With rumors, upon rumors, upon rumors that the Houston Texans are going to trade Jadeveon Clowney “any moment now” piling up like traffic on 290 (despite common sense screaming, this is the worst time possible to do so), it’s clear that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Once again, Bill O’Brien has managed to lose a star player in his locker room.
For those who either don’t remember, or choose to forget, O’Brien was brought in as a quarterback whispering, player motivating, offensive genius. Touted as the hottest prospect on the market when the Texans signed him, O’Brien has failed to live up to his potential. And unlike Jadeveon Clowney, O’Brien can’t blame turf seams from an ill-advised field surface at NRG Stadium for derailing his growth.
Both O’Brien and Clowney joined the Texans during the 2014 offseason. O’Brien inherited a team that had just gone 2-14 under Gary Kubiak. While the team had just come off a disastrous campaign, the roster was fairly solid, including phenom J.J. Watt, wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, running back Arian Foster, linebackers Brian Cushing and Whitney Mercilus, and offensive linemen Duane Brown, Chris Myers and Derek Newton. O’Brien promptly racked up back-to-back 9-7 seasons despite only being one season removed from a 12-4 season in 2012 when O’Brien took over. Regression to the mean happened before our very eyes.
In order to be a championship level head coach in the NFL, you need to be a great leader. The difference between a leader and a manager clearly applies here. A manager maintains a system set in place by someone else. A solid manager can make slight improvements but seldom achieves grand swings of positive motion. A leader inspires those who follow to achieve great things. A leader not only sees more and sooner than everyone else, getting out ahead of obstacles to clear the way for his followers, but a leader can communicate that vision to their followers in a manner that turns foresight into reality.
Before we go too far down that rabbit hole, let’s backtrack to the main reasons Bill O’Brien was such a hot commodity when Houston signed him.
It would be foolish to assume at any point that Bill O’Brien didn’t have some say in who sat in his quarterback room over the last five seasons. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, [NAME REDACTED] and Tom Savage were all - at one point or another paraded out as Bill O’Brien’s “guys”. While Fitzpatrick managed to overachieve under O’Brien’s tutelage, the rest are a Who’s Who list of quarterbacks who will always have to buy a ticket to get into the NFL Hall of Fame. For a “quarterback whisperer,” that’s pretty solid evidence the title is undeserved.
While there are bad seeds in every locker room that must be tilled out of the soil, Duane Brown is a player who got along fine with the previous administration. A player that could/should have anchored the Texans’ offensive line for years to come. Instead, he became highly disgruntled after former owner Bob McNair’s ill advised “inmates” comment; understandably so. The story soon after was that O’Brien met with Brown to smooth it over. Then suddenly Brown was gone, traded away to the Seattle Seahawks for far less than a starting, Pro Bowl caliber left tackle was worth. Add to that list the greatest running back in Texans history, Arian Foster, who has been outspoken in his disdain for the Texans coaching/front office since leaving. and it’s hard to hang the “player motivator” hat on O’Brien and believe it.
Despite inheriting a team assembled by Gary Kubiak, a coach who went on to win a Super Bowl soon after leaving Houston for Denver (with a stop in Baltimore in between), Bill O’Brien has failed repeatedly to field a top ten NFL offense. In fact, the 2018 unit, ranked 15th best in the league, was the closest Houston has come under O’Brien’s reign to the top ten.
Over the course of O’Brien’s tenure, the Houston Texans offense has averaged 20th best in the NFL.
That’s hardly the work of an offensive genius.
Looking through the facts brings the easy conclusion that O’Brien is not only very replaceable, but that continuing to allow him to manage this team is a commitment to mediocrity.
Every year, the NFL sees a surge of brilliant young coaches, as well as established ones who are looking for new challenges. Replacing O’Brien wouldn’t be hard if the minimum expectation is simply to do what O’Brien has done over the last five years.
Now let’s slide over to Jadeveon Clowney.
Drafted with the number one overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Clowney jumped onto the scene with “The Hit” that occurred when he beat now starting left tackle for the Tennessee Titans Taylor Lewan to obliterate Michigan running back Vincent Smith.
Amidst injury concerns, Clowney entered the Texans’ offseason and regular season less than 100%, and then had his rookie year cut short when he landed in a turf seam and destroyed his knee. The ensuing microfracture surgery had most everyone labeling Clowney as injury-prone, with some writing him off for good. Unlike his head coach, Clowney took that situation and made the most of it, returning in a manner most never could and dominating on the football field once again.
While Clowney gets a bad rap for not having Hall of Fame sack numbers, what most don’t realize is Clowney’s contributions to the run defense. His is arguably the best run stuffing edge rusher in the league right now. While he was extremely raw when Houston drafted him, relying far more on his nearly supernatural talent than specialized skill, Clowney has shown a dedication to his craft, mixing advanced techniques with superhuman power to become a force to be reckoned with on game days. And he’s only 26 years old, which means he’s just now entering the prime of his career.
Again with the Jadeveon Clowney praise. Watch his blitz up the A-gap here. He dances with the guard, then finds proper leverage to use a disgusting jab swipe move to get to the quarterback. #Texans better resign this man. pic.twitter.com/IAAOoqfJ3e— Avery Duncan (@averydduncan) February 19, 2019
The Texans waited through Clowney’s injury rehab, were patient as he developed, and are just now seeing the benefits of what he brings to the field. Why give up on him now?
Well, rumors across Twitter and from “people in the know” are that Bill O’Brien doesn’t like Clowney and the two are in a “grudge match”. Granted, these are just rumors, but if Bill O’Brien was a true player-motivating, football genius who wants to do everything he can to lead his team to the next level, Clowney would have long since been signed to a new contract and in the facility preparing for the Monday Night Football opener against the Saints.
Instead, just like Duane Brown, Clowney is disgruntled, Bill O’Brien is obfuscating, and the Texans are allegedly about to lose a player they cannot easily replace - as evidenced by the revolving door of, well, revolving doors at left tackle since Duane Brown moved on to Seattle.
To make matters worse, what if J.J. Watt were to suddenly decide to retire a la Andrew Luck? Or what if Watt suffers another season-ending (potentially career-ending at this point) injury? Houston’s front seven would suddenly plummet from top five to below average.
In a league that’s increasingly highlighting offensive scoring, a player like Clowney is worth far more than a head coach unless that coach is proven winner. Not only is O’Brien not that guy, he’s never once led a team to win it all. He’s not Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Tom Coughlin, or even Gary Kubiak.
Bill O’Brien is the very definition of replaceable.
Jadeveon Clowney is not.
Moving on from #90 will take Houston further from the Super Bowl potential O’Brien inherited from Kubiak, not closer.
Moving on from O’Brien might just do the opposite.