Cole: Can Lovie Smith Find And Develop A Franchise Quarterback With Texans?

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Lovie Smith couldn’t have been more resolute.

Nor more wrong.

At the Spring 2015 NFL owners meetings, Smith met with the press along with the other coaches around the league. At the time, he was with Tampa Bay and the Buccaneers had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which was a little more than a month away.

The Bucs were focused on quarterback Jameis Winston over Marcus Mariota. The team had been telegraphing that for months despite questions about Winston’s lack of maturity off the field and his sloppiness on the field (he had 28 interceptions in 27 college games).

Lovie Smith had Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay.
01 MAY 2015: 2015 NFL Draft first overall pick Jameis Winston poses between General Manager Jason Licht and Head Coach Lovie Smith after signing with the Buccaneers for the 2015 season at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As it would turn out, that lack of maturity and sloppiness would play out over Winston’s time in Tampa Bay. That wasn’t necessarily Smith’s fault since he was fired after Winston’s rookie year so that the team could keep then-offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

But at that moment in March 2015, Smith was being questioned about Winston as a person. Smith deflected one question after another as he sat with his back straight against his chair, almost looking down at each reporter as they challenged him. He was, in simplest terms, resolved to the point of defiance.

Eight years later, it’s important to wonder about Smith’s approach to picking and developing quarterbacks. As the head coach of the Houston Texans, Smith has guided the team to a 2-12-1 record. Smith doesn’t deserve all or even much of the blame for that. The Texans have been torn apart by numerous factors, starting with the fiasco that was quarterback DeShaun Watson and including questions about in-house leadership (executive Jack Easterby was fired this season after creating friction throughout the team).

That doesn’t mean that Smith is necessarily the right man to plot the future. The Texans will likely have the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and the chance to select one of the top quarterbacks among a deep group. That group is headed by Bryce Young of Alabama, C.J. Stroud of Ohio State, Will Levis of Kentucky and Anthony Richardson of Florida, although Richardson is a long-shot to go No. 1 given his relative lack of experience.

Picking the best of that group will be difficult. But before the Texans even begin to sort out that question, there is the issue of who will lead the process.

The Texans will have plenty of quarterback options at the top of the draft.

“This is a brutal decision,” said an NFL executive who knows Smith and the Houston situation very well. “From the perspective of leadership, they need Lovie really badly. There’s nobody in that organization who really has a clue about how to do this. The owner (Cal McNair) is clueless, although he finally got rid of Easterby.

“(General manager) Nick (Caserio) is a good organizer, but he doesn’t really know how to operate a team … I know that Lovie hasn’t won in a long time (Smith has compiled nine consecutive losing seasons over his past four jobs), but you see how those guys play hard for him right now even though they’re not very good.”

But …

QB Development Is An Issue

“I don’t know if Lovie understands how to pick a quarterback or develop one.”

That was the fear that Tampa Bay had after one year of pairing Winston and Smith. It was the main failure of Smith in Chicago even after he took Rex Grossman as a first rounder and later acquired Jay Cutler in 2009.

In each case, Smith ended up with guys who were undisciplined in critical ways that played out on the field. Grossman was too erratic in his work habits and had only one decent season with the Bears as they got to the Super Bowl on the strength of their defense.

Cutler had constant interception problems on the field, never got better, and had the personality of a dead fish in the locker room. Winston didn’t get much time with Smith, but he was never focused during his time in Tampa Bay and just selecting him was emblematic of a trend.

Smith’s tendency is to take quarterbacks who have flawed personalities.

“That’s exactly what it is,” the executive said. “He’s a big personality who is completely comfortable standing up in front of the group and leading the charge. That works with defensive guys because defense has a different mindset. Offense is more complicated. The quarterback has to be the leader. You can’t have a weak-minded guy at quarterback. They get exposed. Every guy Lovie has ever had got exposed.”

No matter how much Smith believed in them.

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

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