The Houston Texans’ long, winding, and at times confusing road to the hiring of a head coach concluded this week with what could be one of the smartest decisions a franchise not known for them has ever made. That the whole thing might also blow up in the franchise’s face adds to the intrigue. Only, this being the Texans, they never got around to that intrigue.
On what should have been a day to celebrate new coach David Culley and to begin selling fans on his talent, character, and ability—and to turn the page on the Bill O’Brien era—Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson’s simmering frustration with the team went viral. Hours after the Texans informed Watson that Culley would be the team’s new head coach, multiple outlets reported that Watson had asked to be traded weeks ago, and that Culley’s hiring would not change Watson’s mind. The timing is no coincidence.
In his own way, Watson was letting the Texans know that he will control the agenda. You want a celebration? Okay, first, take care of me. The reports come after weeks of whispers quoting people “near Watson” or “familiar with Watson’s thinking” that the quarterback—25 years old and one of the NFL’s five best—wanted to play elsewhere. His tipping point apparently was Texans chairman Cal McNair promising to include him in the process that led to the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio—a promise that Watson felt was not kept.
Whether McNair lied to Watson or there was a miscommunication no longer matters. Watson wants out, and because his $156 million contract includes a no-trade clause, he can dictate where he wants to go. McNair has had weeks to change Watson’s mind, and he either didn’t try hard enough or he was unsuccessful.
This is yet another terrible inflection point for a franchise with a measly four playoff victories in its nineteen-season history. Forget the dumb trades and poor drafts. Trading Watson—which seems inevitable at this point—is a game changer. The NFL is built around quarterbacks. If you have a star at that position, you have a chance to win every game. Even this past season, when the Texans went 4–12 and had the league’s third-worst defense, Watson kept them competitive. In seven of the team’s twelve losses, the Texans were within a touchdown of winning.
Without Watson, the Texans are toast. Salary cap issues will force them to trade or release J.J. Watt. They have already traded their first- and second-round picks in the 2021 NFL draft to the Miami Dolphins. So when Coach Culley begins his tenure in Houston, he’ll be walking into a full team rebuild—a loss-filled process that coaches seldom last long enough to see through to the end. Culley deserves way better. He’s widely respected by his peers and has more than forty years of coaching experience, and now that he’s finally gotten his long overdue break, he’ll have to ride shotgun in the Texans’ front-office clown car.
Culley was not a safe or obvious choice for the job. Despite his decades of experience in the NFL, the longtime assistant has never held an offensive or defensive coordinator job—the traditional stepping stone to head coach consideration. That break from NFL hiring orthodoxy speaks to Caserio’s confidence in Culley and overall vision, because the new GM surely knows that blowing his first big hire could mean he won’t get the opportunity to make a second one.
But when you begin to unwrap Culley’s life and career layer by layer, to see where he has been and who he has worked for, and to hear the passionate endorsements of those who know him best, it’s easy to feel a tinge of hope that this outside-the-box coaching hire could turn into a genius personnel move.
In interviews, Culley blew the Texans away with his energy and vision. He sold the team’s decision makers—that would be CEO Cal McNair signing off on Caserio’s recommendation—on the structure of a winning organization. He told them his first responsibility was to hire a great staff and to empower and trust them to do their jobs. With those pieces in place, his role would be to create a culture built around work ethic and players being accountable to one another. The love of coaching that Culley exudes seems ever more remarkable because he’s spent four decades in a profession that wears people down, burns them out, and casts them aside.
There are few jobs more thankless than being a head coach in the NFL, where one-hundred-hour workweeks are the norm and absorbing blame from fans and team executives is par for the course. Bill Parcells knew it was time to quit when the joy of winning a game didn’t even last past the amount of time it took to return to the locker room and begin dealing with injured players, unhappy stars, and incessant second-guessing from the press. Hall-of-fame coach Joe Gibbs once sat down on a team plane at 1 a.m., after a brutally difficult road win against the Cowboys. When an assistant promptly handed him the scouting report on the next week’s opponent, Gibbs almost pleaded: “Can’t I have five minutes to enjoy this one?” During Gary Kubiak’s time with the Texans, I asked him if there was any part of his job he really enjoyed. The coach thought it over and said: “I love Wednesdays. New week. New game plan. Fresh start.”
So, for David Culley to walk into his interview with the Texans and ooze confidence and passion for the game struck the right note with everyone in the organization. As the Houston front office called around to check Culley’s reputation around the league, they were blown away by how his players and peers admired him. As Ravens head coach John Harbaugh texted ESPN’s Ed Werder: “Great person. Genuine. Full of energy.”
#Ravens HC John Harbaugh in text on David Culley becoming head coach at 65 for the first time in his career. “David is just a genuine guy. He will be who he is everyday. Has been that guy every day of his career. I’m thrilled for him. Great person. Genuine. Full of energy.”
— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) January 28, 2021
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Kubiak lavished praise on Culley. “David is the energy in the building,” Kubiak said. “He relates to players extremely well. He has his way of bonding with them while also being very demanding of them. You’ve got to have relationships with these guys. They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
From former Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum, also to the Chronicle: “He is the kind of guy in the clubhouse that players want to play for. He’ll rally the guys around him.”
Having worked alongside some of the NFL’s best coaches and worked in some of the league’s most successful organizations, Culley surely understands how winning teams are constructed. “Energetic guy that has paid his dues,” one NFL source told the Chronicle. “Fits the culture the Texans and Cal want. This league erroneously thinks to be a head coach, one has to be a great coordinator first. It’s a dumb thought.”
Culley’s title with the Ravens was assistant head coach/passing game coordinator/wide receivers. In that role, he helped the Ravens lead the NFL in scoring in 2019 and average 29.3 points per game this season. Before that, he had gigs with the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was given an “assistant head coach” title under Andy Reid with the Chiefs between 2013 and 2016. Those weren’t empty job titles. That’s how the head coaches Culley worked for viewed him. Reid was among those who offered a resounding endorsement, praising Culley for both his people skills and his attention to detail in strategic matters.
Culley grew up in segregated Tennessee in the fifties and sixties. As a player at Vanderbilt, he was one of the Southeastern Conference’s first Black quarterbacks. Bill Parcells recruited him to come to the school. Texas A&M was the last of Culley’s eight college coaching jobs—and he couldn’t be persuaded to leave College Station until Slocum, the Aggies’ head coach at the time, urged him to make the leap to the NFL.
Culley was the first Black head coach to land a position in this NFL hiring cycle, and although his promotion reflects the league’s desire to elevate more Black and nonwhite coaches to positions of power within teams, it also shines a light on how the NFL’s push for diversity often falls short. Despite the expanded Rooney Rule requirements for teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and coordinator positions, many franchises continue to treat Black coaches as a “hire of last resort.” While 70 percent of NFL players are Black, only 3 out of 32 head coaches are: Culley, Brian Flores of the Dolphins, and Mike Tomlin of the Steelers.
Culley is the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history, and that’s a welcome strike against ageism. Unfortunately, though, all of the reasons to praise his hiring—the culmination of a life’s worth of devotion and dedication to football, a glimmer of hope for the Texans, and one step (although many more are needed) toward greater diversity in the NFL coaching ranks—haven’t been the story this week. Culley’s tenure isn’t beginning with the celebration he deserves. Instead, the looming trade of Deshaun Watson has turned this week’s narrative into the umpteenth chapter in the Texans’ saga of taking three steps back for every one step forward.