Reading the Smoke: What Did Bill O'Brien Mean With His Combine Press Conference Answers?

Texans head coach Bill O'Brien gave a little bit of insight into how the Texans will be approaching this offseason.
Texans head coach Bill O'Brien gave a little bit of insight into how the Texans will be approaching this offseason.
Photo by Eric Sauseda
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As you already know, I was fairly excited for Bill O'Brien to face the media at the NFL Scouting Combine on Wednesday afternoon, as this would be our first chance to hear O'Brien publicly since the NFL's silly season began, a season in which we expect a franchise tag for Jadeveon Clowney and numerous tough (and hopefully GOOD) decisions by Brian Gaine.

O'Brien didn't answer ALL of the ten questions that I would have asked, but he was asked most of them. Let's cherry pick the ones he was asked, examine his answer, and then translate into plain English. Please note, the questions below were the ones worded and numbered by me in my post. O'Brien's answers are to very close versions of that question from his press conference.

So, without further ado, here we go:

2. We all know the offensive line is an issue... what exactly are the BIGGEST issues on the offensive line?

O'BRIEN: “I think we need to make improvement everywhere. I don’t concentrate on one position. Like I’ve always said to you guys in Houston, it starts with me. I think we have to work on becoming better coaches, how we can communicate better with the players and then I think we look at every position. We look at it individually, we look at it as a position, we look at it as a unit and we figure out where improvements need to be made. But I think that everybody can improve. That’s what the league is about. The league is about improving and who can get better the fastest, especially when April 15 rolls around. That’s when it really starts and then you add the rookies in after the draft. But once the offseason program starts, it’s all about that. It’s all about how to get better individually, unit-wise, team-wise, mentally, physically, the whole thing.”

SP TRANSLATION: This was my last favorite answer of the O'Brien press conference, largely because he lumps improvement in this abject failure of a position group in with all of the other garden variety, year-to-year improvement from other positions. Bill O'Brien is not a dumb man. He went to an Ivy League school, and has a working set of eyes. He knows his offensive line has been a huge failure. Just once, I'd like to hear him say it.

3. How are things progressing with Jadeveon Clowney?

O'BRIEN: “We’re in that time period now where there’s a lot of different things going on relative to our team, relative to our roster. I would just tell you that I’ll leave anything that has to do with free agency or contracts and things like that, I’ll leave that to Brian (Gaine). I think he’s going to be here tomorrow. We’re just in that process. It’s a long process. It’s a process that involves free agency, draft, involves evaluating your own team and it takes a long time. That’s basically what we’re in the middle of right now.”

“I don’t comment on what other people say. I’ve had a really good experience with JD (Jadeveon Clowney). He’s played good football for us. He’s a good person. I’ve enjoyed coaching him. Again, it’s the business side of things. I’ll leave that to Brian (Gaine). Brian can talk to you about that tomorrow, but I have nothing but good things to say about JD.”

SP TRANSLATION: This did nothing to diffuse the talk that Clowney is headed toward a franchise tag this offseason. The interesting thing here is the adjective usage — lots of "good," no "great." As a comparison, imagine if the head coach had been asked about J.J. Watt. It would be a barrage of (largely accurate) superlative praise. Clearly, at least in the eyes of O'Brien, Clowney is the chick with a "great personality," not nearly the "smoke show" that Watt is and has been since O'Brien arrived.

4. What will be different about the way Deshaun Watson is coached this season?

O'BRIEN: “I think that’s the philosophy that we’ve had. We have a strong belief in that, that you have young coaches on your staff that you’ve trained. If you look at a guy like Tim Kelly, a very bright guy, a very young coach in the business relative to years of experience, but he’s really risen the ladder because of his work ethic and his intelligence, and he’s coached on both sides of the ball. He was with me at Penn State, came with me to Houston, has done a fantastic job in every role that I’ve asked him to take on and he earned the opportunity. We have a system in place, he knows the system, he knows where the system needs to be improved, he knows how it can be tweaked, he knows the things that we have to keep doing that we did well last year. So, that’s really something that we really believe in – we can promote from within. Will Lawing is another example. He’s a guy who was with me at Penn State too, was a graduate assistant, worked on defense here for Romeo (Crennel), moved him over to offense, worked with Mike Devlin a lot, has a really good understanding of what we do offensively. Another guy that we promoted from within. I think anytime we can do that, I think that’s something that we’ll always try to do.”

SP TRANSLATION: I got to be honest, all of the talk about the staff right now, the promotions and the additions, is just a bunch of words. It's the one area that, unless O'Brien overtly and HONESTLY evaluates guys, and openly tells us things like "so and so is calling plays," we have no clue. So I kind of tune out during these answers.

6. Is there a priority in retaining Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson at safety?

O'BRIEN: “Tyrann signed a one-year deal, obviously, last year. Like you said, he’s a guy that’s a potential free agent. He’s a guy that really meant a lot to our locker room. I’ve said it time and time again, this guy came in and was there from the offseason program and then at the end of training camp was voted a team captain. I think that says a lot about the impact he had – not just as a player, he’s a good football player, he’s a smart football player, he’s a versatile player – but also, what he meant leadership-wise in the locker room. Again, I’ll let Brian (Gaine) kind of address the contractual things tomorrow when he talks, but there’s no doubt that we would love to have Tyrann back.”

Kareem had a really good year for us, also. Again, he’s a versatile player. He’s a guy that has leadership qualities. He’s been with us since the day I walked in here. He’s an original Texan, was drafted as a Texan and has had a good career here. Again, these are all decisions and parts of the process that take time. It’s a business. It takes two to tango, so to speak. I’ll say this over and over to you again, I would just let Brian (Gaine) talk to you more about the ins and outs of how free agency works and all those things, but Kareem’s been a good player for us in Houston.”

SP TRANSLATION: Man, this was compelling stuff, and pretty easy to draw a conclusion on how the Mathieu versus Jackson saga ends up — the Texans are going balls to the wall to bring back Mathieu, and they may bring back Jackson, but at THEIR price, not his.

7. What went into the WAY you used Whitney Mercilus in 2018, and will that be the same in 2019?

O'BRIEN: “I think I understand what Whitney is saying. Whitney has been a very productive player for us but what I would say is every year is different. Once the season ends, the next year will be nothing like the previous year. There will be so many different things that happen, from all the roster questions that are obviously being asked and are good questions, but we don’t know anything about that just yet – the draft, free agency, all those different things. The team will be different. The way the ball bounces next year will be different. The way that we approach the offseason program will be different, so each year is different and we have to look at it that way. We do have to try to build. We did some good things in this previous year but every year is completely different.”

SP TRANSLATION: The usage of Whitney Mercilus is still one of the most frustrating things from the regular season. Seeing him out there covering tight ends and being asked to play in space was AWKWARD. I think that's what a security camera feed of me dancing in a nightclub might look like. Painful, and at times, cringe worthy.

9. How does the health of Will Fuller and Keke Coutee affect your strategy at the wide receiver position?

O'BRIEN: “[Keke's] a great kid, hard worker but he was injured a lot. We have to figure that out. He has to figure that out. Because when he played, he played very well. He was very productive. He had multiple games where he had 10 catches, 11 catches, 12 catches, 15 catches – whatever it was in the games that he played, which were only like three or four games. Here’s a guy that has a bright, bright future but we’ve got to figure out how we can keep him on the field because again, with every player, availability equals dependability basically. He wants to be dependable. I know he’s working hard right now. We’re looking forward to having him. He’s a good football player. It’d be really good if we can have him for 16 games and then some.”

“I know he’s doing well. He’s been in Houston the whole offseason. He’s working hard. Can’t say enough about Will. Will’s frustrated that he hasn’t been able to be on the field. I think when he has been on the field, he has made a huge difference for our team. He’s a touchdown maker. He’s working hard to get back to that point. He’s been in there every day. Relative to what he will be able to do in the spring, I really don’t know that yet. I think we are kind of a little bit ways away from that. Could he do something in May? Could he do something in the June minicamp? I don’t know yet, but I know he’s working hard to get back and be ready to keep making plays for us.”

SP TRANSLATION: Biggest takeaway here is that Fuller is in Houston doing his rehab and he is in the building every day. That's noteworthy as, last season, he spent time training in California with fellow Notre Dame product Equanimeous St. Brown. This is a huge year for Fuller. If he's healthy, it solves SO many problems. Fun stat — Deshaun Watson's passer rating throwing to Fuller last season was 147.2, second best between any WR-QB combo in the league.

10. Do you hate D'Onta Foreman?

O'BRIEN: “I think anytime you get injured your rookie year, I think that’s hard. He tore the Achilles his rookie year and that’s a tough rehab for a young player, a running back especially. There were some ups and downs with the rehab. He worked at the rehab, but at the end of the day, he just really wasn’t on schedule until the end of the year. When he came on at the end of the year, it was almost too late. He was rusty and hadn’t played a lot of football. He’s a good football player. He takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing. I know he’s working right now. I think next year’s a big year for him and I think he knows that. I think he’ll be ready to go.”

SP TRANSLATION: All the word out of NRG Stadium is that Foreman has been working his ass off to be in shape for the upcoming season. In fact, his father called my radio show to give the update and dispel some of the narrative out there that D'Onta was "overweight" last season. He conceded his son wasn't in "football shape," but he definitely wasn't fat. Here is the entire interview with Derrick Foreman:

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.

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