His star quarterback wants a trade and won’t return the team’s phone calls.
His star defensive end — the most popular player in franchise history — just asked for, and was granted, his release.
His owner inherited the team 2½ years ago and can’t get out of his own way.
His fan base is skeptical of his hiring, and blames his right-hand man for the team’s downfall.
And he has to rebuild his team without first- or second-round picks this year, as they were traded away by the previous regime.
Nick Caserio, you are definitely not in Foxborough anymore.
No wonder the Texans gave Caserio a six-year deal to be their general manager, according to a league source, when most GMs get four or five. And no wonder they paid him among the league’s top executives — a base value of $36 million, plus incentives.
Caserio’s new team is, to put it mildly, a train wreck. The Texans had to overpay to entice Caserio away from the Patriots and keep him away from the Panthers. And they had to overcommit to prove to Caserio that they aren’t going to give him the quick hook the way they did to their last two general managers, Brian Gaine and Bill O’Brien.
Texans owner Cal McNair said in January that Caserio was hired because “he has over 20 years of experience building and sustaining championship-level teams.” But many of the challenges facing Caserio in Houston are ones he never experienced in 20 seasons with the Patriots.
First, and most importantly, Caserio has a young star quarterback who wants nothing to do with the team. Deshaun Watson and his representatives have made it clear that they are tired of the losing and the drama in Houston and want a trade. Watson is even trolling the Texans at this point, refusing to answer their calls but posting pictures to social media of him hanging out with friends who play for the Dolphins.
Caserio never had to worry about the quarterback position for two decades in Foxborough, because there was never any doubt that Tom Brady was all-in and fully committed. Even when there was some drama in the final years with Brady not showing up to offseason workouts, there was no doubt that Brady would be committed once training camp began.
But Caserio has a major problem with Watson, and how he handles it will likely define his Houston tenure. Caserio said last month that he has “zero interest” in trading Watson, and he would be viewed as a savior by the fans if he can smooth over the relationship and keep Watson in the fold.
But Caserio may not have a choice. If Watson is adamant about wanting out, then it would be irresponsible for Caserio not to listen to trade offers, as Watson could bring a humongous haul of draft picks to restock the Texans for years to come.
Already the fan base is skeptical of Caserio and the “Patriot Way,” and trading Watson as his first move would not exactly endear him to the Texans faithful. The only way Caserio could dig his way out is by getting a great return and turning those draft picks into gold.
Caserio also has roster challenges unlike ones he ever faced as director of player personnel in New England. He was part of plenty of tough decisions in Foxborough, but never a full rebuild like the one he is facing with the Texans. This is a complete tear-down, all the way down to the studs. The Patriots were always retooling, never rebuilding.
The 4-12 Texans have only about $3 million in cap space as of now, and don’t have first- or second-round picks. So you know what that means: Fire sale.
Already they have parted ways with J.J. Watt, who saved them $17 million in cap money. Receiver Brandin Cooks, who could save the Texans $12 million more, shouldn’t get too comfortable. Nor should running backs David Johnson or Duke Johnson, cornerback Bradley Roby or receiver Randall Cobb. No veterans are safe.
Caserio had the cover of Bill Belichick to shield him from criticism in New England. In Houston, it’s all on him.
Another major difference in Houston: the ownership situation. In New England, Caserio worked for a Kraft family that was stable, savvy, and influential. The Krafts had already learned valuable lessons through experiences with Bill Parcells and Pete Carroll by the time Caserio arrived in 2001 to work for Belichick. They know how to provide steady leadership without meddling too much.
In Houston, Caserio is working for an owner who inherited the team from his father 2½ years ago, and can’t stop tripping over his own feet. McNair fired Gaine, his first GM, after just 16 months. He gave O’Brien complete control of the football operation, allowed him to trade away DeAndre Hopkins and two first-round picks, then fired him after just 20 months.
McNair alienated Watson this year by not following through on a pledge to let Watson have a voice in picking the team’s GM and head coach. And McNair alienated people inside his own building by ignoring the advice of his search committee and hiring Caserio, who was not one of the committee’s recommendations. Former Texans president Jamie Rootes, a member of that search committee, recently left the organization.
Stability and leadership from the owner are often big factors for success in today’s NFL. In that regard, McNair has a long way to go.
Finally, Caserio has to navigate a tricky situation with Jack Easterby, the Texans’ executive vice president of football operations. Easterby was beloved in New England when he was the team’s character coach and pastor. But in Houston, Easterby has become a punching bag for the players and fans.
Easterby emerged with more power after struggles with Gaine and O’Brien. The players view him suspiciously, and the fans blame him for alienating Watson, Hopkins, and Watt.
The Texans say Caserio is in charge of the football operation and Easterby is in a support role. But if Easterby was in large part responsible for the hiring of Caserio, who ultimately has more power in the organization?
There is so much dysfunction in Houston that Caserio almost certainly wouldn’t have gone there if not for the major contractual commitment. It’s going to take years to clean house and build a new culture from the ground up.
“Obviously, what we’re trying to do is build something that is sustainable and durable for a long period of time,” he said. “That’s going to take some time to put things in place.”
Good luck. Caserio is definitely not in Foxborough anymore.