Sean Pendergast

The Four Prongs of Bill O'Brien's Complex Legacy

By the end, Bill O'Brien was pretty beleaguered and running out of answers.
By the end, Bill O'Brien was pretty beleaguered and running out of answers. Photo by Eric Sauseda
When we eventually have the stomach to look back on the Bill O'Brien Era here in Houston, I think it will be viewed as one of the more remarkable (not really in a good way) progressions of an individual hoarding power within an organization in NFL history. It will be a college course in the "Peter Principle," in which the theory is that people rise to the level of their incompetence.

O'Brien was a decent NFL head coach, who couldn't stand sharing power nor decision making with anybody, so eventually he was able to take advantage of a power vacuum with the Texans, in the wake of the death of Bob McNair, to gather all of the power within the football side of the organization for himself. Coaching, personnel, drafting, free agency, all of it. All for Bill.

So when we try to answer the question "What is Bill O'Brien's legacy in Houston?" to me, there are four prongs to that legacy, and it's not all good. Far from it. Yeah, there are four division titles in six seasons, but there is so much more. Let's examine, shall we?

There's no denying that Bill O'Brien was pretty good, better than most head coaches actually, at MAKING the playoffs. He just wasn't very good at actually WINNING in the playoffs. Over Bill O'Brien's tenure as Texans' head coach, the only head coaches to win more division titles were Bill Belichick and Andy Reid. That's pretty good company. Problem is that both of them won Super Bowls during that time. O'Brien peaked with two divisional round appearances where he lost by 18 points to the Patriots (on their way to a Super Bowl win, in Houston, of all places) and infamously blew a 24-0 lead to the Chiefs (by HALFTIME). O'Brien's four playoff losses were by an average of nearly 21 points. His nickname will never be "Big Game Bill".

Bill O'Brien arrived in town in 2014 with the nickname "Teapot," given to him in New England for his tendency to blow his stack due to his legendary temper. We all saw O'Brien blow up at Tom Brady when he was the offensive coordinator for the Patriots, and we kind of thought "Yeah! that guy has BALLS! Arguing with the G.O.A.T.! YOU GO, BILL!"

Then, he was hired here, and we got press conferences like THIS one in his first year as a head coach, and we thought "OK this is kind of fun, but he may need to dial it back a little, right?"

By last season, what turned out to be O'Brien's final season, he was shouting down fans like a deranged maniac....

It was one thing to get Bill O'Brien, the head coach. O'Brien the head coach had his good points and his bad points, but he was, at the very least, hovering around being average at his job, He was a middle of there pack head coach, and with a good quarterback, you can win a Super Bowl with a middle of the pack head coach. The problems really began to increase exponentially when O'Brien was given the reins as general manager in the summer of 2019. The trades he made were so outlandish and crippling, and the contracts he gave out were so devastating to the salary cap, that when any big name player became available, the Texans were immediately mentioned as a possibility because it was believed there was no deal O'Brien WOULDN'T make, if asked. The damage he has done to the Texans roster doesn't began to reveal itself in the team's 1-4 start. The next GM will be cleaning up O'Brien's mess for a long, long time.

This post has reflected on a lot of the negative of the Bill O'Brien experience. I'm not sure what it says about his tenure as head coach (and in the later years, GM) that his finest moment probably came in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when he released this statement, where he was clearly speaking from the heart:

One thing I will say positively about O'Brien is that he always had the backs of his players in situations like this (and like 2017, when several of them were up in arms over Bob McNair's "inmates running the prison" comment). J.J. Watt, who seemed to despise O'Brien by the end of his tenure here, even said last week that O'Brien had his players' backs. So there's one in the "positive column" for O'Brien.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast