Nick Caserio’s two-decade run in New England with Bill Belichick was a smashing success in nearly every way. They won a staggering six Super Bowls together, and Caserio wasn’t just along for the ride, either. He served as Belichick’s primary lieutenant that began as an apprenticeship and grew into a partnership during those two decades.
From Belichick, Caserio learned how to run a football team at an optimal level. But as prepared as Caserio was to become a first-time general manager, he inherited an extremely difficult situation with the Houston Texans a year ago.
The architect of a massive rebuilding project, Caserio has dramatically overhauled the roster since his arrival through a series of short-term contracts, restructured contracts, and trades.
And his biggest move to date required supreme patience. He didn’t panic but instead waited out the perfect situation, trading three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns for ultra-valuable draft capital that includes three first-round draft selections.
But that meant waiting for Watson’s legal issues to clear up and being able to trade him for a strong return after he avoided criminal prosecution for sexual misconduct allegations.
Now, the Texans have set out to find a long-term Plan B to Watson. Perhaps it’s already in the building – developing talented second-year quarterback Davis Mills, upgrading the worst running game in the league, and building a more aggressive, opportunistic defense.
While the Watson trade could ultimately accelerate a transformation of a 4-13 team into a potential contender within the next few years, there’s still a lot of heavy lifting ahead of the Texans. That’s a reality that Caserio readily acknowledges as he continues to work diligently to shape the Texans’ overall talent and culture.
“Look, we have a lot of areas that we can improve as an overall team, and that’s what the offseason is for, so hopefully that can translate into results on the field,” Caserio said. “We all have a common goal. We’re all trying to achieve the same thing. We all have to depend and rely on each other. So, that personal accountability to each other at all levels of the program, that’s what’s going to kind of lift us to a level that we think is better than where it is and that we hopefully can sustain for an extended period of time.”
That means acquiring foundational players and upgrading the talent on a roster bereft of impact players beyond Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
Texans 2.0 remains in the building phase. Fan attendance and interest has been down.
The Texans are hoping that the addition of two first-round draft picks in LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Texas A&M offensive guard Kenyon Green as well as second-round draft picks in Alabama wide receiver John Metchie III and Baylor safety Jalen Pitre pay dividends and quickly earn starting jobs.
Houston is just a few seasons removed from the disastrous end to the Bill O’Brien era. O’Brien crushed the Texans by mismanaging draft capital and cash and salary cap through lopsided trades – including shipping off WR DeAndre Hopkins – and bad contracts like overpaying pass rusher Whitney Mercilus.
Moves like those led to O’Brien’s ouster and Caserio’s arrival. The new boss did make a one-year mistake by hiring coach David Culley, who was fired and replaced through promoting defensive coordinator and former NFL Coach of the Year Lovie Smith.
“It’s normal to have sort of the business cycle in sports, you have your ups and downs, and you fight your way through it,” Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair said during the spring. “We’ve always had the fans with us, and it’s exciting to have even more excitement than we’ve had the last couple years, due to whatever reasons. We’ve had a lot of different things impact us: attendance at the stadium and different things. So, we’re excited to get everything back together and going again.”
Engineering a turnaround starts with attitude and hard work. It also means upgrading the personnel on the roster. It’s going to take all of those elements to get things going in the right direction in Houston.
“It’s not going to happen unless you’re thinking that way,” Smith said. “For us, we’re starting from scratch. We have a long ways to go and a lot of work to do.”
A native of Big Sandy, Texas, and a former NFC champion with the Chicago Bears, Smith became the new coach after a lengthy search process took a sudden turn that was, at one point, headed toward former NFL quarterback Josh McCown.
Now, it’s up to Smith, who went 89-87 with the Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to get the Texans back to competitiveness. Smith went 17-39 in five seasons at Illinois, his last head coaching job.
“There’s no magic pill on how we’re going to do things, just hard work,” Smith said. “At first, just work, faith in what we’re doing, Speaking for us, we didn’t play well enough. We need to get better. The way you get better is classroom, strength and conditioning, eventually, on the field. It’s a must.”
Commanding the huddle, organizing informal offseason workouts and delivering the football accurately, Mills is determined to make the most of his opportunity as the Texans’ starting quarterback. Mills enters his second NFL season having finished his rookie year with some encouraging performances.
For the strong-armed former third-round draft pick from Stanford, it’s about intangibles and leadership qualities as much as it is about his efficiency and knowledge of the playbook and opposing defenses.
While Mills went 2-9 in 11 starts as the replacement for veteran QB Tyrod Taylor, he also had his moments. He completed 66.8% of his throws for a franchise rookie record 2,664 yards – passing former top overall pick David Carr – with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passer rating (88.8) was more than respectable, considering his age and situation.
Mills completed 68.9% of his throws to go 2-2 in the final four games of the season for 927 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 106.1 passer rating during that span. In home games at NRG Stadium, Mills passed for 12 touchdowns with one interception. He also had four games with 100 or higher passer ratings.
“I think a lot of the growth that I’ve made just comes with experience out there,” Mills said. “I’m extremely excited and hope that the growth from the last year continues straight into the next one. I’m definitely comfortable.”
Caserio, borrowing a page from the Belichick handbook, has downplayed expectations for Mills and cautioned against anyone jumping to fast conclusions about younger players.
He referenced the example of quarterback Matt Cassel, a former Tom Brady backup and seventh-round draft pick who stepped in and performed well when Brady tore up his knee in 2008 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We almost moved on from Cassel in training camp because he didn’t play very well,” Caserio said. “So until they actually get on the field and perform, I would say fast forward to what Davis went through, he went through a lot. I’d say he dealt with some adversity, whether it was in training camp, whether it’s in the preseason and you got to the regular season and there was a gap there, you kind of take a deep breath and he came back on the field. Offensive football is a collective effort, and the quarterback relies on everybody else around him and vice versa. So, I’d say he’s certainly made some progress. We’ll see how the offseason goes.”
Caserio had a similar take on downplaying expectations for Stingley and other young players already being penciled into starting positions before they’ve even participated fully in practice.
“Trying to determine what type of a role a rookie is going to play when they walk in a building is ridiculous because they haven’t even been here,” Caserio said. “We have to start from square one when you come in the building, learn from people in the building that are actually going to help you become a better pro and better player, and not worry about things you can’t control.”
The Texans have been labeled the worst team in the NFL by some national media outlets and a potential candidate to draft first overall in 2023. That’s now how McNair is thinking, though, and certainly not what he’s saying.
A lot of his confidence is bolstered by his faith in Caserio to turn things around and build a competitive roster.
“He’s very calm, very methodical,” McNair said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch him do it. He’s putting together a really good foundation. As we continue to move forward, he’ll continue to have the draft capital he had this year in many ways, and he’ll have even more salary cap next year to work with.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun to continue to watch him build this thing and coach Smith to coach the guys. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch what he’s done so far and what he’s going to do in the future.”