With the benefit of hindsight and a couple weeks removal from the disappointing ouster at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts in NRG Stadium, I think it's now safe to say that the Texans' 2018 season was one of the stranger referendums on a division-winning coach that I've ever experienced.
On paper, the outlook going forward on head coach Bill O'Brien should be optimistic. He kept the team together during an 0-3 start, rattled off nine straight wins (a franchise record!), and won the only division in football with three teams above .500 for the regular season. The Texans' 11-5 record was their second best in franchise history, and their 23-year-old quarterback is going to be a star, if he's not already. That's PRETTY GOOD!
However, the vibe in Houston is clearly not one of hope when it comes to the head coach. Whether it's the lingering remnants of that 0-3 start (in which the team was VERY poorly coached and poorly game-managed), or the way the season ended (blowing a 2-seed in Weeks 16 and 17, and getting throttled at home by a 6-seed in the wild card round), Houston is most assuredly not in love with Bill O'Brien right now.
Truth be told, it's never just one thing. O'Brien's press conference demeanor probably rubs some fans the wrong way, the lack of any real signature win in five years as the head coach probably frustrates many folks, and then there's the game management stuff, which is not nearly as pervasive as it was O'Brien's first few years as a head coach, but still rears its hideous head every now and then.
Improving the team itself is something O'Brien and GM Brian Gaine will work on over the next few months, but improving O'Brien's profile and Q-rating in town is another project altogether. O'Brien SAYS he doesn't care what others think of him, but oftentimes people who say that care more than we know. So let's pretend for a second that O'Brien is a political candidate (honestly, head NFL football coach in a city is a mayoral type of position), and that he DOES care what people think of him. What moves could he make that would send Texan fans into the 2019 season magically feeling better about their head coach?
Well, I'm glad you asked! I have a three point plan to improve Texan fans' impression of their head coach. Thank me later, Bill!
1. Delegate game management to a SPECIFIC "game management specialist."
Whenever I've heard O'Brien talk about handling decisions like when to use timeouts, when to use replay challenges and the like, I've heard him refer to a cryptic process involving members of his current staff. I've been told by John McClain that special teams coach Brad Seely helps in this role. My suggestion to O'Brien would be to do what Dan Quinn, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, just did last week:
Kyle Flood will move from being the assistant offensive line coach to an assistant role that will work with clock management/game management.— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) January 10, 2019
It's one thing to cede game management to a member of your staff who already coordinates a third of your football team. I guess that's a start. But go all the way, Bill! Make game management someone's SOLE assignment. CLARIFY! Hiring someone as Director of Game Management would magnify how important O'Brien feels it is, and makes someone within the organization accountable for this wildly crucial facet of NFL football. It's all about self-awareness, and this would score BIG points with Texan fans.
2. Give up play calling to someone else on his staff.
Speaking of self-awareness, to say there was frustration at times throughout the season with O'Brien's play calling, particularly in the playoff game, would be an understatement. I do think that some of the play calling hand wringing that goes on is "straw man" stuff, but it is what it is. When it comes to popularity, perception is reality. So to that end, I would tell O'Brien to hand off play calling duties to someone else. I'm pretty sure, if he did that, he'd want that person to be part the current staff, and that's a fair compromise. Nobody is asking him to bring in Gary Kubiak or something (although, man, the theater that would be!). So whether it's Sean Ryan (QB coach) or Tim Kelly (tight end coach, and the internal favorite to be a play caller sometime soon), hand the play-to-play reins on game day to them. Of course, you have veto power, Bill, but more delegation, and more self-awareness, will only endear you more to Houston! Also, this frees you up to do critical, big picture thinking about your team. Win, win!
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3. Do more X-and-O videos with John Harris.
This last one is more "touchy, feely," as Jerry Maguire would say. Part of improving popularity is about making crucial decisions in running the football team. That's what the previous two bullet points were. However, part of popularity is also that subjective, emotional happiness that fans have when your name is evoked. Call it P.R., call it being huggable, whatever. You're not huggable right now, Bill! To that end, I would suggest you do more videos, maybe one per week, for the Texans website, with Texans sideline reporter John Harris breaking down plays on the telestrator. I would embed one of these videos here, but the NFL doesn't allow embedding, so take a minute and please click this LINK.... ok, now watch the video.... I'll wait.... all right, did you watch it?
O'Brien hits all the popularity check boxes in that video! Engaging and welcoming? CHECK. Giving credit to his players over himself? CHECK. Making all of us smarter through clear, concise explanation? CHECK. Faded dad jeans?! CHECK!!! I LOVE THIS Bill O'Brien! (Truth be told, I like all the Bill O'Briens, but I know I'm in the minority right now. That's why I'm writing this.)
Do these things, Bill. And again, thank me later.
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.