HOUSTON — The news of their former quarterback’s suspension broke as the Texans took the field for an 8 am practice, their first padded practice of training camp. Reporters alternated between tracking player attendance and discussing Deshaun Watson, but on the field, nobody knew or cared. Defensive back Terrence Brooks ran down the sideline, carrying his helmet and shouting, “It’s a good day Lovie, we’ve got our motherfucking pads on!”
A year ago, this training camp was a strange scene. Watson was listed on the roster, but he didn’t participate in practice, and wouldn’t play in any games. After his trade demand and lawsuits from (at the time) 22 women alleging sexual misconduct in massage appointments, Watson was paid to sit out. When asked directly about him, coaches and players in Houston barely acknowledged Watson was there, but he was still a huge distraction in head coach David Culley’s first and only season in Houston.
This year, the Watson ignorance at Texans camp is a little more believable. When he was traded to the Browns in March, whatever happened to him next became (mostly) Cleveland’s problem. I asked head coach Lovie Smith, who was Culley’s associate head coach and defensive coordinator during last year’s elephant-in-the-room season, if he was relieved now, on the day of Watson’s suspension, to not have to deal with the media attention this season.
“What happened again?” Smith said. “Another player for somebody else’s team? I haven’t paid a whole—as you can see, 91 guys here kind of occupying all of our time. I know the rest of the league is kind of moving on and whatever is happening there, good for them.”
In July, the Texans reached settlements with 30 different women who said that the team enabled Watson’s misconduct during massage sessions. For now, at least, Houston sees their part in the scandal as having ended.
“We hope that today’s resolution will provide some form of closure to the parties involved, our fans and the Houston community at large,” Hannah and Cal McNair said in a statement about the settlements. “As an organization, we will now turn our focus to the future and doing what we can to ensure respect for all.”
Last year, when Watson was still on the payroll, it was impossible to pretend that the organization was really moving on. Now that Houston traded away Watson, where does that leave the team? In 2021, they had the worst run game in football, with just 83.6 yards per game. They had to start their rookie third-round pick Davis Mills at quarterback when Tyrod Taylor got hurt in Week 2. After the season, the team fired Culley, who made the most with one of the worst rosters in the NFL even though he never seemed like the Texans’ first choice when they hired him. Culley’s predictable firing led to one of the weirdest hiring processes in the NFL—another controversy, that this time had nothing to do with Watson.
Longtime NFL quarterback Josh McCown emerged as the top candidate for the job, with the backing of EVP of football operations and all-around svengali Jack Easterby, who McCown had grown close to during his time as a Texans backup at the end of the 2020 NFL season. But the backlash to the near-hire was loud: McCown didn’t have any NFL or college coaching experience on his resume. He’d been unofficially working in that role while also being a backup quarterback over the last several years of his career, but his résumé was sparse compared to other established coaches, especially the established minority coaches.
At that point in the hiring cycle, there hadn’t been any minority head coaches hired. Then Brian Flores, who the Texans had interviewed for their open position, sued the NFL and all 32 teams for employment discrimination. He specifically called out the Texans Culley in his lawsuit as firing an example of how black head coaches aren’t set up for success. A week later, the Texans dropped McCown, made Lovie Smith their final interview, and promptly declared him head coach.
Plugged-in Houston sports expert John McClain:
The Flores lawsuit caused teams still needing head coaches to step back and reevaluate. The Texans knew they were going to get ridiculed for hiring McCown, who has no college or NFL coaching experience. Hiring him at the expense of a more experienced minority became a deal breaker, so they reached out to Smith.
There were reports McCown turned down the job, which isn’t true. Although he’ll never admit it, [GM Nick] Caserio changed his mind. And the general manager has it in his six-year contract that he gets final say. The McNair family approved his pivot from McCown to Smith.
“The interview process was a good experience and I learned a lot and they ultimately went a different direction,” McCown said last month when I asked him about what the heck happened.
Though they were ready to hire the inexperienced McCown and spark a whole new round of questions about how much power Easterby has over Cal McNair and how much influence he’d have over McCown’s decisions, whatever changed Caserio’s mind wound up landing the Texans on unexpectedly solid ground; The organization backed into a pretty good coaching hire for a team looking to return to being a regular old NFL team.
This is Smith’s third NFL head coaching job and he carries the aura of a man who is too old and has seen too much to be bothered with trivial stuff, such as one reporter’s question on Monday about how he will handle the two-minute drill in the offseason.
“As head coach I’m going to be in charge of all those two-minute situations like everything else,” he said. We’re no different. How do I approach it? Situations come up, we make decisions. Don’t look too much into that, all right?”
Smith has put all of his public confidence in quarterback Davis Mills, the rookie who came off the bench for Taylor last year, saying last week that Mills has his vote for the team captain. Mills played well enough last season that the Texans skipped out on drafting a quarterback this year and have yet to add an established veteran—Jimmy Garoppolo?—to compete with him.
“Mentally he’s stepped up his leadership even more,” running back Rex Burkhead told reporters Monday. “Some of our installs and stuff as an offense during meetings, like he’s leading it. He’s telling guys what to do, which is super impressive to me, and it’s going to help his leadership skills even that much more. I love his confidence out there. I love how he’s being commanding in the huddle, and really taking control of the offense and leading us down the field.”
Houston still has a young team, but veteran left tackle Laremy Tunsil noticed a difference in this year’s roster.
“In the offseason program, I think the attendance was 90-plus,” Tunsil told reporters. “So that speaks for itself right there. You know, Lovie preaches that all the time, follow his direction as he leads. We’re going to follow him. Ninety-plus for offseason attendance is pretty special. I was there too.”
There’s no way Caserio and the McNairs want to fire two head coaches in two seasons, so barring abject disaster or scandal, this team is going to attempt to be normal under Smith for at least two years.
“Since I have been here it’s been a lot of continuity,” said backup QB Kyle Allen, who signed with the Texans in free agency in March. “I think that’s what they were trying to do with bringing Lovie in, just trying to keep the team what it is and build from what we have up. I wasn’t around for a lot of that stuff and I think a lot of it, it kind of just feels like it was in the past. I haven’t heard anyone talking about it. I think it is just a lot of guys who have chips on their shoulders. … There is a lot of unknowns, guys itching to get after it and see where it’s going.”