Friday was one of the stranger sports days I've experienced in my 12 years of hosting radio. It was around 3:30 p.m. and my cohost Rich Lord and I were debating and discussing the merits of the Houston Texans trading a first round pick to the Washington Redskins for 7-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Trent Williams.
One of the check marks in the "FOR" column of doing such a deal was centered around Texans' general manager Brian Gaine's ability to find some hidden gems in the third and fourth round of the draft, gems like safety Justin Reid and wide receiver Keke Coutee. The rationale was basically "Hey, if Gaine can find first and second round talents in the third and fourth round, players like Reid and Coutee, maybe you can afford to trade a first round pick for an established star like Williams!" In other words, we were propping up one of Brian Gaine's early discernible skills as Texans' general manager.
And then, 45 minutes later, Brian Gaine was fired by the Houston Texans:
The Texans have fired GM Brian Gaine 1 1/2 years into his five-year contract. An immediate search begins for his replacement. Executive senior VP Chris Olsen is in charge till a replacement is found.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) June 7, 2019
Strange day, indeed.
For any NFL franchise to fire a general manager less than two years into his tenure, especially coming off an 11-5 season, would be considered odd, at the very least. For the Houston Texans, a franchise who has had only three head coaches and three general managers (and three playoff wins) in its entire history, to do this had me checking to make sure that we weren't all duped on Twitter or something.
Indeed, in the first real salvo fired by Chairman and CEO Cal McNair since officially taking over for his late father in November 2018, the Texans are now in the market for a general manager. Here are my thoughts on this decision and where the Texans go from here:
There are no scraps in Cal McNair's scrapbook
The headlines all read "Texans Fire Brian Gaine," but the central figure of this story is not the now-ousted Texans general manager. It's the Texans' Chairman and CEO Cal McNair. Let's face it, Brian Gaine didn't have a big enough body of work to where anyone could have a strong take on whether or not this decision was warranted based on FOOTBALL reasons (we will get to other reasons in a moment). If anything, Gaine's glacial approach to fixing the offensive line was sending his GM stock downward, but whatever. To me, the story of this move is in the decisiveness that Cal McNair is showing in fixing a need for improvement that he has assessed. Whether he is right nor not, whether he will pick a good successor or not, those will play out over time. But I love the decisiveness. For years, Texan fans lamented how patient the late Bob McNair was with head coaches and one particular general manager — the early returns on his son are that he will be operating differently than his old man. If you were frustrated by the elder McNair's patience and tolerance for underperformance, then this move on Friday should enthuse you. Sure, is there a like a five percent chance that Cal McNair could be the Mad King of owners? Maybe. But I respect an owner seeing something he thinks needs fixing and then not just fixing it, but spending millions of dollars to do so. And that's the other thing — for Cal McNair to pay Gaine the final three-plus years of his contract to go away, then whatever Cal McNair saw to necessitate this decision must have been bad.
Is Bill O'Brien now more powerful or more compromised by this move?
There was no doubt that when Gaine was hired, he and O'Brien were in full alignment. How do we know this? Because the two of them wouldn't stop saying the word "alignment" anytime they spoke about each other. It became somewhat of a running punchline. Well, obviously whatever alignment existed before deteriorated over time. John McClain called it on "erosion" of the relationship in his story on the Houston Chronicle. So the question now becomes "Is Bill O'Brien more powerful within the organization, or is this move a message that HE is, like Gaine apparently was, on the hot seat?" Personally, I think it's both. All of the stories of Gaine's replacement seem to point to "O'Brien guys" and the Texans' head coach will again be part of the group making the GM selection. However, O'Brien has to see the way Cal McNair is operating and know that he could be next, especially if the treacherous gauntlet of the first two months of 2019's schedule catches him. If the Texans go, say, 6-10, then we could be looking at a new head coach, too. I think the most interesting part of next season could be if the Texans go 8-8 — right now, Vegas has them posted as an 8.5 win team — and then see what McNair does. His father would have likely rode it out another year with O'Brien. It took two 2-14 records for Bob McNair to make the only head coaching changes of his ownership. Hell, O'Brien got an EXTENSION after a 4-12 season while Bob McNair was still with us! Will Cal McNair settle for "just OK"? This Gaine firing indicates that times may be changing on head coaching evaluations over at NRG Stadium, as well.
What names will we begin to hear over the next several days?
The name that immediately came up on Friday after the Gaine news hit was New England Director of Player Personnel Nick Cesario, a close friend of O'Brien and a target in the post-Rick Smith search back in 2018. At that time, the Patriots wouldn't let Cesario interview, but perhaps that's changed. In fact, perhaps the Texans' (McNair and O'Brien, specifically) finding out that Cesario would be made available this offseason was an impetus for firing Gaine. If you can upgrade any position in the organization and significantly affect your trajectory toward winning a title, isn't it your obligation as the owner to do so? I mean, that's essentially what Cal McNair was saying in his statement about this decision, right? As for other names, the Texans reportedly interviewed former Browns GM Ray Farmer over the weekend, but I'm guessing that hire would elicit even more ridicule from fans who see the firing of Gaine as some sign of disarray, and even those, like myself, who are fans of the decisiveness of firing Gaine would have to question why you'd fire Brian Gaine to bring in a guy who helped build a roster in Cleveland that was ultimately designed to tank a couple years later, and a former GM who was fined $250,000 for texting the sidelines during a game. San Francisco's Martin Mayhew was in town on Sunday interviewing for the post, as well:
Martin Mayhew is in Houston to interview for the vacant Texans GM position, per sources. Mayhew is currently the 49ers Vice President of Player Personnel and a former GM of the Detroit Lions. Respected personnel man and former player. @nflnetwork @gmfb @NFLonFOX— Peter Schrager (@PSchrags) June 9, 2019
What do the players think?
There aren't many players whose opinions matter when it comes to a move like this. J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins, though, are two of them whose opinions do matter. Here were their takes on Brian Gaine's termination:
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I just want to win man. I don’t care who, how, what, I just want to win. https://t.co/rpQYFVHRZO— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) June 7, 2019
The only Texans' player with pending business possibly affected by McNair's decision to cut Gaine loose is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who sits at home with an unsigned franchise tag tender offer. The new general manager will undoubtedly have a take on Clowney and his worth. The questions then pertain to how much of Clowney's lack of a long-term deal have to do with O'Brien's opinion on him, whatever that may be, and how much a divergent opinion from a new GM will matter. If Clowney DOES get a big, long-term deal from the new general manager, then that would be a big tell on just how unaligned the head coach, general manager, and owner had become as Gaine's time with the team, in retrospect, was winding down.