Houston Texans take unusual road in promoting Lovie Smith to head coach

HOUSTON -- When the Houston Texans fired David Culley, general manager Nick Caserio cited “philosophical differences” with the head coach, with some reports pointing to Culley wanting to keep his coaching staff intact.

But almost a month after firing Culley, following interviews with six external candidates, Caserio hired a member of Culley's coaching staff in Lovie Smith. Smith, who will be the fifth head coach in franchise history (excluding interim coaches), was the Texans’ defensive coordinator and associate head coach in 2021. He spent the previous five seasons coaching the University of Illinois, where he amassed a 17-39 record before being fired.

The Texans interviewed three candidates twice: former NFL quarterback Josh McCown, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon and former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores. Others with whom the Texans spoke included Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell, Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and former Steelers wide receiver and current Florida Atlantic receivers coach Hines Ward.

Some in the Texans organization have long thought of McCown as a candidate. When Houston signed McCown in November 2020, several sources told ESPN that he might get hired as part of a future Texans’ coaching staff, perhaps even as the next permanent coach to replace Bill O’Brien. That didn’t happen, though he did interview for the opening. To the surprise of many, he was close to being hired to replace Culley.

But late in the process, Houston pivoted to Smith, interviewing him for the opening Sunday. The Texans hired him Monday.

Smith, who is Black, joins the Miami Dolphins' Mike McDaniel, the New York Jets' Robert Saleh, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin and the Washington Commanders' Ron Rivera as the league's only minority head coaches.

Smith has the head-coaching experience Culley -- who spent 43 seasons as an assistant in the NFL and college without ever being an NFL coordinator -- lacked. With the Chicago Bears (2004-12) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-15), he had a combined 89-87 record.

Smith has been to the Super Bowl twice, once as a head coach (2006) and once as defensive coordinator for the Rams (2001).

While Smith might have made sense as a hire instead of Culley a year ago, the process to get here -- firing Culley and then interviewing Smith more than three weeks later after going through the search process with six other candidates -- doesn’t.

In his news conference after firing Culley, Caserio said “the organization was in a pretty rough spot” a year ago but is “in a lot better position” now. Whether that will lead to wins and a team that takes a step forward after finishing third in the AFC South twice in a row remains to be seen.

In February 2021, the Texans had hired Caserio and Culley and quarterback Deshaun Watson had asked to be traded. Now, the Texans hope they’ll be able to jettison Watson, who faces 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior during massage sessions, before the trade deadline. His ongoing legal issues could be a roadblock, especially if he ends up facing criminal charges. Watson has denied wrongdoing.

Watson’s legal situation, along with his trade request, led to the quarterback making $10 million last season under the final year of his rookie contract as a healthy scratch for all 17 games.

In 2022, Watson is set to make $35 million, and in March, his $20 million 2023 salary and $17 million 2023 roster bonus become fully guaranteed.

Even before a potential Watson trade, Caserio and Smith will have improved draft capital to work with this year. Houston, which has had just one first-round pick since 2017, has the No. 3 overall pick in the April draft. If Caserio trades Watson, the Texans could have a treasure trove of picks to take their rebuild to the next level.

In Caserio’s end-of-season news conference, he downplayed any pressure he may feel after firing his first coach after one season. And while team CEO and chairman Cal McNair has made it clear he believes in Caserio’s vision, after hiring his second coach in 13 months, Caserio must hope Smith is a long-term solution and a coach he can build this team around.