When you consider that the Houston Texans have spent the early portion of January in each of the last two seasons playing in actual postseason games, it's really saying something when I contend that this is easily the most intriguing January of the Bill O'Brien Era. It's actually saying TWO things — (1) those two playoff teams were somewhat phony playoff teams, and (2) if you hadn't buckled your seatbelt before the Colts game last Sunday, then you've already been figuratively tossed through the windshield by the wild ride of the last five days.
Outside looking in, we are a week removed from thinking that Bill O'Brien may be gone after the season and Rick Smith would be sticking around. Internally, considering the Texans' inner circle probably knew about Tiffany Smith's breast cancer diagnosis, the outlook probably looked far different than the picture the national media was portraying all season long. Without a doubt, it's been a rough week for all the blowhards with their "sources" trumpeting O'Brien's demise.
Instead of being on the outside looking in, O'Brien is about as "inside" now as you can get, as Bob McNair revealed to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle that O'Brien will be part of a four man selection committee, along with owner Bob McNair, chief operating officer Cal McNair, and team president Jamey Rootes. If I didn't know better, it's almost like they chiseled Rick Smith's face off the Texans' executive Mount Rushmore and carved in O'Brien's.
To be clear, this functional direction is something of which I was, and still am, staunchly in favor. (Obviously, I am staunchly opposed to breast cancer, and that part of the story absolutely sucks.) In other words, if one of Rick Smith or Bill O'Brien were to be part of this thing moving forward, I choose O'Brien. More to the point, I choose Deshaun Watson, who I believe benefits far more from O'Brien's offensive coaching than Rick Smith's shaky general managing.
Still, O'Brien HAS to get better as a head coach. My saying that is merely repeating what he declares after every Texans loss, so there is no shade being thrown. O'Brien knows as well as anybody that he must improve, especially because now, the sum total of the pressure to win isn't spread out across the head coach, the general manager, the franchise quarterback, or anybody else.
2018 is squarely on O'Brien.
He'll have helped hire a new general manager, he'll have a healthy Deshaun Watson, and he'll presumably have a contract extension very soon. If the Texans don't, at a minimum, win the AFC South and/or win ten games, with a healthy Watson, O'Brien should be the next one shown the door.
If I'm O'Brien, and I'm putting together focus areas for improvement for 2018, I'd boil it down to these four things:
The most egregious area needing improvement gets first billing, although at this point, I'm not really sure what to do. Complaining about O'Brien's in-game decision making is like complaining about the humid Houston weather in July — it might just be something we have to accept as a blight on an otherwise promising coaching skill set. Conservative play calling and strategy decisions that led directly to losses in the waning moments of the New England and Seattle games — after a first 55 minutes in each game where O'Brien was brilliant, both times — must become a thing of the past. Honestly, as much as O'Brien hammers home situational football with his team at training camp, I think they should take it a step further and create situational simulations for O'Brien so he can get reps managing the end of half and end of games. Also, he needs a designated "eye in the sky" replay person up in the booth to basically tell him "yes" or "no" on challenging plays, and if he has one already, he needs to fire that person.
One thing I will say about O'Brien, to his credit, is that he is not afraid to shake up his staff. The problem is that there have been problems that firings have not fixed. Where he's made good hires, I'd say they've been really good. Romeo Crennel was a home run as a defensive coordinator, and Mike Vrabel was an outstanding position coach for whom the jury is still out as a coordinator. I like what Anthony Weaver has done with a Watt-less defensive line the last two seasons. However, I need to know why Mike Devlin constantly gets proactively mentioned as a great coach by O'Brien when the offensive line is a disaster with zero player development occurring. The George Godsey hire at offensive coordinator was abysmal. I'm of the belief that in management within any enterprise, sports or other, hiring dictates 80 percent of your success. O'Brien's record in this area has been shaky, and I haven't even mentioned this....
The latest person to get swept under by this franchise's complete ineptitude in this area, an ineptitude that predates O'Brien, is Larry Izzo, who was fired on Tuesday as special teams coach. If you watched the Texans week to week, I don't need to tell you, the Texans' lack of discipline (what up, Eddie Pleasant penalties!) and lack of any semblance of explosiveness in the return game has been infuriating to watch. The Texans stunk on special teams last season, and certainly some of that is due to their back end of roster players being simply poor, but it was not a well coached unit either. Izzo deserved to go. The sad thing is that, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA, your 2017 special teams were the best of the O'Brien Era:
(NOTE: Want to amp up the sadness? The 2017 Texans special teams were actually the best the franchise has had since 2011, when they were 13th.)
I'm a big believer that the quality of special teams, especially over a multi-season sample size, is a direct reflection of the head coach, as it shows the head coach fully comprehends the importance of investing resources in those "invisible" yards. To that point, check out the special teams rankings over the O'Brien Era of the Ravens, Patriots, and Chiefs, three of the best coached teams in the conference O'Brien is trying to win.
Team 2017 2016 2015 2014
BAL 1 4 1 2
NE 3 8 5 5
KC 4 1 9 3
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SHOW ME HOW
O'Brien is fond of telling us, when explaining roles on a team, how many of his guys "help out on special teams." Alfred Blue, Brian Peters, Jay Prosch, Eddie Pleasant, numerous others. O'Brien has rattled off dozens of names, and yet the team perennially stinks on special teams. The offensive line is the first thing that needs fixing, but special teams is next, and fixing them are a must.
The thing that hurt most about the New England and Seattle losses this season is that they would have EASILY been the biggest wins of the O'Brien Era. That's what made his conservative decision making in those games such a head scratcher. O'Brien should know by now that, if you're going to beat a good team, especially on the road, you've got to TAKE IT. So what's the biggest win of the O'Brien Era? The Monday Night Football win over undefeated Cincinnati in 2015? One of the Indianapolis road wins? The list of candidates is not long. Let's toss aside 2017 for a moment, since it appears the McNairs have. In O'Brien's three 9-7 seasons from 2014 through 2016, his record in the dismal AFC South was 15-3, so O'Brien was 12-18 outside the division. The one playoff win came against Connor Cook, the two playoff losses were by scores of 30-0 and 34-16. As of right now, the most memorable thing about the O'Brien Era is its lack of anything truly memorable.
In 2018, O'Brien has road games against playoff teams Patriots, Eagles, and Jaguars, not to mention a little home game against the Cowboys. If Watson is healthy, he needs to AT LEAST split those four games.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.