Well, it happened again. Just the same way it did on two Fridays, me and my cohost Rich Lord were humming along on our radio show on SportsRadio 610, chopping up a handful of topics for the first two hours of the show, only to see those topics — well, largely the topic where we both assumed Nick Caserio would become the Texans' new general manager sometime in the next week or two — splattered into a million pieces of irrelevancy by breaking news from the Texans.
On Friday afternoon, the pursuit of New England Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio and the Patriots' intertwined claims that the Texans had tampered with Caserio, they both turned into dust with one fell statement swoop from Texans Chairman and CEO Cal McNair:
And then John McClain of the Houston Chronicle came in with some more details as to why the Texans are now out on Caserio (for now):
Seems Nick Caserio has a clause in his contract that says he can’t interview with other teams. If so, I hope he got millions for that clause.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) June 14, 2019
And then, finally, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network gave us some more granular details on both Caserio's contract term (it expires after the 2020 draft) and the discussion between Cal McNair and Patriots' owner Robert Kraft that led to Friday's news:
Nick Caserio's contract with the #Patriots is up after the 2020 draft, per sources. So after dropping pursuit of Caserio in light of contract issue, the #Texans' options now are: 1) Hire someone else as GM; or 2) Wait until next year. For now, I'm told the process will continue.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) June 14, 2019
My understanding is the call between Cal McNair and Robert Kraft was very cordial. Language at issue in Nick Caserio’s contract had been there awhile. Once #Texans were aware, they asked what a trade would cost. No deal, so they move on and #Patriots drop tampering charge.— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) June 14, 2019
OK, LOTS of questions here. Let's hit them in order, and I fully understand and agree that the first one should be....
What the in the blue hell happened?!?
The bottom line is the Texans struck out on reeling in their big GM fish for the 2019 season. The problem for them now is the appearance of their approach. They look disorganized. Because of the timing of Gaine's firing, 24 hours after EVP of Team Development Jack Easterby returned from New England for the ring ceremony, it APPEARS as though Gaine's termination was fueled solely by the thought that Caserio was available and wanted to come to Houston.
The truth of the matter, if indeed the Texans were firing Gaine whether Caserio was available or not (as has been reported by credible folks), is that the Texans got rid of someone who had become a problem behind the scenes, or at least a big enough problem to where his job performance was not worth keeping, and then swung for the fences on Caserio to replace him, and they got thrown out at home plate. Under that scenario, if the Texans truly believe that the worst case scenario without Gaine — no GM in place for the 2019 season — is better than having Gaine, then so be it. They're not necessarily disorganized, they just couldn't close the deal, and now they deal with the fallout. Failure happens.
The problem for the Texans is that they've never won anything significant in their history to warrant the benefit of the doubt in what is, on the surface, an embarrassing failure in pursuit of the apple of their eye. So all fans are going to care about are the optics, and right now, fan trust is at a "midway through the 2013 season" level. To be clear, I'm still fine with firing Gaine, if that's what Cal McNair thinks is best. It's the decisive move that his father never wanted to make. However, I think speaking to the fans would be a good idea for Cal McNair right about now.
So the tampering thing just goes away now?
Yeah, this is the part that, on the surface, seems odd. The two things that took place on Friday were these — first, the Texans backed away from Caserio because of unfavorable contract language in his deal, and second, the Patriots withdrew their tampering complaint against the Texans. On the surface, these two things should have nothing to do with each other. If the Texans tampered, they tampered, and Caserio being contractually forbidden to pursue the Texans' GM job shouldn't change that.
However, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk points out that the Texans could have contested the language in Caserio's contract and probably would have won:
The NFL’s anti-tampering policy outlines the circumstances in which a team may hire an executive from another team to become a “high-level employee,” as defined by the policy. Here’s the key passage from the policy: “If . . . the inquiring club is prepared to offer a position as a high-level employee . . . the employer club may not deny the employee the opportunity to discuss and accept such employment.”
The emphasis wasn’t added by me; it appears in the policy. And the argument would be, if push comes to shove, that this provision of the tampering policy supersedes the Caserio clause, which as applied would prevent him from leaving his non-high-level employee job with the Patriots (coach Bill Belichick obviously runs the show in New England) for an opportunity to become a “high-level employee” with another team.
As one league source has explained it to PFT, at least one other team has had a similar clause in the contract of a non-high-level employee. And at least one other team challenged that clause. And the NFL ultimately invalidated the clause.
Now, it could very well be that the Texans are unaware that they can contest this, so we will see what happens in the next few days, but if they don't contest it, then the optics (there's that word again!) of the situation don't look great for the Texans. If they are standing down on pursuing Caserio without exhausting every possible avenue, then it would appear that maybe they NEEDED the Patriots to withdraw the tampering complaint, because there was something there. In other words, if the Texans found a loophole to pursue Caserio and nullify his unfavorable contract language, would the Pats re-invoke their tampering complaint? I doubt we will find out.
Is Caserio still in play, ultimately?
As outlined above, Caserio's deal appears to run through the 2020 NFL Draft, so I suppose that he would be available with no strings attached in May of next year. In the meantime, the Texans will now probably take their time in approaching other candidates, if they even do that at all. More likely, it appears that this may be their approach for the upcoming season:
With Houston dropping its pursuit of Nick Caserio, there now is a scenario under which the Texans will go this season without an official General Manager. For less than a year, Bill O’Brien, Jack Easterby and the scouting dept could divvy up the duties.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) June 14, 2019
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Yikes! So basically, no GM for the upcoming season, and presumably if they're holding off to wait out Caserio's New England deal, then that means no GM for the draft next year either. (NOTE: I'm fine with this, so long as it means that Texans sideline reporter John Harris, the smartest draft guy I know, runs the draft for the Texans. And if you think I'm kidding....) Make no mistake, this solution of O'Brien, Easterby, and others dividing up the GM role is a terrifying proposition. O'Brien's approval rating is shaky enough as it is. I can only imagine how it's going to go if he's the de facto GM, as well. In fact, let's examine this....
If O'Brien is part of the multi-headed GM monster, what are the on-field ripple effects?
The biggest one potentially is that adding GM duties to O'Brien's plate will force him to delegate some things he would otherwise maintain control over. So the big question Texan fans should have is "Could O'Brien cede play calling duties to first year offensive coordinator Tim Kelly?" O'Brien giving up play calling is something for which Texan fans have clamored for a while now, but can you imagine if the price of O'Brien's ceding play calling was his getting control over personnel, even for a year? Holy deal with the devil!
The other thing I would seriously explore, if the Texans care at all about the confidence level in the way the team is being run right now, would be a trade for Redskins left tackle Trent Williams. A huge move like that along the offensive line would be popular, sensible, and most importantly, make the team better. It would also support the notion that the team was more disenchanted with Gaine than they are enamored with Caserio, because they're now making bold moves. Hell, while they're at it, go ahead and do an extension with Jadeveon Clowney. Gaine's biggest failing was refraining from spending cap dollars. The Texans have more than $40 million in cap space and still have some major holes to fill. Spending a little of that money to do so would distance them further from Gaine's cautious approach. Just a thought.