Often when former athletes are in the media, they are more image and glitz than really a helpful source of insight into the sports they know so well. Well, the other day former Texans Cecil Shorts III and Wade Smith did what former pro athletes should do more often. They were guest hosting on KILT Sports 610 and during one segment brought to the listeners a real gift as they explored Bill O'Brien's offense from the point of view of players who had both played in the NFL for multiple teams and in Shorts' case had actually played in O'Brien's offense in 2015.
Smith (who has played for five different teams) introduced the segment by playing a clip from O'Brien's introductory press conference, where John McClain asked him what type of offensive system would he run. Coach BOB basically said he did not run an actual system. His team would game plan for every game and base their offense on the defense they would be facing. And truthfully this is how he has run his offense since day one. Smith then asked Shorts to pull back the curtain on what it was like to be in the Texans' locker room and to have to actually do this week to week. The two former Texans (Smith never actually played under Bill O'Brien) discussed many things including how other teams prepared for games versus how the Texans did and the plus(es) and minuses of O'Brien's non-system system.
Deshaun Watson entered the 2019 season with only 22 starts (not even a season and a half) under his belt. Normally a player like Watson (intelligent, hard working, great leader) would have expected to have led an improved offense in his next season. Noting that there were probably more injuries in 2018 on offense than in 2019, especially in the O-line, the offense did not take off in 2019. The team scored less points (378 vs. 402) in 2019 and were almost spookily the same in yardage. They passed for 3781 yards in 2018 and 3783 yards in 2019. They ran for 2021 yards in 2018 and 2009 yards in 2019. And has been pointed out many times this continued Coach BOB's tradition of not having a top 10 offense with the Texans. Apologists can say, well they had the key injury to Will Fuller. They had an almost completely new offensive line. They had a really tough schedule. They still won 10 games and a playoff win on top of it. But based on the very good assumption that Deshaun Watson is a high character, highly talented, hard working model QB, logic tells you it is the non-system that is causing this.
The segment with Wade Smith and Cecil Shorts hit on some major points relative to how BOB runs an offense....
Lack of identity - All teams game plan to a certain extent every week. The difference here is that the Texans do not have a true identity, a set of related plays that define the team and a central set of plays that are run every week with "game plan" plays added in to the mix. They mentioned how when teams played a Gary Kubiak offense that they had the zone read/cutback running game and the play action passing game that they ran so well. They said this was the normal way to run NFL offenses and felt like this was lacking with the Texans.
Lack of repetition - Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, talks about the 10,000 hour rule - about how the best at anything have put in the time to be that way. Shorts emphasized how difficult it could be coming into every week and having a completely new set of plays and formations. He said often they would be in Week 8 running a play that had not been run since the 3rd day of Training Camp. They did not have a base set of central plays that they knew so well.
Strengths vs. Weaknesses - Shorts and Smith talked about how it is so normal for teams to run their offenses based on their own strengths, based on plays that the players had a lot of success with. Shorts felt that the Texans let the defenses dictate what they would run, even if it meant they were running plays with which they lacked familiarity or success.
Lack of consistency - Since they were cramming each week to add plays that they had not practiced in many weeks, it is not necessarily surprising that they were very consistent in screwing up - like not being able to line up or get the right guys on the field. Sometimes they would have great offensive weeks in a game and then come out the next week not running the plays that worked so well the week before.
Complexity - Shorts said it was the most complex offense with which he had ever been involved. They had more formations to learn and each week as stated they were handed a new tome of plays to absorb and run. He thought that maybe this works for someone like Tom Brady, but might be totally overwhelming for a younger player like Deshaun Watson.
On the plus side, and Shorts had to think long and hard on this point, he felt they were extremely well prepared in knowing what the defense's tendencies were and what to expect on, say, 3rd and 8.
The bottom line was they had doubts that the offense run this way by O'Brien would ever fully unlock its potential, even with all the talent on offense. They felt like the team needs to have a base "identity" and to game plan off of that to reach its potential.