The Houston Texans parted ways with Bill O’Brien during the 2020 season after an 0-4 start, leading to Romeo Crennel finishing the year as the interim head coach. O’Brien also served as the general manager, a position that was filled by Nick Caserio, whose most recent position was the director of player personnel for the New England Patriots.
Caserio took his time to find O’Brien’s replacement as head coach, ultimately settling on 65-year-old David Culley. This will be his first season as an NFL head honcho, and the move was a curious one. Culley chose to retain offensive coordinator Tim Kelly. Culley will turn the defense over to Lovie Smith.
From 1978 through the 1993 season, Culley coached quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers at various collegiate stops, topping out as the OC at UTEP during the 1989-90 campaigns. He made the leap to the pro ranks in 1994 and hasn’t looked back.
From ’94 through 2016, Culley predominantly coached wide receivers. The glaring coaching-tree connection during the entirety of Culley’s NFL tenure is to Andy Reid. The latter hired Culley in 1999 when Reid became Philadelphia’s head coach, and the pair stayed together through 2016 with the Kansas City Chiefs. Culley coached wide receivers the entire time, among other roles as a senior confidant and even assistant head coach.
Culley moved on to coach in Buffalo as the quarterbacks coach for the 2017 and ’18 seasons prior to a two-year stint on John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore (assistant head coach, wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator). Both Harbaugh and Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott served under Reid in Philadelphia.
Culley’s experience in a West Coast system is obviously extensive after all of the aforementioned time coaching on Reid’s staff. Culley is known for being a player’s coach but not a pushover.
Upon taking the job in Houston, he talked about emphasizing the fundamentals of ball security and discipline on offense, as well as being tenacious on defense — “make people lose their wills.”
Perhaps most important of all, he’s the “anti-O’Brien” as a leader. Don’t expect to see brash arguments with star veterans or a coach who will exhaust players with micromanaging and the like.
The veteran defensive schemer also has considerable experience as an NFL and collegiate head coach. Smith spent the past five years as Illinois’ top teacher, and he continues to employ the once-beloved “Tampa 2” defense.
The heart of the scheme is to keep offenses in front of you by playing a Cover 2 base 4-3 (two safeties in a deeper outside zones) with an inside linebacker covering the middle of the field and having a major role in pass coverage. It requires a heady, athletic middle ‘backer to run the show, along with the ability to pass rush with four linemen.
This system is largely outdated with the major influx in spread systems and emphasis on dynamic slot receivers that can “out-athlete” even the most impressive linebackers. Sure, the position has become faster and smaller to keep up with slot receivers, but this defense has fallen out of favor in recent years as we’ve seen a rise in “big nickel” schemes that place an athletic safety or hybrid corner on the field in the slot.
Other factors working against the Tampa 2 include the revolution of tight ends to become more involved in the passing game, and rules changes that favor aerial attacks.
The 2020 Texans defense, under DC Anthony Weaver, was nothing short of awful. The rankings (1 being better than 32) are as follows:
- Points allowed: 27th
- Takeaways: 32nd
- Offensive yards allowed: 30th
- Passing yards allowed: 24th
- Rushing yards allowed: 32nd
- Sacks generated: 17th
It mostly can only go up, especially when it comes to takeaways. Only nine total turnovers forced in 2020 ranks historically pathetic as the second fewest in league history over 16 games. Losing J.J. Watt probably won’t help, although the Texans managed to be as bad as they were with him last season.
Given the offensive designs will remain in the hands of Kelly, we’ll focus on his system more so than Culley’s imprints.
- In 2019, Houston ran the ball 44.8 percent of the offensive snaps, tying for the ninth-highest rate. That was in an offense with DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Carlos Hyde as the primary skill weapons for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
- Last season, Kelly’s offense ran 38.7 percent of the time, which was tied for the fourth-lowest rate, after trading away Hopkins for running back David Johnson. Much of this can be pinned on poor defensive play.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the 2019 Texans operated out of a base three-wide offensive alignment with the 14th-highest frequency (64 percent). The team rushed the ball 37 percent of the time from this 11-personnel groupings at a success rate of 54 percent. Last year’s offense operated at the same 64 percent of snaps from three-wide sets, but the ground game’s success rate fell to 43 percent on only 29 percent of those plays being rushing attempts.
Why such obvious differences? It can’t be all personnel or on-field circumstances, right? The most pertinent reasoning is super simplistic: Kelly didn’t call a single play in 2019. He was an offensive coordinator in name-only, and O’Brien handled the in-game play-calling duties prior to 2020. Kelly had a large hand in the weekly designs and concepts during the ’19 season.
To Kelly’s credit, he learned on the job, in theory, and has an opportunity to right any play-calling wrongs from 2020. He will have a 43-year coaching veteran, and one who has been in the NFL for 27 seasons, as a sounding board in Culley. There certainly could be more elements of a classic West Coast design in store for the 2021 calls.
Impending notable free agents on offense: Wide receiver Will Fuller. He was leading the way for this hodgepodge passing game that moved on from Nuk Hopkins prior to the 2020 season. Fuller’s well-documented injury history and current suspension for PEDs (one game left) will drive his market value. Even with Houston being a modest $19.78 million under a projected $185 million cap, it appears to be highly unlikely he will return in 2021.
Some merit exists to the notion of placing the franchise tag on Fuller. It will cost $15.808 million, a roughly $5 million raise for a guy whose availability has been his biggest enemy. Factor in the next point on Deshaun Watson wanting out, and it’s unclear what value Houston has in paying up for a guy one banana peel away from another catastrophic injury.
Watson has repeatedly told the organization he has no interest in playing for this team, and his camp has asked for a trade. It seems improbable to find a willing suitor to give up the compensation necessary to not only make this viable from Houston’s end but also have the money to absorb Watson’s hefty contract.
Houston cut running back Duke Johnson to save $5 million in 2021 cap space, and it’s not out of the question David Johnson could be released or at least restructured.
WR Brandin Cooks has a $12 million cap figure and could be released or traded without financial penalty. There’s reason to restructure his deal, too, so all options, including paying him as is, remain on the table.
This team doesn’t currently have a center on the roster after releasing Nick Martin, and versatile guard Senio Kelemete also was a cap casualty.
Fantasy football takeaway
Everything hinges on what happens with Watson’s standoff. It’s hard to see him going anywhere, but there’s then the question about whether he’s willing to sit out the entire year and not collect a check to get his way. All eyes belong on the quarterback.
We’ll do a wholesale review of the offense once the major components are locked into place. Since David Johnson, Cooks and Fuller all are up in the air to some degree, this team could look radically different in just a matter of weeks.