Having a team that wins consistently in the NFL isn’t easy. Just ask any of the 17 teams that have replaced its head coach in the past three years.
By that metric, Bill O’Brien’s tenure with the Houston Texans isn’t a failure. Now in his seventh season, the Texans went to the postseason in four of his first six years and came into 2020 with a modest 52-44 (.542) record.
But O’Brien’s tenure has been marked by some puzzling decisions, both by him and team ownership, and some of those are coming into sharp focus now.
Texans remain winless
On Sunday, the Texans fell to 0-4, losing at home to the Minnesota Vikings, who came into the game 0-3 and with one of the NFL’s statistically worst defenses over the opening weeks of the season. It’s the first time since 2008 Houston has started a season 0-4.
A Deshaun Watson-to-Will Fuller fourth-down touchdown pass with 1:15 to play was taken off the board when it was determined on replay that Fuller didn’t have control of the ball. With the Texans having taken all of their timeouts, the Vikings kneeled out the game.
Before the game, there were reports that O’Brien was taking over as the primary offensive play-caller again, instead of first-year offensive coordinator Tim Kelly.
Early on, it didn’t make much difference. In three first-quarter possessions, Houston got one first down. By halftime, it had seven (to the Vikings’ 12), was 2-for-7 on third down and trailed 17-6. The Texans rebounded in the third quarter and were down 17-16 at one point, but then didn’t bring that energy to the fourth, when they were 0-for-3 on third downs.
On their final, have-to-have-it possession, Houston had first-and-goal from the 4, and approached it thusly: David Johnson carry up the middle, 3 yards; Johnson up the middle, no gain; Watson fumbled snap; overturned touchdown to Fuller.
Houston got to the red zone three times on Sunday. It didn’t come away with a touchdown in any of the trips.
Johnson had 16 carries for 63 yards (3.9 YPC), matching his YPC for the season thus far.
Lest anyone forget, Johnson is the player the Texans got when they inexplicably traded away DeAndre Hopkins earlier this year. Well, Johnson and a second-round draft pick.
Hopkins trade still haunting
Trading Hopkins, a three-time first-team All-Pro, is the most recent and arguably most glaring of O’Brien’s bad decisions. It was done because Hopkins had the temerity to request a raise, wanting to be paid what he’s worth relative to others at his position, though O’Brien and Hopkins did not have a good relationship and Hopkins seems happy to be gone from under O’Brien’s thumb.
Remember 2017, when O’Brien started the season with Tom Savage at quarterback instead of heralded draft pick Watson? O’Brien stuck to that ill-advised decision for all of 30 minutes of game time, giving Watson the ball after halftime of the season opener. There was also his brief, $72 million-love affair with Brock Osweiler in 2016, and naming Ryan Mallett as starter during training camp in 2015 — with Mallett promptly responding by oversleeping and missing the next day of practice.
Yet inexplicably, Texans ownership has given O’Brien more and more power, to the point where he essentially has no checks and balances on his decisions.
In 2017, team owner Bob McNair chose O’Brien over general manager Rick Smith, after the coach and GM had been in a prolonged power struggle. Since then, O’Brien has consolidated his influence. Brian Gaine, handpicked by O’Brien to be GM, was fired after 17 months on the job. Team vice president Chris Olsen, who spent seven months as interim GM, was fired in January.
O’Brien is listed on the team’s website as head coach and general manager, and his right-hand man is Jack Easterby. Easterby had spent the entirety of his NFL career as a team chaplain and character coach before O’Brien handed him the role.
At this point, every decision, good and bad, is O’Brien’s. Every result, positive and negative, is his.
As Bill Parcells was fond of saying, “You are what your record says you are.” At this point, O’Brien’s record, on and off the field, doesn’t say much good.
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