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Value of Things: Reevaluating the Bill O’Brien offenses

Was our perception of O’Brien actually correct?

NFL: New England Patriots Minicamp Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

I love statistics. I think that has become abundantly clear after being on this site for more than a year. Anyone that has read my baseball stuff already knew that. Why do I love statistics? It’s actually very simple. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. We remember what we want to remember and forget what we want to forget. This is particularly true when narratives start to present themselves.

While Pep Hamilton and Tim Kelly were the offensive coordinators the past two season, the offenses were more or less O’Brien holdovers. So, the 2023 offense will finally shift away from what we recognize as the so-called “game plan offense.” When you win a combined 11 games in three seasons it is easy to cast aspersions. However, we should look at this offense at its very best. We will look at only the wins in 2018 and 2019 when Deshaun Watson was healthy and the team was arguably at its best offensively in the O’Brien era.

What was the narrative?

The narrative for the Bill O’Brien offenses were never that good and that includes his last two teams at Alabama. Essentially, the narrative was this: O’Brien would try to run the football and would try to run a more conservative offense until the second half when he needed Deshaun Watson or Bryce Young to play hero ball and take over the game enough for the team to eek out a victory.

The Overall Numbers

We start with the general and move to the specific. So, we look at the overall numbers for the two seasons. The team won 21 regular season in 2018 and 2019 (11 in 2018 and 10 in 2019). Did the team dominate offensively or did their defenses lead them to victory? I’m pretty sure we think we know what happened, but it would be instructive to actually look at the overall numbers.

Wins: 21

Total Points For: 564 (26.9 per game)

Total Points Against: 381 (18.1 per game)

Total Yards For: 7496 (357.0 per game)

Total Yards Against: 6987 (332.7 per game)

Total Yards Rushing: 2724 (129.7 per game)

Total Yards Passing: 5344 (254.5 per game)

A secondary narrative also occurred at the same time. Basically, the idea was that O’Brien didn’t beat teams into submission. He grinded out games until he won or lost by one score or less. 14 of the 21 games were won by seven points or less. Of those fourteen games, nine wins came by five points or less. So, even based on the numbers, the Texans hardly ever drilled their opponents into submission. They only outgained their opponents by 24.3 more yards per game over two seasons.

How much of an impact was Watson?

The narrative is that the Texans needed Watson to play hero ball in order to win games. Often times the narrative isn’t exactly true. So, we are looking at the running attack by itself, but then also accounting for Deshaun Watson and his impact on the running game.

Total Rushing Yards: 2724

Total Rushing Attempts: 647

Yards Per Carry: 4.21

That doesn’t seem so bad, but we have to remember a couple of things. First, this was only the 21 games the Texans won. Secondly, the Texans had one game in 2018 and 2019 where they gained more than 200 yards on the ground. They also had one game in each season where they gained less than 50 yards on the ground. So, let’s remove the two highs and two lows and see what happens.

Adjusting Rushing Yards: 2141

Adjusted Rushing Attempts: 543

Yards Per Carry: 3.94

Suddenly, it doesn’t look quite as good. Granted, the Texans would have loved to have had these numbers last year on the ground (even just the yards per carry) but we are only talking wins here. Also, at least a few readers are shouting at their screen about the fact that Watson was a great running quarterback. So, what happens when we look at just his quarterback ratings and the rushing yards for just Watson and how that affected the running backs.

Watson Rushing Yards: 622

Watson Rushing Attempts: 131

Yards Per Carry: 4.75

Total Quarterback Rating: 106.6

It’s only fair to give Watson the same treatment that we gave the running offense. We will eliminate the best and worst performances of each season. Doing that removes the outliers and gives us a much more accurate picture of what Watson was doing when the team was winning games. We are removing the best and worst quarterback rating efforts from each season.

Adjusted Watson Rushing Yards: 522

Adjusted Watson Rushing Attempts: 117

Yards Per Carry: 4.46

Adjusted Quarterback Rating: 105.9

You will win a lot of football games when your quarterback is this good. Of course, even Tom Brady had some clunkers. A lot of this becomes clear when we look at the other half of the equation. What happened when the Texans lost games? Was it the offense or defense that let them down? How did Watson fare individually?

The Overall Losing Numbers

Losses: 11

Total Points For: 226 (20.5 per game)

Total Points Against: 330 (30.0 per game)

Total Yards For: 3897 (353.7 per game)

Total Yards Against: 4540 (412.7 per game)

Total Yards Rushing: 1306 (118.7 per game)

Total Yards Passing: 2899 (263.5 per game)

The total production on offense is practically the same in terms of overall yardage. The Texans passed for a few more yards, but that is to be expected when you are coming from behind. The huge difference comes on defense. If you’ve given up over 400 yards you’ve had a rough day. When you are averaging more than 400 yards allowed that is quite alarming.

How much of an impact was Watson?

We are doing the same thing in defeat that we did in victory. Essentially, how much is riding on the performance of the quarterback? So, we are looking at the impact of his running on the overall running offense and we are looking at where he stood in terms of quarterback rating in the defeats.

Total Rushing Yards: 1306

Total Rushing Attempts: 259

Yards Per Carry: 5.04

At first glance, things appear to be rosy. They averaged nearly an extra yard per carry. Except they barely averaged more than 20 running attempts per game during their defeats and we haven’t even gotten to Watson.

Adjusting Rushing Yards: 919

Adjusted Rushing Attempts: 254

Yards Per Carry: 4.50

Again, the average yards per carry is pretty strong. Yet, the running backs contributed a little over 80 yards rushing per game during their defeats. I think everyone is getting the picture at this point, and there are some very unpretty parts. Yet, let’s pay off on the Watson numbers.

Watson Rushing Yards: 387

Watson Rushing Attempts: 55

Yards Per Carry: 7.04

Total Quarterback Rating: 86.0

At this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Davis Mills has an 83.3 career passer rating. So, Watson was better in all of his defeats where he threw for 2899 yards with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. That came with a 62.8 percent completion percentage. So, in 17 game NFL schedule that would end up being 4480 yards passing, 598 yards rushing, 20 touchdown passes, and 17 interceptions. Anyone think Davis Mills is putting up these numbers? Hell, anyone think C.J. Stroud is putting up those numbers?

What does this all mean?

Over the last five seasons, the Texans have employed an offense that called for their quarterback to be great. When you come from New England and have the best quarterback in the history of the sport, the “just go out there and play great” model is likely to be effective. When your quarterback is merely very good then that model doesn’t quite work out so well.

What makes the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay model so much more doable is that they put the quarterback in a position where he doesn’t have to be the hero to win the game. Jimmy Garrappolo started 55 games in San Francisco. his career quarterback rating is 99.6. Brock Purdy started only five games and produced a 107.3 rating. Obviously, others (notably Trey Lance) were not quite as good, but C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullins also started games in San Francisco. Beathard has a career 80.3 rating while Mullins has a career 88.0 rating. These are career backups and third stringers essentially playing better than Davis Mills and almost as good as Watson in Watson’s defeats. Getting the right quarterback is always a crapshoot, but what you ask the quarterback to do is so very important. If you want them to play hero ball you likely will be disappointed. If you take heat off of him with a good running game and routes that can create yards after the catch you might be pleasantly surprised at what you get.