As word got around that Houston hired the Baltimore Ravens’ David Culley as its new head coach, news that a source confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night, there was no shortage of Texans fans lighting the internet ablaze about the decision.
Culley, at age 65, will become the fourth-oldest coach in the NFL and the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history, according to Elias Sports. He’s the only Black man to be hired in this year’s head coaching cycle. He has never been a coordinator during his 27 years in the league and wasn’t a regular on the interview circuit.
While many Texans fans were searching to figure out who their new coach is, there were plenty of people in the league happy to see Culley get an opportunity that often eludes older, longtime NFL assistants, even though he faces a tough task in turning around a Texans franchise. Houston is currently in a tense standoff with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has reportedly requested a trade, a demand Yahoo Sports confirmed, and isn’t backing down off the request following news of Culley’s hire.
“One of my favorite people in the business,” one NFL source told me.
“You won’t be able to find one person in the league that genuinely doesn’t like him,” a second NFL source told me.
Indeed, during his decades as an NFL assistant and 16 years as a college assistant, Culley has worked for three Super Bowl-winning coaches — Andy Reid, John Harbaugh and Bill Cowher — and made a lot of friends along the way. He has earned a lot of respect, and it’s not hard to find people, be it on the coaching, scouting or player side, who praise him for the way he selflessly coached them up and helped them develop.
“Great communicator, can talk to anyone,” a third NFL source told me.
For nearly two decades, Culley was a valued member of Reid’s coaching staff. After spending 1999-2012 as Reid’s receivers coach in Philadelphia, Culley joined Reid in Kansas City in 2013 to hold the same position plus the assistant head coach title.
When he ultimately left in January 2017 to become the Buffalo Bills’ quarterbacks coach, he did so because he knew in an increasingly quarterback-driven league, if he ever wanted to become a head coach he’d have a better chance of doing so by — you guessed it — working with quarterbacks.
And with that role essentially filled in Kansas City by the likes of Matt Nagy and assistant quarterbacks coach Corey Matthaei, Culley knew he had to leave to give himself a shot at fulfilling his dream of being a head coach, one that ultimately came true Wednesday night but certainly won’t be the easiest to navigate.
‘Houston needs someone like him’
Culley walks into a complicated situation in Houston, one that a league source described as the “least desirable” of the seven head coaching job openings.
The Texans are coming off a brutal 4-12 season. They have an aging roster saddled with one of the league’s worst defenses (30th in DVOA in 2020), a lack of premium draft capital (no first- or second-round picks in 2021) and a tricky salary-cap situation as they’re projected to be $18 million over the cap in 2021, according to Over The Cap.
As if that wasn’t enough, Culley is also charged with healing a broken culture, as Texans players soured on longtime (and now fired) coach Bill O’Brien and his abrasiveness. By the way players spoke during the course of the season, being a Texan hasn’t been much fun for a while.
Watson himself voiced that sentiment when he said late in the season that the team needed “a culture shift.”
While Culley coached Watson in the 2019 Pro Bowl — reportedly to good results — there’s reason to believe that, through no fault of Culley’s, Watson intends to stick to his demand for a ticket out of town. His no-trade clause complicates matters for Houston.
Houston has Watson under contract for the next five seasons after signing a $156 million extension in September, so will they capitulate to his request? The Texans can fine him significantly for sitting out of minicamp and beyond, and if he retires, they can attempt to recoup millions of bonus money.
Given the team’s middling roster and the monster return Watson could bring back via trade, perhaps the Texans will cave to this request and yield to a rebuild, despite initial signals that they will not.
Regardless of how the Watson situation shakes out, it doesn’t significantly change the necessity of Culley getting the two things those who know him say he’ll need to win in Houston: time to rebuild the roster and trust from the front office to adequately do much his way, especially with superiors, namely ownership, who has already bungled the Watson situation to a legendary degree.
“Without [trust], you’ve got no chance,” one source told me. “Trust him to make decisions and be a big part of the process.”
Will Houston give Culley what he needs to success?
Provided Culley gets those two things, there’s reason to believe his perpetually upbeat demeanor will, at the very least, help change the pall in the locker room that exists in Houston.
“Great human, has energy and a brightness about him,” a fourth source told me. “He will make it light and fun, he will put the players first.”
“Houston needs someone like him,” another source told me.
We’ll know the answer to that “trust” factor soon enough. Per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Culley will have control over the coaching staff and the gameday roster, while new general manager Nick Caserio — who reportedly made the hire — will have final say on all personnel matters.
But soon, likely at his introductory news conference, Culley will be asked if the Texans’ recent staffing decisions were truly his. Per reports, holdover offensive coordinator Tim Kelly — who I’ve been told Watson likes — will return for his eighth season. That tells me it may be part of the team’s effort to ease Watson’s angst, a sign of its intentions to keep him. Meanwhile, longtime Bears coach Lovie Smith is widely expected to be Culley’s new defensive coordinator. NFL Network reported that former NFL quarterback Josh McCown is also expected to join his staff.
Even if the Texans are operating like a top-down organization, one where the front office has more decision-making juice than others, it’s hard to see this as a losing proposition for Culley. He’s a man who was repeatedly described to me as having “zero” ego, one who will be focused on empowering the staff around him in hopes of fashioning the team-wide buy-in necessary to build the positive culture that is necessary to win games.
Don’t underestimate how big of an opportunity this is for Culley. After all these years — at 65, three years older than the Chiefs’ Reid — he finally gets a chance to be The Head Honcho in a league where opportunities like this don’t come around often, even when you’re a good man who has worked as hard as he has and is as beloved as he is.
For as many people inside and outside the league who are wondering whether this will work, there are as many who are rooting for him like crazy.
“He has paid his dues in the league,” a fifth source told me. “I’m happy for him.”
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