Home / Sport / Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 4: The Texans’ Decision to Fire Bill O’Brien and What’s Next for Houston

Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 4: The Texans’ Decision to Fire Bill O’Brien and What’s Next for Houston



Bill O’Brien was 24 points clear of the Chiefs in the February playoffs and found himself unemployed before Halloween of the same year. Nobody needed more evidence as to how strange 2020 was, but throw it in the file anyway. The news of O’Brien’s layoff by the Texans was so shocking that it happened before I could finish writing my week 4 recap about Bill O’Brien heading heavily to the hot spot in Houston. Cal McNair acted swiftly in this case: Texans started the year 0-4 and there was no one in the building firing Bill O’Brien, who had amassed so much power for Texans that he held the title of boss coach and general manager.

7;Brien’s tenure in Houston is absolutely insane when you start delving into the transactional decisions and internal power struggles that Texans have faced for the past half-decade or so. Everything paints the picture of a wildly dysfunctional organization

The last straw

Ultimately, O’Brien probably quit – after all, it was roster building that created the problems for Houston in 2020, with Texans ranking in the bottom half of the league in every major offensive and defensive category.

Things went so badly that after a 0-3 start – fueled by a certainly impossible schedule against Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh – in a match against Vikings, a typical Mike Zimmer defense shell, O’Brien said he was taking on more responsibility on playcalling.

The result was by far the most disappointing defeat of the season, a 31-21 fade in Minnesota that featured an awkward and slow start, evidenced by 16 yards clear from 12 total plays during the team’s first three drives. Houston eventually came back into the game with the ability to tie things up late, but it was more a byproduct of how the Vikings played the game (quite a lot of Dalvin Cook, trying to freeze the game) than a concerted effort on The Houston part goes back.

In the very first play of the game, David Johnson had a chance to bounce the ball off with an open hole and room to run. Instead, he tried to punch through a tiny, rapidly evaporating hole between tackles.

via NFL Game Pass

If he performed the called show, that’s fine. But one might certainly wonder why O’Brien continues to feed Johnson with racing in the middle when his specialty throughout his career has been getting into space. Another play in the third quarter, with the Texans behind 17-6, left us perplexed.

via NFL Game Pass

Bounce this run off and DJ is shooting at worst like five yards. Instead, he runs into a lump of his own offensive linemen.

via NFL Game Pass

Something is wrong here in the application. O’Brien may have realized that Johnson is not the same player – after getting more than 80% of offensive shots in week 1, it had dropped to 55 percent against the Vikings. This is remarkable, of course, because Johnson was acquired in a shocking exchange that sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona this offseason (more on that in a second).

The game of passing no longer seems cohesive. Instead of satisfying Watson’s strengths (making him move by design!), O’Brien seemed content to play plays with minimal pass capture options. When the Vikings brought their linebackers back to the area, Watson was extremely reluctant to pull the trigger and instead ended up running to save his life.

via NFL GamePass

via NFL GamePass

It’s not about protection. Watson has had a lot of time. Is he on the play-caller, the quarterback … or both? Watson was terrible at the beginning of this game. He held the ball for too long (a bad stretch) and his positioning was bad, costing the Texans at least two first-down conversions.

Credit Zimmer for the gameplan. Dropping his linebackers into zones made Watson hesitate to both take off on the run and try to force anything into tight windows at first. The Texans have been terrible in third place all season, dropping below 35 percent for the year (fourth worst in the NFL) after converting only 3 in 12 against the Vikings.

This offense was lethargic for four games. He undoubtedly contributed to O’Brien’s firing early in the season. Expect a pretty severe dead cat rebound from the Texans in week 5 against Jacksonville. When a manager is fired mid-season, you often see the team playing very well the following week.

Problems relating to personnel

But it wasn’t O’Brien’s coach who got him fired. He has won a lot of games in Houston. If you’ve done a Mt. Rushmore of the Texans, you might even name O’Brien the Texan trainer on the fictional mountain.

What got O’Brien fired were some incredibly bad personal decisions. O’Brien has handled personnel matters for Texans for the past two years, regardless. He made some extremely aggressive decisions in the commercial market, giving up more first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil, trading Jadeveon Clowney as he pays his salary, and this offseason trading DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and then snatching Brandin Cooks from the Rams.

O’Brien let his frustration as a manager morph into decision making as general manager. He cut Aaron Colvin after just one week in 2019, just one year after giving him a $ 34 million extension. The agreements of Clowney and Hopkins both seemed personal to a certain extent; they wanted more money and O’Brien was unable to separate relationships. Tunsil – without an agent – negotiated a deal with O’Brien that paid him more than $ 5 million above market value for left tackles.

The result is a group of skillfully positioned guys who don’t seem to match and an offensive approach that left Watson more like an average quarterback than one of the NFL’s truly elite guys. O’Brien seems determined to force-feed Johnson, a once dynamic player for the Cardinals who appears to have lost his flurry and doesn’t see the field as he did during his heyday in Arizona.

Power struggles

All of these decisions right before the 2019 NFL season become more interesting when you consider the way things have changed in the front office in Houston. O’Brien was hired on New Year’s Eve 2013. At the time, Rick Smith was the Texas GM – Smith had already been in the role for a long time. The two coexisted for several years, but there were rumblings about the battles that were taking place in the building. After the 2017 season, Smith set off to take on his wife’s battle with cancer amid reports that O’Brien was ready to have late owner Bob McNair choose between the coach and the GM moving forward.

O’Brien ended up staying, of course, and in January 2018 the Texans hired Brian Gaine as the team’s next CEO. It didn’t last what you’d call it long: Gaine was fired in June 2019 despite signing a contract that will run until 2022. Note: Between Gaine’s hiring and firing, Bob McNair died, leaving his son Cal McNair to fill the void as chairman and chief executive of the Texans.

Young McNair made the statement by firing Gaine and at the time the buzz built that Patriots executive Nick Caserio could be a candidate to take on the role of GM. There was also talk of Jack Easterby, the former Patriots chaplain, who would have had a serious influence on who would be the next CEO. After a very public and very bad situation emerged involving Caserio – with the Pats threatening to file tampering charges against the Texans – the Texans finally decided to operate in 2019 * without a GM * to lead the team.

Eventually, Houston would announce this offseason the promotion of O’Brien to general manager and the promotion of Easterby to VP of Football Operations. This is the duo, apparently, who designed the Hopkins trade, the over-market signature of Tunsil, the trade for Brandin Cooks, and everything that led to the current situation of the Texans.

Easterby and O’Brien’s relationship over the past few months will be interesting to hear. O’Brien is gone. Easterby was tasked with rebuilding the Texan organization.

What’s next?

Romeo Crennel has been named interim head coach by the Texans. He has been in this position before, after taking over from Todd Haley in Kansas City before receiving the post of boss for the 2012 season. Easterby, for what it’s worth, was also then with the bosses.

It is unknown how Texans handle this hiring duo. There is a GM void and a head coaching void and most coaching candidates will not be available for several months. Would Texans be willing to hire a GM during the season and then try to boot into a candidate coach when things change after the 2020 season? Will anyone quit their job to take the GM position in the middle of a season in the middle of a pandemic?

It would be impossible to hire a coaching candidate now. Crennel will almost certainly have the full season to serve as an interim manager and then a rental will be made in the off-season. All currently unemployed coaching candidates would be eligible for interviews, but otherwise, Texans are simply in waiting mode until the end of the regular season – college or professional.

Is it a good job to take?

Yes and no. It’s a great job because there’s a franchised quarterback in place, under contract for a long time. Watson hasn’t played well this season, but you bring an offensive mind here to maximize Watson’s strengths, and the Texans could take off from that side of the ball.

It would take a long time to cancel Watson’s presence, but O’Brien and Easterby managed to do just that! There is no first or second choice for next year. If the Texans are bad this season, it could be one of the top five picks. Losing one of the top five picks on days 1 and 2 is not good. Nobody needs a high-level football background or analytics to understand this.

Currently, Texans are spending over $ 250 million in cash to pull this specific list out in the field. Also not good!

The roster is talented, but it’s also made up of “stars and scrubs,” to borrow a term from fantasy baseball. Some of the stars are even scrubbing at this point. Watson, Tunsil, Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks (possibly), David Johnson (maaaaybe), J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham and a few other former top picks from other teams in the secondary.

Watt is a Hall of Famer on the first ballot and can still play at a high level, but he is no longer at his peak. Cooks is on his fourth team. Fuller is a special talent but is prone to injuries. You’re not adding a blue chip prospect to this list in your first season.

It’s a good job with a potentially great quarterback, a questionable salary cap situation, and a, um, ever-changing front office situation.

Possible candidates

Josh McDaniels: The most obvious candidate given Easterby’s ties to New England. McDaniels pocketed the Pats for the Colts concert two offseason ago, but eventually hesitated and went home. There was a belief that he would take Easterby with him to Indy when he went. With Tom Brady gone and the future certainly in the air in New England as quarterback, would McDaniels have the opportunity to make the leap to a new landing spot with a QB franchise in place? By all accounts, he’s a huge Watson fan. Caserio’s situation might be a bit tricky here, however, given Pats’ previous front office approach.

Eric Bieniemy: The Chiefs offensive coordinator should be on every single list of managers you will see from now until the end of the season. As Damien Williams told us while streaming Fantasy Football Today on Twitch on Sunday, he’s an incredibly smart guy with a great pedigree and he comes from Andy Reid’s coaching tree. The bond isn’t exactly strong with Easterby and the Texans, but maybe that doesn’t matter. He is an outstanding offensive mind.

Dabo Swinney: HELLO. Swinney is also apparently close to Easterby – I’m not sure how the connection was made, but it has undoubtedly only been strengthened in the last couple of years with Easterby working closely with Swinney Watson’s old quarterback. Would Clemson’s manager bounce back for the NFL? He will likely lose Trevor Lawrence after this season and perhaps want to give it a try on a professional level (after potentially dropping another title). Swinney called Deshaun a “Michael Jordan” type and you don’t have much of a chance to work with a former quarterback who won you a national title in its heyday at the next level. Many people will wonder if Swinney can be an NFL manager given his energetic style, but many people will wonder if Swinney should be the next manager at Clemson. It didn’t work well for the doubters. At worst, he ends up like Nick Saban in Miami and Swinney can replace Saban after he retires from Swinney’s alma mater!




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