Lovie Smith must go despite Texans’ late season surge

It only took 14 weeks, but the Houston Texans are finally surging.

Houston is coming off an impressive 19-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans where they not only worked to stop Derrick Henry’s ridiculous streak against the team but also forced the Titans into a winner-take-all scenario against Jacksonville in Week 18. Coach Lovie Smith preached of his team’s resilience and the impressive factoid that, despite an overall underwhelming record to this point, the team could still hypothetically finish with a winning record against the AFC South.

This win came on the back of two impressive outings against the playoff-bound Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs. The Cowboys needed a game-winning drive from Dak Prescott in the final two minute frame to secure the victory in Houston while Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs required a late Davis Mills fumble in overtime to seal their win. In both games national commentators couldn’t help but remark on how intense the Texans appeared and how their hard-hitting style was creating fits against more talented teams.

Houston now sits in an interesting position. Their overall record is just 2-12-1 but the momentum behind the team feels greater than the NFL’s currently ranked 32nd team. The Jacksonville Jaguars may rest their starters this week in a meaningless game while the Indianapolis Colts, their Week 18 opponent, look like the NFL’s worst team under interim head coach Jeff Saturday.

Smith is absolutely right. The opportunity exists for the team to finish 4-12-1 overall and an impressive 4-1-1 against their division, which would be the best of any of the four AFC South teams. Of course, this creates a rather interesting dilemma for general manager Nick Caserio and chairman and CEO Cal McNair.

Does Houston’s potential late winning streak and level of intensity over their last six games matter? Is it enough to save Smith’s job when it was previously a foregone conclusion he was a one-year stop gap?

Certainly national pundits around the league will discuss the effort Smith was able to rally from a less talented team and the amount of one-score games Houston found themselves in during the 2022 season. An argument will be made that Smith deserves a chance to run it back with a more talented roster, a new offensive coordinator, and likely improved quarterback play for the game’s most important position.

That would be a trap.

Make no mistake: the best course for the Texans is to take a third consecutive visit to the coaching carousel.

Smith has rallied the team to play hard for him but in seemingly every game this season the Texans coaching staff have been the weaker sideline in games. There’s little that projects to offering a competitive advantage in meaningful football games and, for a defensive coach, the team has still left a lot to be desired.

The Texans rank 26th in points allowed and 30th in total yardage allowed. They’ve allowed a stunning 2,529 yards on the ground this season, the worst total in the NFL and a value that has masked just how poor the pass defense is when called upon. Opposing teams have only passed for 3,188 yards against Houston, a number good for 13th in the league, but a deeper dive shows that teams average 6.5 net yards per attempt when dropping back. The team is 23rd in the NFL for that metric.

The deficiencies of Smith’s Cover 2 heavy defense have been masked by just how porous Houston is against the run and how often teams find themselves in a position to milk the clock and protect their lead against the Texans’ porous offense.

Speaking of the offense, it’s been an absolute disaster. Smith once preached how excited he was to retain Pep Hamilton as offensive coordinator and the opportunity presented for the team to create continuity with quarterback Davis Mills. It’s been worse than most imagined possible when the hire was made.

Mills has stepped back as a quarterback in nearly every metric after his impressive 2021 rookie campaign. Hamilton’s tenure as play-caller has been criticized as overly conservative and, despite trying his best to veil the team’s poor quarterback play, has more often than not simply highlighted it. The team is dead last in total offense and Mills is tied for the NFL-lead in interceptions.

Despite any late wins, Houston is in a precarious situation. Almost any scenario that asks Smith to return begins with a new offensive coordinator and, ideally, an entirely new philosophy on that side of the ball. That’s already an enormous ask for a head coach who has preached for decade’s his held belief in running the football and dominating time of possession. This all comes before wondering if Smith’s own defensive schemes are worth returning as modern offensive football runs laps around the Tampa 2.

Is it worth returning Smith under the expectation that he’ll change his stripes after such a long tenure in the NFL? Or would it be preferable to have Smith in a “David Culley” CEO-type coaching role where he isn’t responsible for either unit? The clear answer would clearly be neither.

The Cowboys were caught off-guard by the Jeff Driskel quarterback package. The Chiefs were lackadaisical and expecting an easy win. The Titans were starting a rookie making his third ever start after a six-game hiatus. These fluky results hide what is otherwise a crystal clear picture.

Houston offers one of the most attractive coaching opportunities for candidates in the 2023 cycle. This is their window to capitalize.

Derek Stingley, Jalen Pitre, and Christian Harris are strong building blocks on defense. The team will presumably have the No. 1 overall selection in the upcoming draft and a clear path towards finding a franchise quarterback. Much maligned executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby is out the door and a distant memory. The AFC South is seemingly wide open while Trevor Lawrence works to become a top-10 NFL quarterback.

There’s no Russell Wilson or Kyler Murray sized contract that a candidate must find a way to fix. There’s no immediate expectation to win or succeed. There’s no Mahomes or Justin Herbert in the way of ever playing a home playoff game. It’s a desirable city in a desirable market that is ready for winning football.

Is the opportunity worth squandering because Smith found a way to win against rookie quarterback Malik Willis and potentially a Week 18 Nick Foles-quarterbacked Indianapolis Colts team?

Probably not.

Fans will have to wait and see if Caserio has the courage to move the Texans out of their deep rebuild phase and into playing serious football over the next month.

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire