In 2016, and, quite honestly, for most of the three seasons that Bill O'Brien has been the head coach in Houston, no NFL team has had a larger chasm between performance on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball than the Houston Texans.
The Texans were, by the measurement of yardage allowed, the best defense in all of football in 2016. They were also, by any number of measurements — scoring, yardage, red zone, mere aesthetics — one of the bottom four or five offenses in all of football. The offense stunk, and offensive coordinator George Godsey paid the price on Monday, as he was let go.
While the conversations were probably a lot more enjoyable, there was just as much work for O'Brien to handle with his defensive staff this week. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, my nominee for Most Valuable Employee of the Texans in 2016, had an expiring contract, and for the second straight offseason, teams were sniffing around trying to thieve superstar linebackers coach Mike Vrabel for a bigger job.
Well, on Wednesday morning, as first reported by Albert Breer of SI.com, the Texans handled their business:
Per sources, the Texans are promoting LBs coach Mike Vrabel to defensive coordinator. Romeo Crennel expected to stay, likely as ass't HC.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) January 18, 2017
Let's do a little self-Q&A on this latest development with the Texans:
So just how popular was Mike Vrabel in other NFL offices around the league?
The short answer is VERY. Last offseason, he interviewed with Chip Kelly for the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator post, and was reportedly offered the job. Wisely, he returned to Houston for a bigger salary and, likely, promises of upward mobility. Then, in the last couple of weeks, Vrabel was rumored to be on the radar for the Rams vacant HEAD COACHING job along with defensive coordinator openings in Washington and Los Angeles (Chargers, this time). Vrabel, who my cohost and former fellow Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson calls the "smartest player he ever played with," is a rising star in the coaching profession, and the on-field evidence abounds, with the development of Whitney Mercilus, Bernardrick McKinney and, at least partially, Jadeveon Clowney all occurring on his watch. This was a great move for the Texans to lock up Vrabel (until teams come offering him head coaching jobs next offseason).
So what does this new defensive power structure mean?
Big picture, it means that O'Brien maintains continuity within the staff of the one side of the ball that he can count on right now. Functionally, it probably means that Vrabel will be the "boss" of the defense, with Crennel as sort of a "consigliere" for him to lean on. That's my guess. It's probably also a sign that Crennel has retirement in the windshield sometime within the next season or two. The team didn't want to lose Vrabel because of his high future upside as a coordinator, but also didn't want to lose Crennel because he was so productive last season as the DC. So they found a way to keep them both and, presumably, keep both happy.
Aside from the obvious "on the field" statement, are there any other subtle messages to be gleaned from these moves?
Well, I'm glad you asked that, Sean! In today's NFL, with a salary cap governing the players' salaries and owners being forced to spend most of the money under that cap each year, it's hard for owners to differentiate themselves as "good" or "bad" when it comes to their willingness to spend whatever it takes to be successful. However, the moves the Texans made on Wednesday show one area where that is possible — coaching staff salaries. Credit Bob McNair for investing the necessary money to give title bump-ups and raises to Crennel and Vrabel, and presumably investing the necessary money to backfill Vrabel's role as linebacker coach.
Is this announcement, at all, a "tell" on what O'Brien is thinking on filling out his offensive staff?
Funny you should ask! Just a few hours after the announcement on the defensive promotions came this news item, courtesy of John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Texans won't hire an OC to replace George Godsey. OBrien will call plays. WR coach Sean Ryan will be moved to QB coach.— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) January 18, 2017
If Crennel's title change means he is fulfilling a bigger, more global role of truly assisting the head coach, obviously O'Brien believes that Crennel's presence frees him up to oversee and call plays for the offense, while Crennel works with Vrabel and the defense. O'Brien would be the play caller and de facto OC, and Ryan will work with the QBs. To be clear, I am not a fan of this. I thought O'Brien should hire a good, proven offensive coordinator and let that coach implement his system, and O'Brien should function as more of a CEO. O'Brien obviously doesn't have that "delegating gene" in him. As gummed up as it's looked for three seasons, O'Brien seems married to his unproven (in Houston, at least) system being the way.
The Texans' power structure now looks more like Dunder Mifflin and its sea of middle managers and odd hierarchy than an NFL franchise. Along those lines, is Crennel going to be the Assistant Head Coach or the Assistant TO THE Head Coach?
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.