It is a testament to the job that Bill O’Brien did with the Texans that the firing of a head coach/general manager who led his franchise to four division titles, only one losing record, and back-to-back double-digit win seasons is still overdue.
As a reminder of the state of play when O’Brien was fired on Monday:
— The Texans have the NFL’s highest payroll this year at $248m.
— They are projected to be $6m over the salary cap this offseason.
— Over the past 12 months, they have traded away Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins, two bonafide All-Pros, for a bag of nothing.
— They do not have a first- or second-round pick in the next draft because of a trade that brought Laremy Tunsil from the Dolphins.
— They have only four picks in the 2021 draft.
— They are 0-4.
— FiveThirtyEight projects them to finish the season with a 4-12 record, and gives them a 2% chance of making the playoffs.
It is about as grim a outlook as any team in the league. O’Brien leaves the team devoid of talent – or the assets to get any in the immediate future.
To give O’Brien his credit, he went out in the most Bill O’Brien way possible.
Throughout his time in Houston, O’Brien won every power struggle – until he didn’t. He leveraged his reputation as the man who stood up to Tom Brady at the Patriots into a position that is only ever offered to those at the very top of the sport, that of the omnipotent decision-maker. He was boosted to the role of head coach and general manager just 16 months ago, allowing him to build the Texans in his own image.
And build in that image he did. Out went Clowney and Hopkins – one for financial reasons, the other due to a personal confrontation – and in came players who would believe in the O’Brien Way. Because that’s the thing about O’Brien: the answer to any and all problems was, at all times, more O’Brien.
O’Brien wanted to “change the culture”, football-talk for removing talented stars who do not agree wholeheartedly with the head coach’s decisions in favor of lesser players who are just happy to be part of the proceedings. Football guys. You know the sort: the blue collar, first-in, last-out kind. All leadership skills and intangibles and things that mere mortals cannot see.
Yet in doing so O’Brien transformed the Texans from a so-so team with the talent to win any one-off game into a team without enough top-line talent or quality depth.
Culture is great. But culture without talent is a losing formula.
O’Brien’s Hail Mary came on Sunday. After getting off to a rickety 0-3 start to the season (admittedly against some very good teams), O’Brien, decided that the team’s issue was that there was not enough O’Brien. He reclaimed play-calling and game-planning duties ahead of the team’s make-or-break game against the Vikings.
A reminder: this is a man who held an intensive general manager search after ousting Rick Smith back in 2018, and just so happened to find the answer staring back in his mirror.
The Texans’ plan against the Vikings was a mess. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was once again left running for his life, and O’Brien’s penchant for second-and-10 run plays that thud into the center of the line took on meme-able proportions.
It is that failure to surround Watson, one of the best quarterbacks in the league, with sufficient talent, protection, or a coherent system that eventually sunk O’Brien. As general manager, he ponied up all manner of assets – cash and draft picks – to try to improve the offensive line. Through four weeks this season, the group ranks 32nd in adjusted sack rate, 29th in adjusted line rate (a measure of how far they knock the defense off the line of scrimmage in the run game) and 31st in pressure rate. Simply: They’re the worst group in the league, a league that includes the Bengals. And that is despite Watson’s ability to scramble away from danger and to bail out failed plays.
O’Brien gifted away Hopkins in favor of Brandin Cooks, a speedster he thought could better stretch the field, giving Watson a big-play threat. Through four games, Cooks has averaged 6.6 yards per target, far and away the lowest average of his career. Against Minnesota on Sunday, O’Brien’s sole game as the designated play-caller, Cooks was targeted three times and caught zero balls, despite being on the field for 94% of Houston’s snaps.
And that’s just the offense. O’Brien devolved much of his power when it came to the defense, handing the keys over to ex-Bill Belichick assistant and current interim head coach Romeo Crennel. In the early years of that partnership, the Texans were a defense-first team. Between 2014-2018, with O’Brien as head coach and Crennel as either the defensive coordinator or the assistant head coach in charge of the defense, the Texans’ defense peaked as high as fifth in defensive efficiency and averaged out as the ninth most efficient defense in the league.
Since O’Brien assumed the role as team-architect, however, when he traded away Clowney and retooled around his own players, things have cratered. The Texans hit an O’Brien-era-low 22nd in DVOA last season and currently sit 26th in the league in defensive efficiency.
It has left the Texans in an unusual state. The vacancy is both the least and most coveted on the market. There is minimal cap space, a lack of high-round picks, and a roster dripping in mediocrity.
But then there is Watson, a huge talent at the forefront of the game’s evolution. Watson near-singlehandedly turned the last two seasons in Houston from a circus into something resembling respect. They were competitive if incomplete. He dragged the team to a 24-0 lead over the Chiefs in the playoffs last season. Coaches wait their whole career for a quarterback as gifted as Watson.
Yet it’s hard not to think Houston has missed a crucial window. Adding a franchise quarterback on a rookie deal remains the top market inefficiency in professional sports. Getting a 12-karat player for the price of 12 carrots in a salary-capped sport is almost unfair. It is the best way to ensure success in the NFL: it enables a team to flesh out the rest of the roster.
Watson was a star right out of the gate. Keeping him on a low-paying deal through his first four seasons should have allowed the team to keep JJ Watt, Hopkins and Clowney at the peak of their powers, with the cap-room to add greater depth.
That run is now over. Watson’s mega-money extension kicks in next season. He counts just $1m against the Texans salary cap this year. Next season that jumps to $15m before it hits $40m in 2022. And it’s not like Houston have a bunch of draft picks or left-over money to fill in the holes around him on either side of the ball.
There is starting to be a real early-LeBron-on-the-Cavs feel about this. The generational star knee-capped by an organization that could not get of its own way. The franchise’s next move: handing the reigns over to the Patriots’ former pastor and life coach. Bringing in the Chiefs’ Eric Bieniemy as the next coach would be the smart move, but anything is on the table with Houston’s leadership.
JJ Watt summed the situation up neatly on Sunday after the team dropped to 0-4: “This is terrible. It’s brutal. I mean, it’s depressing. It sucks.”