HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans knew that this would be a pivotal offseason for their franchise, as they have spent this month hiring Nick Caserio as general manager and now David Culley as head coach. What they didn't expect was the first month of their offseason to be dominated by the unhappiness of -- and eventual trade request by -- quarterback Deshaun Watson.
It was Watson who asked for "a whole culture shift" in his end-of-season news conference, asking for his new head coach to be someone with "energy," "discipline," and "structure."
"We need a leader so we can follow that leader as players," Watson said earlier in the month. "That's what we need. We've got to have the love of not just the game of football, because that's what we do, but the love for people and the people in this organization."
"We need someone that stands tall and [says] this is who we're following and this is the way it goes ... and we're going to do it this way to win."
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who hired Culley in 2019 as assistant head coach, said he was respected "as a teacher, game-planner and motivator." Culley is the first Black head coach hired by the Texans and the first in the NFL hiring cycle.
By hiring Culley, the Texans hope they've found that person to build the foundation for which Watson asked. But will Culley will get the chance to coach Watson, now that the star quarterback has formally requested a trade?
For most Texans fans, Culley's name isn't a familiar one. So who is he and why did Texans CEO Cal McNair and general manager Nick Caserio pick him to be the franchise's next coach?
Who is David Culley?
Culley, 65, has spent the past two seasons in Baltimore as the Ravens' assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. He just finished his 27th season as an NFL coach after 16 seasons in various college coaching roles. He'll be the oldest coach in NFL history at the time of his head-coaching debut.
Culley has never been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level, but he has been an assistant head coach before his stint in Baltimore, for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Ravens were a run-first offense in 2020, as they led the NFL in rushing yards and ranked last in passing yards.
What does this mean for Deshaun Watson?
Now that Watson has officially requested a trade, the next step is for his agent, David Mulugheta, to get permission from Caserio to allow him to formally seek trades and then present the offers.
Watson, who signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension in September, is under contract through the 2025 season. He has a no-trade inclusion in his contract, but given the length of his contract and the possibility of franchise-tagging him for three years, the Texans could choose not to trade him and would have control of his rights through the 2028 season.
This is a unique situation because it's rare that a player with four years of NFL experience is requesting a trade. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who initially retired in 2011 after the Bengals refused to trade him, had played seven seasons.
While the Texans could agree to trade terms with another team before the start of the new league year on March 17, a trade cannot be executed until then. The key time frame to pay attention to is before the NFL draft in April, because if the Texans were to trade Watson, they would want to make sure they're getting 2021 draft capital, when the pick slots are locked in.
Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract. This means Watson has a significant say in his destination, because he could choose not to waive the clause.
Any trade of Watson will carry a charge of $5.6 million in dead money for the Texans. Because of the way his contract is structured (he is technically in the final year of his rookie deal, before his four-year contract extension kicks in), his cap charge for 2021 is only $15.94 million. In comparison, that number jumps to $40.4 million in 2022.
If the Texans don't trade him before the draft, Watson could refuse to report to mandatory team activities in the spring or training camp. But Houston can fine Watson $95,877 for missing minicamp and can fine him $50,000 per day for each day of training camp missed, plus one week's salary -- $620,000 -- for each preseason game missed.
In the unlikely scenario that Watson chooses to retire, the Texans can collect $21.6 million.
What does Culley bring to Houston?
The Texans are serious about fixing the organization's culture and believe Culley is the person to do it.
After doing a second interview with the Texans -- this time in person -- the team was impressed by Culley's energy and believes he has the NFL experience to deliver that cultural shift within the building, even if he hasn't been a coordinator.
"The thing I would emphasize about Coach Culley, more than anything, is what an amazing teacher and communicator he is," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in 2019. "He's probably the best -- I would say he's the best straight-up teacher, communicator that I've seen coaching football one-on-one, not just because he coaches it so well, but because he's so relentless and he coaches the important things."
"You can be relentless, but if you're coaching things that don't matter, then that's just a lot of hot air. He's coaching the things that matter, and you see the guys getting better every day within his position group."
McNair knew he wanted his general manager to take the lead on the coaching search. That is Caserio, who said the characteristic he was looking for most in a head coach is an ability to "lead people."
"Because in the end, football is a sport but it's about people, right?" Caserio said. "You have to make an investment in people. You have to be able to lead people. ... Those are some of the things that will be important relative to whether or not they're a good playcaller on their respective side of the ball. But whoever it is will have some competency in some area."
What's next in Houston?
Watson put up the best numbers of his young career in 2020, and the team won only four games. Houston's defense struggled, finishing 30th in Football Outsiders' weighted DVOA. Of course, there are still a lot of holes on a defense that lacked young difference-makers, so whomever Culley hires as defensive coordinator will have a tall task ahead.
Regardless of whether the Texans trade Watson, those holes on the roster will remain. The Texans' first pick in this draft is No. 67, so they won't be able to add impact talent at a team-friendly price, and are currently $18 million over the projected 2021 salary cap (although that matters less than the cash they've already committed, which gives them some flexibility).
If Houston trades Watson, it will be able to plug in pieces on the defense and upgrade that side of the ball significantly, but then questions will remain at quarterback.