On Saturday afternoon, the Houston Texans will begin their fourth postseason attempt at attaining the Lombardi Trophy with Bill O’Brien at the helm. The previous three tries have led to nothing but disappointment and shattered dreams. The Texans have lost in the Wild Card round twice and once in the Divisional Round since O’Brien became their head coach. For all the talk that Bill O’Brien really really wants to make the Texans a carbon copy of the New England Patriots, he lacks the postseason success to hang his hat on.
Which brings up an interesting question as we head into this postseason: Will this team find any success in the postseason this year? I mean, sure, AFC South titles are nice, but they are ultimately meaningless. They don’t do anything except guarantee at least one home game in the NFL Playoffs. In order to ensure that this year has a happier ending than previous BOB campaigns, the Texans must first take out the Buffalo Bills.
There seems to be a consensus in the NFL atmosphere that, despite the Texans and the Bills having the same 10-6 record and the rosters looking fairly evenly matched, the Bills are favorites to not only win this game but to potentially upset another favorite in the following round. What is the reason for this optimism when it comes to the Bills’ postseason chances? Most utter some for of this phrase, “They are a very well-coached football team.”
If the difference between these two teams lies in the coaching, let us examine the coaching match-up in the hopes that it will shed a little more light on the coming game.
Starting first with the Texans’ fearless leader, Bill O’Brien has been the head coach of the Houston Texans since 2014. He had a short stint as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator in 2011, but the immediate experience that got him the Texans’ job was his work as Penn State’s head coach from 2012-2013. You may remember that the Penn State job wasn’t exactly highly sought after during that time, as the program was facing a number of restrictions in the wake of a huge sex abuse scandal. O’Brien succeeded Joe Paternoand through good leadership led a storied program to a place of relative stability.
The Texans’ 2013 season was a disaster, and they thought acquiring O’Brien’s “obvious” leadership skills and his connection to the Patriots would make him the perfect man for the job. Since taking the job in 2014, O’Brien is 53-47 with a .530 winning percentage and a 1-3 postseason record. That is pretty close to the same level of performance that got Gary Kubiak fired. Kubiak was 61-64 with a .488 winning percentage, though that does include the 2-11 mark the team posted in 2013 before he was fired, which also saw Kubiak suffer an actual stroke on the sidelines during a game. Judging from the long tenures and performance of the team under its last two head coaches, it seems almost as if the Texans are content to with mediocrity.
This year, the Texans went 10-6 under O’Brien and won the AFC South. They had two bad losses—one to the Ravens, who at the time were putting on the most dominant display of football of any team playing this season, and the other to the Broncos. There was absolutely no excuse to lose the Denver game, especially at home, and it probably cost the Texans a bye in the AFC Playoffs.
Despite this, the Texans enter the playoffs in good shape. After all, they have Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Laremy Tunsil, Justin Reid, and a returning J.J. Watt. You would be forgiven in assuming the Texans were heavily favored in a home game against the Bills. But most consider this a toss-up due to the work of Sean McDermott.
This brings me to the foil. I will stop short of calling McDermott a villain. He is more of an anti-hero. A shadow version of Bill O’Brien, as we will see in a moment. A look into his coaching background and record will show that he is very much the mirror image of one William James O’Brien.
Before becoming the head coach of the Buffalo Bills, McDermott worked as the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers from 2011-2016. He orchestrated a Panthers defense that led them to a berth in Super Bowl 50. His work on the defensive side of the ball would lead him to an opportunity to get a bigger job. He was branded as a defensive minded head coach with a blue-collar attitude. In other words, McDermott was the perfect man for the Bills opening.
Since taking over the Bills, McDermott has gone 25-23 with a winning percentage of .521 and a postseason record of 0-1. This year, the Bills also went 10-6. They only had “bad” loss—to the Eagles, who made the playoffs themselves. Every other loss that the Bills suffered this season was by a touchdown or less. That includes two losses to the New England Patriots and a one touchdown loss to the Ravens.
The Bills have similar strengths to the Texans, albeit maybe slightly worse. They put Josh Allen, John Brown, Ed Oliver, Tre’Davious White, and Tremaine Edmunds on the field. The only true weaknesses they have as a team include lacking a legit #1 running back and no #2 wide receiver opposite John Brown. They get by on sound fundamentals and a few special plays from Josh Allen.
Although the teams are similar and the coaches seem to be fun house inverted images of each other, there a couple of key differences that are leading many pundits to pick the Bills over the Texans this weekend. Both come down to coaching.
1. Sean McDermott has been winning games with Josh Allen.
This is not a slight on Josh Allen. The reality is that he may very well be a franchise QB, but he isn’t there yet. He still misses some pretty easy throws and has shown a penchant for throwing interceptions at the worst possible time.
No, instead this is both praise for Sean McDermott and a rebuke of Bill O’Brien.
McDermott has found ways to win games with Josh Allen. Buffalo has simplified their playbook and focused on his strengths to help Allen lead the team to victory.
O’Brien is adamant on running his offense. Despite having one of the best young quarterbacks in the game, O’Brien has limited Deshaun Watson’s effectiveness at times by refusing to tailor his offense to showcase Watson’s strengths.
I really do like Josh Allen. I think he will end up playing for the Bills for a long time and lead them to several more winning seasons. However, Josh Allen isn’t Deshaun Watson. The fact that O’Brien can only muster 10 wins with Deshaun Watson as his quarterback even though he is a supposed offensive “mastermind” is a telling indictment of his coaching ability.
2. The Bills are considered well-coached.
Most commentary on the Bills this season simplified to, “They are a well-coached football team.” While that may be true, there is more to it than that.
The Texans and the Bills have identical records and similar strengths and weaknesses. However, you rarely hear praise for O’Brien as a reason why the Texans are able to win games. In fact, if you’ve watched Texans games this year, you know that they win sometimes in spite of O’Brien. On the other hand, McDermott is often credited with getting the most out of his team and having them ready to play.
The best example of this disparity is the Ravens game(s). Coming off a bye, the Texans had an extra week to prepare for the Ravens and got blown out. It wasn’t even close. The game was over at halftime and the Texans looked like they had forgotten which team they were playing that week. They were completely overwhelmed and overmatched. In contrast, the Bills walked into their Ravens game and pushed them to the limit. They had a clear plan for how to stop Lamar Jackson and even though it didn’t succeed, they didn’t look like they didn’t belong on the same field as the Ravens. Like it or not, that is 100% coaching. A team is either ready to play or it isn’t, and the head coach gets paid to make sure they are prepared.
The Buffalo Bills are perhaps the worst match-up the Texans could have drawn for the opening weekend of the 209 NFL Playoffs. The teams are so similar, yet so different. I predict that Sean McDermott’s superior ability to coach his team will end up being the difference in this game. Texans fans will be left asking how much longer they will have to settle for average seasons and embarrassing playoff losses.