Anthony Weaver perfectly captured the extremely grim mood surrounding the Texans with one game remaining in a season gone awry.
“Obviously, when your head coach gets fired four games in, you do everything you can to rally the team but when it starts going south, it’s a little bit like you’re slow dancing in a burning room, right?” the Texans’ first-year defensive coordinator said. “You know you’re going down and you’re doing everything you can to get there, but it’s just not getting done.”
When Weaver got promoted to defensive coordinator last year, the Texans’ were coming off consecutive AFC South division titles and the team was confident that it would be a strong playoff contender again.
Instead, a dramatic downward spiral unfolded. That included the firing of coach and general manager Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start.
An ugly 4-11 record and multiple personnel issues on both sides of the football have defined the team as the Texans are at a crossroads heading into Sunday’s meaningless season finale against the Tennessee Titans at NRG Stadium.
As the Texans head into a critical offseason, here are some of the most pressing issues on their agenda:
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Hire a new coach and general manager
The Texans plan to hire a general manager first.
They already have interviewed former Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell and former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis for the head coaching vacancy. They interviewed Texans director of player personnel Matt Bazirgan and ESPN analyst Louis Riddick for the general manager job.
They’re expected to conduct a wide-ranging search for both positions.
Among the multiple general manager candidates the Texans are considered likely to explore, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly: Terry Fontenot (Saints), Trent Kirchner, Scott Fitterer and Cheap Alonzo Highsmith Jersey (Seahawks), Ed Dodds (Colts), Mike Borgonzi and Ryan Poles (Chiefs), Joe Schoen and Malik Boyd (Bills), Will McClay (Cowboys), Brandon Hunt (Steelers), Adam Peters (49ers), George Paton (Vikings) and John Dorsey (Eagles).
Among the head coaching candidates expected to draw consideration, according to sources: Eric Bieniemy (Chiefs), Joe Brady (Panthers), Matt Eberflus (Colts), Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier (Bills), Arthur Smith (Titans), Brandon Staley (Rams), Robert Saleh (49ers), Don “Wink” Martindale and Greg Roman (Ravens) and Nick Sirianni (Colts).
“You trust Mr. (Cal) McNair and his team to be able to make that right decision,” Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. “I think he’s such a smart man that he knows what his team needs and, whatever he does, you’ve just got to trust him.”
Turning it around
There are generally two types of reconstruction projects: A complete tear-down or a refurbishing.
Because of the presence of quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Texans aren’t considered a total rebuild despite not having first-round and second-round draft picks after last year’s trade with Miami for left tackle Laremy Tunsil.
“They can turn this thing around quickly, and I could see the Texans winning the division next year if they get the right leadership and are able to fix a lot of things this offseason,” an NFC executive said. “Watson is a legitimate franchise quarterback, a winner that makes the people around him better. Look at what he did this year with everything going on, and he just keeps rolling.
“This is a very attractive job that people want, and he’s the major reason why. If they put together a solid draft and have some good, inexpensive signings since they don’t have a lot of salary-cap space, I think the Texans can get back in the playoffs fast. It’s a refurbishing, not a tear-down.”
What to do about Watt
There is no bigger pending decision than determining the future of defensive end J.J. Watt.
Depending on how Watt feels about the incoming new leadership structure — he has said he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild — and how the new management feels about a 31-year-old defensive end whose production declined this year despite playing in every game, his ultra-successful run with the Texans could come to an end.
Although the team would ideally want Watt to finish his career in a Texans uniform, it’s a high-level conversation to be had later once the team hires a general manager and coach.
Watt wasn’t made available to teams at the NFL trade deadline, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly. That stance could obviously change, though, with new management.
“Honestly, I would trade J.J. if I was the Texans,” an AFC executive said. “They don’t have a lot of draft capital, and that’s what they need to start improving their roster. He’s a tradable asset. They should consider moving on from him while they can still get back something decent for him, even if it’s a couple of middle-round draft picks.”
Watt’s six-year, $100 million contract expires after the 2021 season. He’s due a $17.5 million nonguaranteed base salary. Although the Texans can afford to carry Watt’s salary, if they retain him, it would be logical to extend his deal and restructure his contract by converting all or a portion of his pay into a signing bonus and reducing his salary-cap figure. The Texans could also trade or cut Watt to unload his salary and create more room under the salary cap.
“I don’t have any guarantees left in my contact, so something’s got to happen one way or another,” Watt said this week when asked about his future. “I’m not sure; there’s too many unknowns.”
Will Fuller a free agent
Wide receiver Will Fuller was having the best season of his career until he was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
The pending unrestricted free agent might have played his final game for the Texans unless he’s signed to a new contract after the season or designated as their franchise player. The Texans have expressed interest in retaining Fuller, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly, but this punishment complicates the situation and could affect his market value.
Before this setback, Fuller was easing concerns about his durability, and he was expected to land a contract paying between $15 million and $17 million annually.
Fuller is one of the game’s most dangerous deep threats, and Watson loves throwing to him. If a short-term financial compromise can be reached, either through a one-year contract or by designating him as their franchise player, the Texans could hold on to the speedy former Notre Dame standout.