The film study for one Texans player suddenly required a different kind of source material. In addition to reviewing practice and game tape, he delved into a ruthless fantasy world, seeking insight into the machinations of an extreme power struggle from the television series that tens of millions of others were watching: Game of Thrones.
He wasn’t alone. The grab for the Iron Throne was so analogous to the complicated, real-life dynamics that began to unspool at NRG Stadium last year that it had become something of a reference point among more than a dozen Texans coaches, players and team personnel, who likened the individuals at the top of the organization to characters in the TV drama.
General manager Brian Gaine was Robb Stark, the intended future King of the North, who was murdered by the end of Season 3. (Gaine would be fired after only 17 months as GM.) Coach Bill O’Brien was compared to King Joffrey Baratheon, a hot-headed ruler prone to screaming and chopping off heads, only to be poisoned in Season 4. (O’Brien would be fired in October of this year.)
Then there was Jack Easterby, hired as the franchise’s executive vice president of team development in April 2019, a man who’d risen from low-level Jaguars intern to Patriots team chaplain to lauded character coach—before making an unprecedented shift into football operations. Easterby, those Texans told each other, was Littlefinger, the nickname of Petyr Baelish, a shadowy and cunning operative who on TV espoused righteousness as a strategy, but sought to consolidate power through chaos and isolation and the pulling of strings behind the scenes.
For those who don’t watch Game of Thrones, this might be an oblique metaphor, as well as a hyperbolic one. But the point is: A player found insight into his own workplace from a dramaseries about the vicious and unrelenting pursuit of power. “That’s why I was able to read them,” the player says of the trio of decision makers, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “I knew who it was going to be [at the end].”
Easterby’s sudden ascent to power has generated intense curiosity and, depending on whom you ask, either admiration or scrutiny. He has not conducted any on-the-record interviews since September, leaving others to make sense of perhaps the NFL’s most polarizing executive. In response to interview requests for Easterby and team owner Cal McNair, as well a list of 83 questions regarding the details of this story, a Texans spokesperson provided broad statements on behalf of McNair and Easterby (which can be read in full here). To Sports Illustrated, some called the 37-year-old a guiding force in their lives, a beloved minister and mentor who shepherded two NFL franchises through difficult times and became part of the foundation of the Patriots’ late-dynasty years, earning him a rare spot in Bill Belichick’s inner circle. Many in Houston, though, have not seen him as the congenial confidant and Belichick foil. Rather, they describe an authority figure whose leadership style sows distrust and division, at times flouting rules and straining relationships inside the building. Meanwhile, his responsibilities expanded despite questions surrounding his credentials.
Conversations with more than 40 people—current and former Texans football operations staff and players, colleagues from Easterby’s time in New England, those from his past in and out of football—provided detailed accounts of his alleged role in, among other things:
- Undermining other executives and decision-makers, including the head coach who helped bring him to Houston.
- The team’s holding workouts at the head strength coach’s house during the COVID-19 pandemic after the NFL had ordered franchises to shut down all facilities, shortly before a breakout of infections among players.
- Advocating for a trade of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins soon after arriving in Houston—one season before Hopkins was sent to Arizona in a widely panned deal.
- Fostering a culture of distrust among staff and players to the point that one Texan and two other staffers believed players were being surveilled outside the building.
When SI began making phone calls in October to make sense of Easterby’s improbable path, he quickly caught wind and reached out to a reporter, saying that he wanted to help communicate “truth and honesty.” Easterby did not return a text message, sent Tuesday, offering a chance to tell his side of the story. But colleagues who spoke to SI—many requesting anonymity, like the player, for fear of retribution—said they felt compelled to share their own truth in the hopes of opening the eyes of McNair, of whom one source said: “[He] is just blinded.” There is a perception inside the Texans’ building that Easterby won a power struggle, completing his climb. And in doing so, these sources say, the character coach brought in to improve the culture has made it…