The year was 2005 and Smith was in his second season as head coach of the Chicago Bears. He had inherited a team that only managed one winning campaign in the eight years before he arrived, going 5-11 in Smith’s first season on the job. Things looked so bleak that esteemed Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman called them the worst team in football in the magazine’s 2005 preview edition, ranking Chicago 32nd among 32 teams. Zimmerman’s words appeared prescient when the Bears got off to a 1-3 start and failed to score more than 10 points in each of the defeats.
However, the Bears rallied to win eight consecutive games, finished 11-5 and won the NFC North. The next year, they reached the Super Bowl.
“I talk to the guys about it, my history,” Smith says, a smile creeping across his face. “When I say we’ve been in this situation before, I think history tells you an awful lot. Yeah, I know everybody is saying the same [skeptical things] about us. This is our reality, this is what happened. But I remember when that article came out; I was excited to see that (because it can motivate and galvanize a team).
“No one wants to hear someone talking bad about them. We’re competitors. There might be reason for people to say bad things, but you just have to face reality of where you’re starting off. I understand where we’re starting off. I know how many games we won last year. I know what the chatter is on the outside. Our football players hear that, too. for, This is how we’re going to do it.“
Smith didn’t show up for the introductory meeting and speak extemporaneously. He had dedicated substantial time to determine how he could best get his message across. He thought to himself: What’s the object or goal on every play? Answer: to score. So he had a cut-up made of an offensive, defensive and special teams play in which the Texans scored last season:
- Dec. 19, TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville: Defensive back Tremon Smith, who is mic’d for NFL Films, paces on the sideline and says he’s “itching to do something.” Shortly thereafter, he takes a kickoff outside the right hashmark, runs left and cuts upfield, powers through a pod of potential tacklers and scores the first touchdown of his career, a 98-yard lightning bolt.
- Dec. 26, NRG Stadium: After falling behind by 12 early in the fourth quarter, the favored Chargers appeared poised for a comeback. Bolts RB Justin Jackson had just scored on a 9-yard run, with Justin Herbert a pass to tight end Jared Cook for the two-point conversion. The Texans appear to be on the ropes. They need a score. Enter rookie Nico Collins, who catches a slant route and splits two defenders for a 13-yard touchdown, his first score of the season.
- Dec. 26, NRG Stadium: Attempting to rally from an 11-point deficit with under two minutes to play, Herbert looks again for Cook on a shallow crossing route. There is a mix-up. Cook cuts off the route, but Herbert throws as if he expects Cook to keep running. Safety Tavierre Thomas snares the errant throw and returns the football 48 yards for a touchdown.
Smith tells the players in so many words: This is who we want to be. This is how we can achieve our goals. But he doesn’t want them to get a false sense of reality, so he shows them a picture. It’s the scoreboard following their Week 4 game at Buffalo, which reads:
“With most athletes, what motivates them the most?” Smith says. “Seeing things that they do well? No, because that’s when you tend to exhale. That’s when you feel like you’ve got it all figured out. But when they see something they didn’t do well … I think that motivates you just a little bit more.”
Says Davis Mills, the second-year signal-caller who is seeking to build on a strong finish last year: “I’m very excited for what we can do. From the outside perspective, they’re only going to give us credit for our last year and make us go out and prove it this year, but I think the guys that we have in this locker room and the feeling that everyone has about each other — everyone is extremely confident going out there on the field each day because We know we have playmakers on this team that can go out there and perform. Everyone is looking forward to our first challenge.”
It is Thursday night, hours after the conclusion of the Texans’ minicamp, and Caserio is sitting before the media and discussing the first round of the draft. It’s a far different scenario than his first year in Houston, when the franchise was without a first- or second-round pick. You would think it’s a time for smiles and celebration, but there is neither. At least not publicly.
Caserio seeks consistency in everything he does, from the early-morning hour he arrives for work to the way he communicates with employees and the media. Maybe it’s a reflection of his time in New England, where public displays of emotion are frowned upon. The Patriot Way is both a mantra and a philosophy — limit expectations, control the flow of information, less is more — and Caserio has adopted aspects of it.
“It was a fairly productive start for us,” he says by way of opening statements. “Had the opportunity to pick a couple of real solid players and real solid kids.”
Then, just when you think that type of matter-of-factness is all you’re going to get — generalities over specifics, detachment over engagement, flat lines as opposed to peaks and valleys — he pulls back the curtain ever so slightly and shows he is his own man and, at times, will provide a level of frankness that is both deep and insightful. Like on Friday night, when discussing the complications of vetting personality traits in draft prospects.
“The reality is, our program is where it is for the time being. We haven’t had as much success as we all would have hoped here over the last how many years,” Caserio says, explaining how the team talks to prospective players . “How would you handle that transition or situation?
“You’re just trying to get a gauge and a feel to the overall personality and just who they are as people, because who they are as people is going to translate over to who they are as football players. Look, this is going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy. … Some of these players are going to lose more games in one season than their whole (college) career. going to be able to get up? Are you going to be able to deal with it? Whatever happens on Sunday, can you come in the next day and turn the page and get ready for the next week and have enough competitive stamina, mental stamina , mental toughness, to be able to move forward. That’s what it’s going to take to have a good team over the course of however many weeks it is.”
It can be difficult to evaluate intangibles, but safety Jalen Pitre, wide receiver John Metchie III and linebacker Christian Harris — the Texans’ Day 2 picks — appeared to possess the traits Caserio and Smith seek in players. They hit all the key phrases during their calls with the media, telling reporters how much they love football, can’t wait to get to work and are all about the team.
“I think they’re going to be motivated to say, ‘Alright, what the hell do we have to do to figure it out to make it better?’ Caserio says. “That’s the kind of attitude and the type of approach that you want to have. That’s what their job is. That’s what our job is. It’s to fix problems. It’s to not bitch and moan if things don’t go the way we want it to, and to come up with solutions.