From a football standpoint, I don't know that Texans fans will notice a drastic difference without Cunningham out there. He had never lived up to the massive contract extension bestowed upon him in the summer of 2020, and this season Cunningham had seen his snap count fluctuate to the point where he was already practically benched a few weeks ago.
Only a Christian Kirksey wrist injury restored Cunningham's snap count to a starter's level, but the missed COVID test was the final straw in a tumultuous final season in a Texans uniform for Cunningham. So let's start there with four thoughts on this shocking transaction:
This was just a matter of time
Whether it was in season (somewhat surprising) or following this season (would have been way less surprising), Cunningham was operating on borrowed time as a Texan. Amidst a reportedly sour demeanor behind the scenes all season long, Cunningham had missed a preseason game against the Buccaneers for personal reasons, was benched for the first quarter of the Browns game in Week 2 for disciplinary issues, and then was placed on the inactive list for this past Sunday's game. It was just a matter of time before GM Nick Caserio decided to move on from Cunningham, a draft choice by the Texans three general managers ago. When asked "Why now?" as opposed to after the season, here's what head coach David Culley had to say:
Cunningham will be placed on waivers, and if a team is willing to pick up his $10 million injury guarantee, then he will get picked up. Otherwise, he will become a free agent.
David Culley asked why release LB Zach Cunningham now instead of waiting until the end of the season: “I’ve got a locker room full of players that understand what our standard is..They look at me cross eyed when I’m not practicing what I’m preaching.” pic.twitter.com/m2KfY3zE0Z— Mark Berman (@MarkBermanFox26) December 8, 2021
Zach Cunningham was one of the most overrated, overpaid players in team history
Cunningham was always a player where the concept of what he could or should be far exceeded the actuality.
For every tweet like the one above, you could find some sort of statistic, usually based on some version of "tackles," that would make you squint hard enough to see a POTENTIAL Pro Bowler:
There was hope Zach Cunningham (#41) would find some level of his former glory moving back to Will linebacker. This didn't occur.— Matt (Double__Underscore) Weston (@Matt__Weston) December 8, 2021
Countless missed tackles, awful run fits, terrible pass coverage, bad blitzes, benched on third downs. It's no wonder why Houston couldn't trade him. pic.twitter.com/ZyAIxx3hgI
Among 365 qualified LB/DL, now former Texans LB Zach Cunningham is currently tied for first in the NFL with 9 run stuffs, which @TruMediaSports defines as tackles on runs for exactly no gain.— Aaron Reiss (@aaronjreiss) December 8, 2021
Other players tied for first:
Unfortunately, Bill O'Brien and Jack Easterby paid Cunningham last year based on the squinting and the "shoulda, woulda, coulda" rather than on the actuality:
This is yet another financial mess that Caserio has to clean up
End result of the Zach Cunningham release cap and cash— TexansCap (@TexansCap) December 8, 2021
$8,794,118 cash earned
$5,561,618 dead money
$12,832,500 dead money
Total cash earned from Houston $23,868,901
.... and, man oh man, is it gonna cost the Texans dearly....
Between paying for players to leave, like Cunningham and Whitney Mercilus, or literally paying other teams to take players off their hands in exchange for a draft pick, like Randall Cobb, Bradley Roby, or Shaq Lawson, the Texans are operating in a sea of dead cap money in an effort to save themselves from drowning in the hideousness of Bill O'Brien's era as general manager:
O'Brien on what being GM/HC meant for Zach Cunningham's deal: "Jack Easterby did a lot of this negotiation. I was there. I'm coaching the football team. We have a very unique model ... I would say that Jack and Zach's representation should get a lot of the credit for ... a deal." pic.twitter.com/MbfyY5wYmA— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) September 1, 2020
Houston Texans dead money charges:— TexansCap (@TexansCap) December 8, 2021
2021 - $48.8m
2022 - $35.3m
The Texans are almost completely bereft of players drafted before 2019
So now, the only Houston Texan remaining from their drafts prior to 2017 is Deshaun Watson, which is the most Texan thing ever that he would be the last one standing, the quarterback who wants to get traded, but can't be traded because of allegations of various degrees of creepiness and possibly criminal activity with massage therapists. I tweeted this back in February of this year, and now I feel like I might be tweeting this into existence:
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
We are a Watson trade and a McKinney release away from Zach Cunningham being the only remaining player left from the first four drafts (2014-2017) of the O’Brien Era ... #MalpracticeIsFun pic.twitter.com/RKC5v8JwjT— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) February 26, 2021