of playing for the Texans if they refuse to trade him.
Generally, when a player retires, it works in a similar way to him being released. The guaranteed money in Watson’s salary would count against the cap, but Houston could also choose to go after the money. For example, when quarterback Andrew Luck retired in 2019, he and the Indianapolis Colts reached a settlement, where the team chose not to recoup $24.8 million from its former quarterback.
If Watson retires, his rights are maintained by the Texans. He could not un-retire and sign with another team (unless Houston cut him while he is retired), because contracts are counted in seasons accrued, not in years.