By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
On that fateful day in December, when he was bringing a merciful end to the Gary Kubiak era, somehow amid the smoldering rubble of what would become a 2-14 campaign, Bob McNair remained optimistic.
"We don't have to do a lot to get us back on track."
"We expect to be right back in playoff contention next year."
This was Bob McNair saying these things, and he was not selling. He truly believed. He believed 2013 had to be a fluke.
After all, how does a team spin this wildly out of control less than a season removed from having nine players selected to the Pro Bowl? It had to be a one-time perfect storm, right? All those injuries to some of those "core players" and a series of bizarre internal distractions that ranged from ironic to humorous to macabre, when would that happen again?
In fairness to McNair, the players themselves thought the same thing.
Asked last week what went wrong in 2013, guard Wade Smith said, "A lot of things went wrong, and it was a domino effect. We had some stuff happen where we were just like 'Really?' In order to go 2-14 with the talent we had, that had to be the case."
On that December day, the day Gary Kubiak was fired, McNair conveyed the vision of a quick turnaround, and General Manager Rick Smith sat next to him and agreed, Smith's mere presence at the Kubiak firing presser serving as affirmation that the architect of this football atrocity was indeed safe.
Weeks later, after the hire of new Head Coach Bill O'Brien, McNair was asked specifically about Smith. He was asked why Smith remained employed despite spending the last seven years constructing a team that compiled all of two playoff wins and was now the worst team in football.
"Because we think he's done a good job," a somehow straight faced McNair said of Smith. "We evaluate everybody. That was not a partnership between Rick and Gary; they were each one doing their job and working hard at it. We thought from a personnel standpoint, looking at what other clubs have done and what have you, we think Rick's done a fine job."
That was in early January, the early days of the O'Brien era. Two weeks later, on January 18, Director of Pro Personnel Brian Gardner and Pro Scout Kevin Murphy, two prominent Smith personnel lieutenants, would be sent packing.
The coaching and personnel branches of the Texans' 2013 organizational chart were almost entirely cleaned out, yet Smith remained. Apparently, he was one of the only ones doing a "good job."
J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson and Rick Smith. That's it, I guess.
The NFL business year began on March 11. On that date, all 32 teams had to have rosters that were below the salary cap so they could begin signing free agents. Other than re-signing tight end Garrett Graham, the Texans spent the first week of that process watching their own free agents leave (many without so much as even an offer) and releasing a couple of their existing players under contract, namely eight-year tight end Owen Daniels.
The message was clear: The O'Brien era was under way with the team's moving on from many of the Kubiak-era players, most of whom were acquired by Smith. Clearly, there are no scraps in Bill O'Brien's football scrapbook.
The "purge," though, is a fairly common part of a team making a head coaching transition. Some of the departed players, like Daniels and Antonio Smith, were locker-room leaders with the old regime, and that doesn't always sit well with new coaches.
"When a new coaching staff comes in, sometimes those veteran guys who were leaders, like Owen and Antonio, get let go," said former Texan Travis Johnson, himself a rookie on the last 2-14 Texans team in 2005, the precursor to the Kubiak era.
"New coaches want young leaders whom they can shape in their leadership style. Unless you're J.J. Watt or Andre Johnson, you're at risk."
It's a fair assessment by Travis Johnson, and another sign that every shred of personnel forensics on this team since O'Brien's hire has Bill O'Brien's Belichick-ian fingerprints all over them.
The Texans went through the first week of free agency as one of two teams — the other being the St. Louis Rams — to sign no new players, hardly the modus operandi of the "quick turnaround" team that McNair believed he had on the day he fired Kubiak. Teams that "need to fill a few holes" typically head into free agency and, you know, fill them.
In short, despite McNair's contentions back in early December, the Texans have conducted themselves like a franchise in a long-term rebuild; a rebuild necessitated by an ill-conceived "go for it" salary cap mentality that peaked with one 12-4 season, a bad contract to a mediocre quarterback, and three straight drafts that have produced a paltry total of one quality starter from rounds three and on (guard Brandon Brooks).