Sports

Jack Easterby out as VP of football operations

If you asked someone what Jack Easterby did in almost four seasons with the Texans, chances are they still wouldn’t fully know. Never in Houston football history had there been such an enigmatic executive whose influence reached so far beyond his qualifications, whose cryptic job title afforded him a wide enough range to lay claim or receive both praise and blame for even things in which he was not supremely involved .

Perhaps there never will be again. The Texans fired Easterby on Monday, a pivotal decision by chair and CEO Cal McNair that in terms of Easterby’s direct impact on the team’s on-field performance was arguably two seasons delayed. The peak of Easterby’s power had passed, yet he was allowed to remain in the background while the franchise’s new leadership rectified the roster and budgetary blunders that still mire the Texans below mediocrity.

The timing of Easterby’s departure is curious, although the decision was inevitable. Easterby’s responsibilities as executive vice president of football operations had been reduced significantly since general manager Nick Caserio was hired in January 2021. McNair said in a statement that Easterby’s role can be absorbed by the team’s football operations staff, “effective immediately.”

Teams do not usually shake up their front-office structure midseason without a plan in mind, and Houston’s open week presented a convenient platform for both parties to part ways. Coach Lovie Smith declined to comment on Easterby’s ouster but said he is “well-versed with what’s going on right now” and how the franchise’s organizational structure will proceed for the remaining 12 games.

Easterby oversaw logistical and technological groups that supported the workflow of football operations – like the nutrition program, weight room and sports medicine team – and each department has a leader who now falls directly under Caserio’s direction. The streamlined executive leadership ought to provide immediate clarity for a franchise that will decide in the offseason whether those departments require a shared manager.

Easterby’s ambiguous job title often defied definition. The nature of his status of him left room for complication. Only three people directly reported to McNair – Caserio, Easterby and team president Greg Grissom – and none of them reported to one another. None of them could fire one another. Easterby could range across departments and create conflict but ultimately would be accountable only to McNair.

McNair chose to retain Easterby beyond the 2020 firing of former head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien. Problematic personnel decisions made in the O’Brien-Easterby era produced roster disarray and salary cap chaos that have prevented the Texans from pursuing top free agency talent for two straight offseasons. Caserio has said he knew the rebuild would be a “massive undertaking” when he was hired.

Beyond a lopsided trade that sent All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals, Easterby negotiated contract extensions in 2020 with linebacker Zach Cunningham, defensive end Whitney Mercilus and cornerback Bradley Roby that all included at least $ 18 million in guarantees. None of those contracts lasted beyond Caserio’s first year in Houston, and the Texans still rank second in the NFL with $ 69.7 million in dead money, according to Over the Cap.

That Easterby was involved in personnel decisions at all was astounding. He’d arrived in Houston in 2019 after spending six seasons as a character coach with the Patriots. He served in the same role at the University of South Carolina from 2005 until 2010, when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs as a chaplain for two seasons.

Easterby built an impressive reputation in New England. He gained the respect of coach Bill Belichick, who in November 2020 told reporters Easterby was a “very valuable person” who could connect with everyone within the organization. The Patriots coach still hedged his comment by saying “Jack’s not a personnel person, no.”

Belichick was expressing his own surprise that Easterby had ascended beyond a similar team development role in Houston. Easterby’s influence grew along with O’Brien, whose power-hungry tendencies led to the ouster of former general manager Brian Gaine. When O’Brien was fired after an 0-4 start in 2020, Easterby was named interim general manager.

Easterby then ceded all personnel decisions to Caserio, a longtime Patriots executive the Texans had twice previously attempted to hire. Caserio immediately absorbed all roster-oriented football decisions – the draft, free agency, trades, contracts – and was also the point man in each of Houston’s two head-coaching searches, which were approved by McNair.

Still, Easterby’s presence was palpable. The mere sight of him on the sideline in 2021 drew ire from a Texans fan base that was increasingly losing interest in its hometown team. Easterby and the Texans did little to squelch the disdain. Easterby’s only media appearance in the last 25 months was a rare interview with a Philadelphia-based sports podcast during which he defined his front-office role di lui with Caserio.

Easterby had not appeared in an on-the-record availability with Houston media since the announcement of since-traded quarterback Deshaun Watson’s contract extension in September 2020 – a timeline that lasted through several controversies, including a series of critical Sports Illustrated articles about Easterby’s relationship with the team.

Easterby’s strongest defender has been Caserio. The two worked together in New England from 2013 until 2018, and Caserio defended Easterby in a January interview with Sports Radio 610’s morning drive show “Payne & Pendergast,” saying Easterby’s “been a punching bag since he’s got here” and “quite frankly, some of it’s been unjust. “

How Caserio proceeds to organize football operations will be notable. He is five games into the second season of a six-year contract, and any eventual success or failure will now fall more squarely on him.

Caserio’s first head coaching hire, David Culley, lasted just one 4-13 season. The Texans then nearly hired former quarterback Josh McCown, who lacked any college or professional coaching experience, before turning to Smith, who was already on staff as defensive coordinator and wasn’t officially interviewed until after finalist Brian Flores filed a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the NFL.

Easterby’s potential influence in both searches could not be ignored. As interim general manager, he had signed McCown to the Texans practice squad and secured McCown three interviews for Houston’s head coaching position in less than a year. But Smith and Caserio are now indelibly linked.

How much success is ahead for the Texans? How will Caserio handle the future?

The punching bag has been removed.

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