Playing The Long Game: The Evolution Of Bill O'Brien's Offense

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports



Summary: A year after the Texans go 2-14, Bill "Teapot" O'Brien is brought in as a first-year NFL head coach with the expectation that he can change the team culture in Houston. A lot of the vets had gotten too comfortable, since Kubiak was exceedingly loyal and it seemed like he rarely held players accountable for their mistakes and/or poor performances. So in comes this gruff outsider from the Boston area (not a hometown Texas good 'ol boy like Gary) who shakes things up, takes down awards and whatnot from the locker room, often gets combative with the media, and basically doesn't take crap from anyone. With the first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the team passes on all three of the most highly-touted QBs at the time: Johnny "Cocaine's a Hell of a Drug" Manziel, Blake "Garbage Time" Bortles, and Teddy "Weston's Man-Crush" Bridgewater, instead selecting DE Jadeveon Clowney. Most fans realize that Derek "Guy-Liner" Carr would never be an option in Houston, and the Pats jump ahead of us to take Jimmy "Feels Great, Baby" Garoppolo, or so it has been rumored. Instead we pick up Tom "Nic Cage" Savage as a developmental prospect in the 4th round. No one is terribly excited by this, with the notable exception of Con Air fans. Thus, as a stopgap replacement for washed-up franchise QB Matt "Crazy Eyes" Schaub, O'Brien brings in Ryan "Grizzly Adams" Fitzpatrick, a veteran journeyman who seems to have been chosen because he was intelligent enough to quickly learn and navigate O'Brien's complicated offensive scheme. Despite a revolving door at the position, with snaps taken by Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, and Case Keenum, O'Brien manages to lead the team to a 9-7 record on the backs of J.J. Watt, Arian Foster, Andre Johnson, and a top-notch offensive line. A season full of sub-par QB play forces O'Brien to adapt to the skill sets available to him, which is most notable and recognized in the final two games of the season, when Keenum is suddenly pulled out of a deer stand to take the reigns and surprisingly leads the team to a pair of wins against the Ravens and Jags.

Play Selection: 48% pass, 52% rush

Offensive Rankings: 17th in total offense, 24th in passing, 5th in rushing (thanks, Arian), 14th in scoring

Assessment: When it comes to play selection, this is the only aberration in O’Brien’s tenure. He tends to call fairly consistent games, with his other five seasons averaging around 57% passing and 43% rushing. Of course, 2014 is the only year he has a healthy Arian Foster, so the notable skew toward rushing makes perfect sense. For the most part, O'Brien is celebrated for polishing several turds at QB and delivering a winning record in his first season. Hopes are high for the future, with the expectation that we will pick up a legit starting QB in the 2015 NFL Draft and be ready to rock and/or roll the following season.


Summary: In the 2015 NFL Draft, there are two Heisman-winning QBs available who most people think will be franchise players: Marcus "Mama's Boy" Mariota and Jameis "Crab Legs" Winston. Everyone else sucks, though (Garrett Grayson? Sean Mannion? Bryce Petty? Are any of these guys still in the league?). Lacking the draft capital to move up to the first or second spot in this otherwise terrible QB class, the Texans end up signing former Pats backup Brian Axel "Hoyer the Destroyer" Hoyer, mainly because he was already familiar with the offensive system. Also, to be fair, he had just completed a pretty solid season in Cleveland. Discussion from fans is dominated by our season on HBO's Hard Knocks, which makes celebrities out of O'Brien, Mike Vrabel, and rookie UDFA Charles "Happy Socks" James. With regard to the QB room, Savage sustains a season-ending injury during preseason, and O'Brien flip-flops between Hoyer and the hard-throwing (but also hard-headed) Ryan "Houston, We Have a Monster" Mallett, until Mallett is strapped to a rocket and fired into the sun for failing to purchase a functional alarm clock. Just to further deplete our offensive talent, Andre Johnson leaves town to play one mediocre year in Indy, while Arian Foster is lost for the season after only four games. The QB position is again a revolving door, with snaps taken by Hoyer, Mallett, Brandon "Colt Killer" Weeden, and T.J. "The Bengal Slayer" Yates. Nevertheless, O'Brien is able to lead the Texans to another 9-7 record, primarily on the back of J.J. Watt, who has one of the most amazing seasons by any NFL player in the history of ever, but is tragically robbed for the MVP award since he's not a QB. Despite making the playoffs, the season ends with a whimper as Hoyer absolutely craps the bed against the Chiefs and we lose 30-0.

Play Selection: 58% pass, 42% rush

Offensive Rankings: 19th in total offense, 18th in passing, 15th in rushing, 21st in scoring

Assessment: With the loss of Arian Foster, O’Brien’s play selection moves toward its historical average. Some segments of the fanbase begin to turn on him, partially because the Texans failed to draft or trade for a better QB than Brian Hoyer in the offseason (even though no one better was actually available), and partially due to his seemingly erratic temperament and decision-making. Even so, hope remains that he can have success as a head coach once he has a legit franchise QB behind center.


Summary: Once more, the QB draft class is thin and top-heavy, with Jared "Ryan Gosling" Goff and Carson "Probably Injured" Wentz as the top two prospects. And again, lacking the draft capital to move up to the first or second spot, the Texans instead choose to give $72 million to Broncos backup QB Brock "Baby Giraffe" Osweiler, heretofore known as [NAME REDACTED]. Some fans believe O'Brien will also pick up his former protege at Penn State, Christian "Can't Hit the Broad Side of a Barn" Hackenberg, but thankfully this does not come to pass. This is also the season in which we become aware of the massive rift between O'Brien and longtime Texans GM Rick "The Godfather" Smith, who most blame for the [NAME REDACTED] signing as well as the losses of Brandon Brooks and Ben Jones. Our offensive line is further depleted when rookie Nick Martin is lost for the season and Derek Newton's knees randomly explode, leaving Duane Brown as our only other decent lineman, with a disgusting mess of Oday Aboushi, Jeff Allen, Tony Bergstrom, Kendall Lamm, Chris Clark, and Xavier Su'a-Filo filling in the gaps. Oh, and J.J. Watt also misses most of the season with a herniated disc. Long story short, aside from being the only QB in the NFL who somehow can't get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, [NAME REDACTED] also turns out to be kind of a douchebag. He makes some terrible HEB commercials, throws a thrumble, clashes with O'Brien, eventually gets benched for Tom Savage, allegedly blows up in the locker room, manages to beat Connor Cook and the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs, then craps the bed against the Pats and wastes a glorious performance by our defense, ultimately ending his tenure in Houston.

Play Selection: 57% pass, 43% rush

Offensive Rankings: 29th in total offense (f*** you, Brock Lobster), 20th in passing, 8th in rushing, 28th in scoring

Assessment: Doesn't matter, Brian. AFC South champions two years in a row, Brian. Fans continue to grow weary of the lack of talent and consistency at QB, and there are rumors that O'Brien might actually leave town due to irreconcilable differences between him and Rick Smith. Controversy erupts over who is responsible for the [NAME REDACTED] debacle, although O'Brien defenders again give him credit for going 9-7, winning the division, and winning a playoff game despite the poor QB play and other setbacks.


Summary: During the offseason, Rick Smith staples a 2nd round pick to [NAME REDACTED] and ships him off to the Factory of Sadness. It then becomes abundantly obvious that the Texans will soon draft their franchise QB of the future, and there is much debate over who this should be. I myself, being an extremely stable genius, become a huge fan of drafting Deshaun Watson out of Clemson, although I doubt this will happen. Other top choices include Mitch "LOL Bears" Trubisky, DeShone "LOL Browns" Kizer, and Pat "Kermit the Frog" Mahomes. For some reason, there is also a strong push among certain segments of BRB for Nathan "Five Interceptions in One Half" Peterman, but we'll just ignore that. Additionally, rumors swirl that we will attempt to sign aging QB Tony "Romo-stradamus" Romo once the Cowboys inevitably release him, resulting in the Texans being almost totally inactive in free agency and failing to re-sign A.J. Bouye, thereby sending various BRB commenters into an emotional tailspin which requires professional therapy to resolve. But ultimately, our prayers are answered: Fans rejoice as the Texans trade up to #12 and draft Deshaun "The Houston Houdini" Watson, and O'Brien is finally given the playmaking franchise QB he has so desperately needed. Unfortunately, Duane Brown develops an unhealthy obsession with magic healing crystals and is ultimately traded to Seattle, thus removing the last vestige of talent on our offensive line. Seriously... our bookend tackles were Julién Davenport and Breno Giacomini. I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. Regardless, Watson plays in the first seven games of the season (starting six of them) and emerges as a legit ROY and MVP candidate. Close, last-minute, heartbreaking losses to the Pats and the Seahawks are partially blamed on O'Brien not yet trusting his rookie QB and thus failing to put the ball in his hands when it matters most. After Watson goes down with a torn ACL, the remainder of the season is a laughable carousel of failure featuring Tom Savage, T.J. Yates, and Taylor Heinicke, the latter of whom plays only one snap before leaving with a concussion. Oh, and J.J. Watt breaks his leg.

Play Selection: 56% pass, 44% rush

Offensive Rankings: 20th in total offense, 21st in passing, 14th in rushing, 17th in scoring

Assessment: Many fans are angry with O'Brien and want him fired after posting a 4-12 record. However, those who remain optimistic are able to acknowledge that he had a terrible offensive line and an aging secondary, and then tragically lost his rookie phenom QB, Hall of Fame defensive end, Pro Bowl OLB, rookie running back, starting center, and like 15 different tight ends. Regardless, O'Brien is criticized for not naming Watson as the starting QB during preseason and failing to tailor the offense to his strengths until a couple of games had already passed. He is also criticized for being too conservative and not trusting Watson to make big plays when needed, instead opting to run clock or settle for field goals. All that being said, many fans remain hopeful that O'Brien will fully unleash the dragon next season once Watson is healthy again.


Summary: Prior to the season, Rick Smith leaves his GM position and is replaced by Brian "Probably Not a Robot" Gaine, who is reported to have "alignment" with O'Brien, which becomes a running joke on BRB. As such, some people assume that Gaine will merely be a figurehead or "Yes Man" and that O'Brien will be the de facto GM, resulting in a level of cynicism among the fanbase. The Texans begin the season 0-3 with a sluggish start by Deshaun Watson, who had just come back from his torn ACL. During those three games, Watson is rarely used as a runner (not intentionally, at least) and throws a total of 5 TDs and 3 INTs, fumbles 3 times, and is sacked 10 times. He also suffers a cracked rib and a punctured lung fairly early in the season, forcing O'Brien to gameplan around his limitations in order to keep him from sustaining further injuries. This includes riding a bus instead of flying to Jacksonville. Our offensive line continues to be terrible, resulting in Watson being sacked an insane 62 times overall, and our similarly terrible secondary is still made up of slow, aging vets and street free agents. Nevertheless, the Texans go on a 9-game win streak, end the season with a 11-5 record, and win the division for the third time in O'Brien's tenure. Although the win streak is celebrated, it is also largely credited to the Texans' stout run defense and easy schedule, consisting of numerous run-heavy teams with bad/mediocre QBs at the helm. Our weaknesses on defense are ultimately exposed in losses to the Eagles and Colts. With a horribly depleted secondary and literally one healthy receiver, Watson plays one of the worst games of his career in the first round of the playoffs and we lose 20-7.

Play Selection: 55% pass, 45% rush

Offensive Rankings: 15th in total offense (yay, improvement?), 17th in passing, 8th in rushing, 11th in scoring

Assessment: Frustration mounts among fans who want to see Watson running around the backfield, throwing deep bombs all day long, and essentially playing hero ball like he did at Clemson. However, aside from attempting to protect him from injury, it becomes clear that O'Brien is training Watson to be a complete, well-rounded NFL QB, which will help his career be more successful in the long-term (as opposed to the way Lamar Jackson is being used by the Ravens, which looks fun now, but is completely unsustainable). Unfortunately, Watson’s development in O’Brien’s offense has been limited by our terrible offensive line and lack of consistent, experienced options at receiver other than DeAndre Hopkins.


Summary: The 2019 offseason may go down as being the most active and intriguing in the history of this franchise. After an excellent draft that eventually yields several big gameday contributors (Tytus Howard, Max Scharping, Lonnie Johnson Jr., and Charles Omenihu), Brian Gaine is suddenly fired. In the ensuing comedy of errors, the Texans attempt to pry Nick Caserio away from the Pats, only to be thwarted by Belichick's dark magic. Therefore, Bill O'Brien becomes the new GM, along with his "Flat Hydra" management team, and he starts making more moves than the cast of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. By the time the season begins, we've picked up Tashaun Gipson, Bradley Roby, A.J. McCarron, Darren Fells, Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Jacob Martin, Barkevious Mingo, Duke Johnson, and Carlos Hyde. With a legit offensive line for the first time in his NFL career, and with a slew of new weapons, Deshaun Watson is finally able to run the type of offense O’Brien always envisioned. In terms of play calling, we begin seeing more play-action and RPO concepts, but Watson also figures out how to read blitzes and how to get the ball out quickly when needed. As of right now, Watson ranks 4th in the NFL in passer rating (107.1), 4th in completion percentage (70.2%), 6th in total yards (2,432), and 3rd in touchdowns (18). He is, without question, an elite top-tier QB. As stated below, the Texans are also ranked 3rd in total offense and 5th in scoring. It's working. Watson finally has full command of O'Brien’s offense, has the most talented supporting cast he's ever had, and is completely healthy. We're firing on all cylinders.

Play Selection: 56% pass, 44% rush

Offensive Rankings (as of Week 10): 3rd in total offense, 13th in passing, 5th in rushing (shout out to Dr. Johnson and Mr. Hyde), 5th in scoring

Assessment: Watson missed half of his rookie year, then he missed the following offseason recovering from injury. This is the first time he's been healthy and able to practice as the starter through all of training camp and preseason. He also has multiple reliable pass-catchers other than Hopkins, including Stills, Fells, Akins, and Johnson. Most importantly, he finally has an offensive line than can actually block for him effectively. Because of all this, Bill O'Brien is finally able to run his offense the way he's always wanted to. Watson knows the playbook well enough that O'Brien can trust him to make the right calls and be the on-field general. More importantly, O'Brien now trusts him enough to put the ball in his hands during, say, a crucial 4th down situation (instead of punting or kicking a field goal). Sure, we can criticize O'Brien for his challenges, clock management, and occasionally baffling decisions, but I think it's clear that the playcalling has been exceptional over the past several games, and the offense is running like a well-oiled machine.

The numbers don't lie, folks. The evolution seems to be complete.

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