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BRB GroupThink: The End Of The Bill O’Brien Era

The masthead joins together and gives their thoughts on Bill O’Brien’s recent firing.

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Bill O’Brien is no longer the Texans’ head coach or general manager. We have some thoughts about that development.

MATT WESTON:

Seven years. Seven. Since 2014, we’ve had the joy of only watching Bill O’Brien football in Houston. Well, at least his bastardized version of it, and joy isn’t the right word, Houston football during this regime was a hangover cure, not a raucous Sunday afternoon. Ball control. ESTABLISH THE RUN. Lean on a great defense. Be just competent enough to win close games, which would slowly accumulate into winning a bad division more often than not.

There were warning signs from the very beginning. The flummoxing in-game decisions go back to 2014. The loss to Dallas had plenty of time management and field goal miscues that pushed the game into overtime, a game Houston eventually lost. These same issues were still present in 2020. A coward’s punt at the 50 yard line on 4th and 4 in Kansas City. A coward’s field goal against the Ravens to make it a two possession game while failing to realizing the other team gets the ball too, and they can score, leading to a Mark Ingram 4th and 1 30 yard touchdown run that ended the game. Another coward’s field goal against the Vikings last Sunday. That’s just this season.

Last year, Houston kicked a field goal in the Divisional Round against Kansas City, increasing the lead to 24-0, on 4th and 1, because O’Brien didn’t have a play for that situation. It’s his job to have a play for that situation. After that, the Chiefs scored 41 straight points. During these last seven years, there were countless coward’s field goals and punts, balanced against bizarre hyper-aggressive fourth down decisions. There were even times when the ball was quick-snapped after game stoppages.

O’Brien’s decision, in tandem with Rick Smith, to not address the quarterback position in 2014 set off a chain reaction of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum (Part II), Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, [NAME REDACTED], and Savage again (after O’Brien purposely started him over Deshaun Watson in 2017). O’Brien undeniably had a preferred type of quarterback. Smart and athletically limited or tall with a good arm. Those were the archetypes he liked to work with. Even going back to his days at Penn State, his quarterbacks fit that mold. I know, deep down in his heart, O’Brien wished he could have had the chance to build an offense around AJ McCarron.

These quarterbacks could play the game of football the way O’Brien liked. Run heavy. Control the clock. Wait for the field position to break enough times so Houston could score 20 points. And to be fair, O’Brien was pretty good at getting everything out of Fitzpatrick, Hoyer, Savage, and Mallett, but there’s a ceiling to bad quarterback play. The Texans wasted J.J. Watt’s prime and three seasons because of O’Brien’s mindset.

All that waiting around and a power struggle O’Brien won mangled the Texans’ roster. Reports seeped out of NRG Park in 2017 over who made the [NAME REDACTED] decision as O’Brien and Rick Smith attempted to save face instead of sticking to the unified decision they paraded around during the celebratory press conference in March of 2016. O’Brien outlasted Smith, who stepped down from the general manager role. O’Brien got his hand-picked general manager, Brian Gaine, installed, only to fire him after one season so O’Brien and Jack Easterby could go and get Nick Caserio from New England. That attempt memorably failed in fantastic fashion. This left O’Brien as head coach, general manager, popcorn popper, team brand manager, and apparel designer.

As a general manager, O’Brien was in over his head trying to work two jobs that require an entire commitment of one’s life into each. He treated the Texans like a 2004 Honda Accord. The air conditioning goes out, so he buys a plug-in fan and rolls the windows down to survive. The leather seats crack, so he buys plush frog seat covers. The power steering fluid leaks, so he heads to Autozone once a month and pours another can down its parched tube in the parking lot. The interior liner begins to sag like an old woman’s triceps, so he glues it back as well he can, but it still hangs and the rest is warped with sticky patches.

The Texans these last two seasons made rash decisions without any sort of long-term planning. Oh, crap, Matt Kalil and Tytus Howard can’t play left tackle. Max Scharping can’t play right tackle. Here’s two first round picks and a second round pick for Laremy Tunsil, and Houston still has one of the worst offensive lines in the league. Jadeveon Clowney doesn’t have the sack numbers and doesn’t practice enough. Here he is for a third round pick that was then shipped to the Raiders for cornerback Gareon Conley in a reactionary move to patch together a terrible secondary that was awful the previous season; Jacob Martin, a prospect pass rusher who sees the field occasionally; and Barkevious Mingo, a special teamer who blocked a punt once. To make matters worse, O’Brien made the trade late in the summer, after the deadline for long-term extensions had passed for franchise tagged players, limiting the return Houston could get for Clowney.

And, of course, O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins, a top three wide receiver and a future Hall of Famer, to the Cardinals for an expensive running back who doesn’t transcend bad run blocking; a pick switch that became Ross Blacklock, who can’t get on the field; and a second round pick they used to acquire Brandin Cooks, who had 0 catches on 3 targets last week against a terrible Minnesota secondary. That trade wasn’t made to make the team better. It was a red emotional move, in the name of T. (ough) S. (mart) D. (ependable) because O’Brien and Hopkins no longer got along.

Because of these decisions, the Houston Texans morphed from a great team with bad quarterback play to a bad team with great quarterback play. This is where they currently stand. They don’t have a first or second round pick this year, and they no longer have the same salary cap flexibility with Deshaun Watson and Laremy Tunsil set to have a cap hit of $36 million next season and $61.5 million in 2022. The checks are due after making a trade in 2019 that cost Houston zero players for 2019—this was a future Bill O’Brien problem—but will limit their ability to build a team around Watson for years to come. Surrounding Watson is an offensive line that has never played up to the capital invested into it, a wide assortment of skill players who have contract questions to answer after this season, and a crappy defense that was pillaged and worn ragged over the years. Even the run defense, which was always something Houston could depend on, has fallen apart this season.

Whoever comes in next to be general manager doesn’t have an easy job. He’s going to have to rebuild an entire defense, find a coach who can get this offensive line to perform, and find skill players to pair with Watson. They’ll have to do all of this.

The enduring legacy of Bill O’Brien is this: He got the bare minimum out of a talented roster. His own scheme and offensive design, his risk averse style of coaching, limited what this team was capable of. The Texans wasted Watt’s prime and Watson’s rookie contract with O’Brien as the head coach. The golden ticket Seattle, Los Angeles (R), Kansas City, and Philadelphia turned into Super Bowl appearances and titles, what Baltimore and Buffalo are trying to turn into right now, is the same one Houston wasted with Watson. That opportunity is gone.

That being said, the Texans still have Deshaun Watson, a fringe top five quarterback talent and MVP caliber player who has been limited by an offense except for those five hot weeks in 2017. The only indicator of consistent year-to-year success in the NFL is the quarterback position. With Watson, the rebuild can be quick, but it isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be up to the next man to do what O’Brien couldn’t—build a great offense around a great quarterback.

MIKE BULLOCK:

Like a broken record, I’ll begin by repeating: I bet O’Brien is a great guy, would be a ton of fun at the family BBQ, and make a fantastic neighbor.

However, as a head football coach at the ultimate level, he proved to be more manager than leader. Managers maintain. Leaders take new ground. Bill O’Brien inherited a team that had gone 12-4 just one season before his arrival and promptly turned them into a 9-7 unit. People can point to how he won with a hodgepodge of castoff quarterbacks, but the surrounding team was built by Gary Kubiak and Rick Smith. Once their DNA left the building and O’Brien traded off the rest or failed to try and re-sign them in free agency, his true coaching abilities were revealed.

While his resume was far from all bad, in the context of the Texans lifespan, if O’Brien was a Super Bowl winning sort of leader, the Texans would already have, at bare minimum, an AFC Championship banner hanging at NRG Stadium. Instead, they have no one to line up across from J.J. Watt and take pressure off him since Jadeveon Clowney was paid to go away. They have no one to rescue Deshaun Watson in the passing game when the wheels come off since O’Brien shipped off DeAndre Hopkins. They don’t even have the proper personnel to enforce a smash-mouth, A-Gap running game that O’Brien seemed to believe they did.

The litany of mental errors committed in-game is more numerous than we have time to recollect. The now-infamous “install the final offense on Friday” was inexcusable. There’s an old adage that big time players show up in big time games. That same thing applies to big time coaches, and O’Brien never showed up.

I wish him and his family nothing but the best, but his removal as Houston Texans football czar is the sweetest H-Town sports news since the Astros won the World Series.

KENNETH L.:

When I first read the tweet at 2:00 PST, the church bells at Grace Cathedral next to my San Francisco apartment rang in the background. One time for the head coach position, one for the GM position. This is poetic justice at its finest. Or maybe consider it being 4:00 PM CST; metaphorically for the four miserable trades he made: Clowney, Hopkins, Duane Brown, and Tunsil/Stills.

I wonder if this is the first time in history a coach has been fired after winning the division four out of the last five years. To think of the talent that has come and gone in the past 24 months is astonishing. Don’t forget about Tyrann Mathieu, A.J. Bouye, D.J. Reader, and Kareem Jackson. Don’t let slip your mind all the potential talent that never developed. Or even all of the quarterbacks who came and went: Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, and [NAME REDACTED].

The O’Brien era will be cast with serious curiosity when we look back upon it. We were winning like never before, yet there is unrest and disapproval. It wasn’t that we were winning; it’s that we weren’t achieving. Wins came with stress, doubt, and poor execution. Losses came with inferiority and obviousness. The discomfort with the day-to-day dealings were kept to a grumble while the team continued to beat up on a miserable division. Even the horrific trades weren’t enough to unseat O’Brien. Once the losing occurred and the drainage of talent could not be withstood, making a change became the obvious choice.

I thought this firing would occur next week, after they lose to the Jaguars. In my opinion, 0-5 and losing to a supposed tanking team would be the last straw. Fortunately, we have seven more days to heal and recuperate than if we lost next week. The Texans are in a strange place where their future has been sacked and their present has been sapped. We can only look back with awe and relief that it is all over.

It’s remarkable what has occurred today. Cal McNair finally did something for this franchise. Who knows what a clean slate will bring to this team? They will have to regroup and rebound like never before.

L4BLITZER:

Did not see this one coming...in that I did not see the Texans pulling the trigger this quickly. I figured that as head coach, BO’B’s past trend of slow starts to at least achieve winning/playoff seasons could keep him employed through this season. If anything, I thought that he would lose the general manager job at the end of the season and have a win-or-else-vote-of-confidence-type season for 2021. However, it would appear that in the past couple of weeks, BO’B’s greatest strength—being a players’ coach—had deserted him.

There was a report from La Canfora, who generally is about as credible as your standard bloviating sports talk TV dude, that there was a lot of yelling between coaches and players, which is something you didn’t usually hear much about from the team, even in past struggles under BO’B. However, as noted in a preseason doomsday post, the season would go south if BO’B lost the team, and with yesterday’s loss, it happened. The reports of further internal strife and friction are coming out fast and furious in the wake of O’Brien’s firing.

When BO’B first came on board, I thought it a good move. Given what he did Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenburg as quarterbacks at Penn State in the shadow of all that transpired there, he was a good coaching prospect. He had his moments, but until Deshaun Watson, he never got the right QB to develop/evolve. Unfortunately, BO’B’s biggest issue was power and delegation. He could never leave the offense well enough alone. George Godsey wasn’t a revelation, but given how BO’B never really gave up the offense to him like he probably should have, it is fair to say that Godsey never got the chance to grow and mold the offense like he could have. The better coaches, like Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, still key in on their respective areas of expertise, but they also allow their coordinators to do their job without the amount of oversight BO’B had on Houston’s offense. It got worse when BO’B decided to take on more of the personnel responsibilities. BO’B’s emotional outlook and strength of being a players’ coach did not serve him well at all as GM. The postmortems are still to be done, but it would appear this past offseason, with the trading of Hopkins and the stress of managing a team that he helped construct, a difficult stretch broke him and in turn, his relationship with the team.

Was O’Brien really another failed disciple from the Belichick tree? That he never got a team to even a conference title game seems to suggest yes, but he did manage 4 division titles in a 6 year span and left with a winning record. While not the greatest of achievements, it is not nothing.

Still, O’Brien goes out the door leaving behind a sense of unfulfilled promise and one hell of an organizational mess in regards to draft picks and future salary cap projections. While many are starting the coaching wish list, I think the bigger issue is getting the right general manager. The cupboard is not totally bare, but the team is on a knife’s edge. A smart, calculating general manager, combined with the right coaching staff, especially one that can develop players, could have the Texans back in contention relatively quickly. The wrong general manager hire, even with the second coming of Lombardi/Belichick, and the franchise could be looking at a very bleak future.

As for this season, all bets are off. Maybe the team plays looser and freer. They may still not get to the playoffs, but perhaps it may actually be entertaining, something that has been sorely lacking in 2020.

CARLOS FLORES:

I’ve spent a majority of my football life with Bill O’Brien. In total, we’re looking pretty close to a 70-30 split between him and Kubes. For me, this is relatively uncharted territory. However, I’d rather see the next seven years of Texans football under a new hand, as opposed to a continuation of BOB’s regime.

I have nothing against Bill O’Brien the man. By most accounts, he’s a solid guy and considering his family situation, he’s faced his fair share of adversity. As a football coach, it was time for the BOB experience to end. I just wish it happened after the final playoff game last year. That way, we’d still have DeAndre Hopkins.

I can’t wait to see where this team goes. Even if it’s a slog fest for the next few years while we re-tool the team, it can’t be any worse than it has been for the last couple of years.