The Bill O’Brien Prototype: What Houston’s New Head Honcho Expects From His Quarterback

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Brett Kollmann breaks down what Bill O'Brien will be looking for from prospective quarterbacks this Spring while the Texans prepare for the 2014 NFL Draft.

With great draft picks comes great responsibility. Every single day the airwaves seem to be pelted by claims of "Bill O’Brien prefers this" or "Bill O’Brien can work with that", yet no one ever seems to take any time to sit down and actually listen to the man himself. In the daily frenzy of George O’Leary connections and Johnny Manzealotry, a few key points have gone largely unnoticed:

1) Bill O’Brien has never once said that he prefers larger quarterbacks. Sure, it is awesome to get someone who is 6’5", but then again, in the history of the sport has there ever been an NFL team actively searching for someone who is 6’1" or under? At the end of the day, size is a perk, not a deal-breaker.

2) Mobility, while another nice bell and/or whistle that adds to the package, is not a requirement. This is not a primarily boot-action offense like in Seattle that will give a guy like Russell Wilson opportunities to make plays in space while rolling out. Nor are there tons of read-option elements thrown in like in San Francisco. Does it help to be able to run those? Yes, of course. Does it matter if O’Brien does not have someone who can do it? Absolutely not.

3) Intelligence is what O’Brien craves above all else. An O’Brien quarterback must be smart. Period. End of story. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Billy O’ said it best himself last summer at the Nike Coach of the Year Clinic.

"These are just some things that I believe in. I think when you’re out there and you’re thinking about who the quarterback of your team is, they have to have a few things. Number one, and don’t laugh, they’ve got to be able to throw the ball accurately. If you tell them to put it somewhere, they’ve got to be able to put it there, and they’ve got to be able to work at it to improve their accuracy. In my opinion they don’t have to be the greatest athletes in the world. If they are, that’s fantastic, there’s a really great example of guys that are great athletes that are really good quarterbacks in the National Football League right now – Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RG3. Those three guys can throw the football. Remember that first, they’re accurate passers. So they have to be able to throw.

They’ve got to be able to make good decisions. They have to be able to be good decision makers. And you can judge a lot of that off the field. You can watch how these guys do things and carry themselves off the field, and they’ll help you when you’re watching them on the field if they’re making good quick decisions or they’re making crappy decisions. Those are things you have to observe but they have to be able to make good decisions.

This next one to me is really, really important. With all the multiplicity of the defenses these days, defenses at every level you’re seeing even, odd, we call it diamond, bear defense. You’re seeing bear. You’re seeing overload blitz. You’re seeing up the middle blitz. You’re seeing man-free, blitz zero. You’re seeing blitz zone, from the field, from the boundary. With all that, in my opinion, your quarterback has to be intelligent. He has to have a great football IQ. And if he doesn’t, if he can’t learn it, then he should play another position. I’m telling you, because nowadays that guy once he’s out on the field has got to be like a coach on the field. He has to understand what you want, how you want to attack the defense, and he’s got to understand football. In order to do it, he’s got to put work in."

A Bill O’Brien quarterback must be a perfectionist in both the physical and mental aspects of the position. When standing at the line of scrimmage, he is the one calling protections; he is the one adjusting individual routes for all of his receivers. The deep system of "check with me’s" is so much more than just simply changing a pass play to a run play; in fact, the quarterback has the power to turn a pass play into any play. If he smells blitz, it is the quarterback’s job to identify the Mike, call out new protections, adjust routes accordingly based on the direction and manner of the diagnosed pressure package, communicate "hot" assignments to receivers on both sides, receive the snap, look for blitzers to make sure he does not have to throw hot, locate post-snap coverage, determine whether or not your receivers are going to adjust their routes based on that coverage, and then deliver an accurate football somewhere within the span of fifteen seconds. For those wondering what this offense is capable of when humming behind a signal caller that can do all of that at a high level, it looks something like the Patriots making the Super Bowl while carrying a historically bad defense.

The quarterback is given freedom to move his chess pieces at will based on the defensive looks he gets, and the moves he makes will be determined on a week to week basis by O’Brien’s game plan. It is free form offensive football at its finest, but not just anyone can do it. In order to be a successful passer under Bill O’Brien, the quarterback must first learn how to protect himself by understanding how to direct his offensive line effectively.

As you probably surmised, the center does not call the protections in this offense; there is no committee handling all the mental work at the line of scrimmage. If the quarterback does not do it, it does not get done. The huge mental load placed on the quarterback to not only call his own protections, but also to call the right protections is why O’Brien emphasizes teaching his offensive players all about defense every single week before he ever dives into implementing an offensive game plan. Once a quarterback understands how to read the defense in front of him, he can turn chess into checkers.

"When you break the huddle at quarterback, you have to think high to low. You can’t think low to high. I don’t care if it’s a run or a pass. Train your quarterback [when he breaks the huddle] to say ‘Where are the safeties?’ Find the safeties. I always tell the kid to find the weak safety, find the strong safety. Just train the kid to find the safeties.

Corners, you guys all know the corners on your team. They’re the sneaky dudes, man. They’re the guys, they got a lot of bravado, and they’re confident, and they’re the ones that can lie to you. Them safeties, those are the guys that direct the show back there. They can lie to you too, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got to locate them because whether it’s pre-snap or post-snap, they’re going to tell you about what the defense is doing.

So here’s what we say. I’m just talking about two high right now, but if the safeties are twelve yards deep and they’re somewhat off the hash, more than likely they’re playing cover two. If they’re eight to ten yards deep and they’re over your number two receivers, more than likely they’re playing cover four. If they’re under eight yards, those two safeties, and maybe the weak safety is cheating to number three or maybe he’s over number two weak. If they’re under eight yards or they’re hovering in that shallow area, something’s up…it’s blitz zero – especially if it’s empty."

"[If] we put the running back out there as the widest receiver and the corner just bumps out, well, you know it’s zone coverage. If you get empty and you put the back out there on one side or the other as the widest receiver and a linebacker goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage. If a safety goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage and it’s probably blitz so that they leave the linebackers in the box because they’re going to blitz him. "

If a quarterback does not understand how defense works in the Bill O’Brien system, he will fail. This is not some new age pistol attack that can make up for having an underdeveloped quarterback by exploiting athleticism and sleight of hand. This is an offense that is based around maintaining tempo, outsmarting the enemy, striking weaknesses without mercy, and always having a counter punch dialed up when they try to strike back. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will cover up for poor decision-making skills in this scheme whether those poor decisions are made while calling protections, adjusting routes, or delivering the ball. If the quarterback does not have the capacity to win pre-snap, he does not have a good chance of winning post-snap.

Beyond O’Brien’s tendency to rely heavily on the cerebral capacity of his quarterbacks, he also has an affinity for personnel groupings that provide multiplicity and flexibility. The more things that the offense can do from one personnel package, the faster the pace they can run plays. If a player can do one role well, he might make the team; if he can do three roles well, he is a starter. Flexibility like that is why the Texans may take a hard look at a fullback/tight end hybrid like Gerald Christian, a big and powerful tight end who can block well like C.J. Fiedorowicz, or an open space weapon like De’Anthony Thomas who can be moved from slot receiver to running back at will, just for the sake of infuriating defensive coordinators.

"Whether it’s high school, college, or even the pros, you have to make sure that you have like five or six base concepts, and in those five or six base concepts you’ve got to be able to move people around. So you have to have different personnel groups in my opinion. So your backs, who are your best pass receiving backs? Who are your best pass receiving tight ends? Who are your quicker receivers?

But we’ve got to have about five or six concepts where the guys can move around within the concept and know what to do. Don’t worry about figuring out how we call routes, just know that we call a route at Penn State from the strength of the formation to the weak side of the formation."

"I really believe in word association. I’ve been in both systems. Charlie and I were in a system in Maryland where it was five-eight-five, six-two-eight, six-seven-eight and all that, and that was a great system. And then when I went here, it was the words, so the thing that I liked about the words is that it gave you the ability to create new routes. Your guys understood that we’re going to call this, we’re going to call this Gotti. Gotti…a ‘go’ and an ‘option’ route. And then the next one we’re going to call Hoffa. Hoffa now is a deeper option route and a stutter-go on the outside. But they would associate things by these words and I thought that was a good way and it gave you a little bit more creativity in the offense."

As tantalizing as a defense with J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing, and Jadeveon Clowney may sound, it could be the offense that steals the show in Houston. Bill O’Brien’s nigh unstoppable war machine in New England was a cold blooded killer that left team after team in its wake. When looking at an offensive arsenal in Houston that includes Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster, Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, DeVier Posey, and Ryan Griffin, it is not hard to get excited about the potentially astronomical numbers that could be put up this coming season. All Bill O’Brien needs to burn the AFC to the ground is a quarterback that is accurate, tough, is obsessed with football , and was taught how to read a defense before he ever cracked open his offensive play book.

Someone who fits that description sure sounds like a Bill O’Brien quarterback to me.

Author's note - If you enjoyed the videos in this article, I highly recommend purchasing the full Bill O'Brien clinic from last summer's Nike Coach of the Year Clinic. It's full of great information and should be in the collection of every football fan who wants to learn more about the game they love.

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