An already frustrating Texans’ season became even more this week with the sudden release of veteran linebacker Zach Cunningham.
First-year head coach David Culley didn’t provide details of what led up to his release but from his tone, it is obvious Cunningham had done something to rub him the wrong way. But it has been well-documented this season that Cunningham, a second-round draft pick in 2017, was in the doghouse with the new regime almost from the outset.
There has seemed to be a trend this season of purging high-priced veterans from the Texans roster, but in this situation, it seems like Cunningham may have given cause for his release. Excessive tardiness is believed to be the reason the Texans moved on from a linebacker the organization had just given a four- year, $58 million contract extension to just 16 months ago.
“We have standards and I didn’t feel like those standards have been met consistently,” said Culley, whose 2-10 team hosts Seattle on Sunday. “I felt like I made a decision that was best for the team. This is about the team. This isn’t about any individuals.”
It didn’t take Cunningham much longer than 24 hours on the waiver wire to catch on with a new team, with the Tennessee Titans claiming the run-stopping linebacker on Thursday. For Cunningham, it’s a homecoming of sorts because he played at Vanderbilt and spent his rookie season under Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who was the Texans defensive coordinator.
But it had been clear all season that there were problems between Cunningham and the new Texans’ regime. He was benched for the first half of Week 2 against the Browns for a pattern of tardiness. Cunningham was later suspended for Week 13 after he showed up late for a COVID-19 test.
Culley said it wasn’t hard to move on from a linebacker who has been as productive as Cunningham had been in the past.
“It wasn’t tough at all. It’s about the team,” Culley said. “It’s not about any individual player. The one thing we always talk about is that it’s not necessarily trying to be the best player on the team but being the best player for the team. That’s our motto.”
Cunningham’s former Texans teammates were not in much of a mood to discuss the release of their friend and teammate but seemed to understand why things played out the way that they did.
“It was tough. Zach’s my dog,” said second-year defensive lineman Jonathan Greenard. “He’s a good friend of ours, but it’s a business. You have to take care of your business at the end of the day. Team made a decision and we ran with it.”
Veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks called it an internal matter but he also admits a clear message was sent.
“Yeah,” Cooks said. “I think they’re just trying to do things in a certain way, and I think that message is being made loud and clear.”
Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith preferred not to discuss Cunningham when he met with the media Thursday, but he likened the parting of the ways to a marriage that no longer works.
“Pretty simple, sometimes divorce is a good thing, then you move on. It’s good for both parties,” Smith said. “As far as what we’re going to do going forward, we had to play this way for a while. We had to play this way Sunday.
“Kamu Grugier-Hill has stepped up every time we’ve asked him to change his role, sometimes on short notice. Last week, Kevin Pierre-Louis has gotten reps. Garret Wallow was able to get reps. It was good getting Christian Kirksey back, Neville Hewitt, so we’ll go forward with those guys and feel good about them.”
The Texans saved $275,000 against the 2021 salary cap when the Titans claimed Cunningham off waivers for the remainder of the season. But releasing Cunningham while still under contract, means the Texans will take a hit of more than $5 million in dead money this season and it will jump to $12.8 million in deal money next season.
Cunningham will be back in Houston with the Titans in Week 18 to face his old teammates. Should be interesting.