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Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 4: Inside Texans’ decision to fire Bill O’Brien and what comes next for Houston

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NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
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Bill O’Brien held a 24-point lead over the Chiefs in the playoffs in February and found himself unemployed before Halloween of the same year. No one needed more evidence about how weird 2020 has been, but throw it in the file anyway. The news of O’Brien being fired by the Texans was so shocking it happened before I could finish writing my Week 4 recap about Bill O’Brien trending heavily toward the hot seat in Houston. Cal McNair acted quickly in this instance: the Texans started the year 0-4 and there was no one in the building to actually fire Bill O’Brien, who had accumulated so much power for the Texans he was holding the title of head coach and general manager. 

O’Brien’s tenure in Houston is absolutely wild when you start to dig into the transactional decisions and internal power struggles the Texans faced over the last half decade or so. Everything paints the picture of a wildly dysfunctional organization 

The Last Straw

In the end, O’Brien probably fired himself — after all, it was the roster construction that created the issues for Houston in 2020, with the Texans ranking in the bottom half of the league in every major offensive and defensive category. 

Things got so bad that, following an 0-3 start — one fueled by an admittedly impossible schedule against Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh — in a matchup against the Vikings, a shell of Mike Zimmer’s typically stout defense, O’Brien said he was taking more ownership on playcalling. 

The result was by far the most disappointing loss of the season, a 31-21 wilting in Minnesota that featured an embarrassingly slow start, highlighted by 16 net yards on 12 total plays during the team’s first three drives. Houston eventually clawed back into the game with a chance to tie things late, but it was more of a by-product of how the Vikings played the game (a whole lot of Dalvin Cook, trying to ice the game) than some concerted effort on Houston’s part to storm back. 

On the very first play of the game, David Johnson had a chance to bounce the ball outside with a gaping hole and room to run. Instead, he tried to burst through a tiny, quickly evaporating hole between the tackles. 

via NFL Game Pass

If he ran the play that was called, fine. But one could certainly wonder why O’Brien keeps feeding Johnson with runs up the middle when his specialty over the course of his career has been getting in space. Another play in the third quarter, with the Texans trailing 17-6, was equally perplexing. 

via NFL Game Pass

Bounce this run outside and DJ is picking up at worst like five yards. Instead, he sort of runs into a clot of his own offensive linemen. 

via NFL Game Pass

Something is failing here in the application. O’Brien may have realized Johnson isn’t the same player — after getting more than 80 percent of the offensive snaps in Week 1, he was down to 55 percent against the Vikings. This notable, of course, because Johnson was acquired in a shocking trade that sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona this offseason (more on that in a second).

The passing game doesn’t look any more cohesive. Instead of catering to Watson’s strengths (get him on the move by design!), O’Brien seemed content to run plays with minimal pass-catching options. When the Vikings dropped their linebackers back into zone Watson was extremely hesitant to pull the trigger and instead ended up running for his life. 

via NFL GamePass
via NFL GamePass

This isn’t on the protection. Watson had plenty of time. It’s on the play-caller, the quarterback … or both? Watson was awful early in this game. He held the ball too long (a bad trait of his) and his ball placement was abysmal, costing the Texans at least two first-down conversions. 

Credit Zimmer for the gameplan. Dropping his linebackers into zones caused Watson to hesitate both to take off running and to try and force anything into tight windows early on. The Texans have been abysmal on third down all season, falling under 35 percent for the year (fourth-worst in the NFL) after converting just 3-of-12 against the Vikings. 

This offense was lethargic through four games. Undoubtedly it contributed to O’Brien being fired this early into the season. Expect a pretty severe Dead Cat Bounce from the Texans in Week 5 against Jacksonville. When a coach is fired midseason, you oftentimes see the team play really well the following week. 

Personnel Issues

But it wasn’t O’Brien’s coaching that got him fired. He won a bunch of games in Houston. If you did a Mt. Rushmore of the Texans, you might even name O’Brien the Texans coach upon the fictional mountain. 

What got O’Brien fired was some unbelievably bad personnel decisions. O’Brien has been managing personnel matters for the Texans over the last two years, give or take. He’s made some extremely aggressive decisions in the trade market, giving up multiple first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil, trading away Jadeveon Clowney while paying his salary and this offseason swapping out DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson and then snagging Brandin Cooks from the Rams

O’Brien has allowed his frustration as a coach to bleed into decision-making as a general manager. He cut Aaron Colvin after a single week in 2019, just one year removed from giving him a $34 million extension. The Clowney and Hopkins deals both felt personal to a degree; they wanted more money and O’Brien wasn’t able to separate the relationships. Tunsil — without an agent — negotiated a contract with O’Brien that paid him more than $5 million above the market value for left tackles. 

The result is a group of skill-position guys that don’t seem to mesh and an offensive approach that’s left Watson looking more like an average quarterback than one of the truly elite guys of the NFL. O’Brien seems hell-bent on force-feeding Johnson, a once-dynamic player for the Cardinals who appear to have lost his burst and isn’t see the field the way he did during his prime in Arizona. 

Power Struggles

All of these decisions since right before the 2019 NFL season become more interesting when you consider the way things shook out in the front office in Houston. O’Brien was hired on New Year’s Eve of 2013. At the time, Rick Smith was the Texans GM — Smith had been in the role for a long time already. The two co-existed for several years but there were rumblings about battles occurring in the building. Following the 2017 season, Smith left to deal with his wife’s battle with cancer amid reports O’Brien was ready to make late owner Bob McNair choose between the coach and the GM moving forward.  

O’Brien ended up staying on, obviously, and in January of 2018, the Texans hired Brian Gaine to be the team’s next general manager. That didn’t last what you would call long — Gaine was fired in June of 2019 despite signing a contract that ran through 2022.  Worth noting: in between Gaine’s hiring and firing, Bob McNair passed away, leaving his son Cal McNair to fill the void as Chairman and CEO of the Texans

The younger McNair issued the statement firing Gaine and at the time buzz built that Patriots exec Nick Caserio could be a candidate to take the GM role. There was also mention about Jack Easterby, the former Patriots chaplain, having serious influence on who would be the next general manager. After a very public and very ugly situation involving Caserio emerged — with the Pats threatening to file tampering charges against the Texans — the Texans eventually decided to operate in 2019 *without a GM* running the team. 

Eventually, Houston would announce this offseason the promotion of O’Brien to general manager and the promotion of Easterby to VP of Football Operations. That is the duo, ostensibly, that engineered the trade of Hopkins, the over-market Tunsil signing, the trade for Brandin Cooks and everything else that led to the current Texans’ situation. 

The relationship between Easterby and O’Brien over the past few months will be interesting to hear spill out. O’Brien is gone. Easterby has been charged with rebuilding the Texans organization. 

What’s Next?

Romeo Crennel was named interim head coach by the Texans. He’s been in this position before, having taken over for Todd Haley in Kansas City before being given the head job for the 2012 season. Easterby, for what it’s worth, was with the Chiefs then as well

There’s no telling how the Texans handle these pair of hires. There is a GM void and a head coaching void and most coaching candidates won’t be available for several months. Would the Texans be willing to hire a GM in-season and then try to shoehorn in a coaching candidate when things shake out after the 2020 season? Is someone going to leave their job to take the GM position in the middle of a season in the middle of a pandemic? 

It would be borderline impossible to hire a coaching candidate now. Crennel will almost certainly get the full season to serve as interim coach and then a hire will be made in the offseason. Any coaching candidates currently unemployed would be eligible for interviews, but otherwise, the Texans are simply in wait-and-see mode until the regular season — college or pro — is over. 

Is this a good job to take?

Yes and no. It is a great job because there’s a franchise quarterback in place, under contract for a long time. Watson hasn’t played well this season, but you bring an offensive mind in here to maximize Watson’s strengths, and the Texans could take off on that side of the ball. 

It would take a lot to nullify the presence of Watson, but O’Brien and Easterby managed to do just that! There isn’t a first or second-round pick for next year. If the Texans are terrible this season, that could be a top-five pick. Losing a top-five pick on Day 1 and 2 isn’t good. No one needs a football background or high-end analytics to figure that out. 

Currently, the Texans are spending over $250 million in cash to trot this specific roster out on the field. Also not good! 

The roster is talented, but it is also made up of “stars and scrubs,” to borrow a term from fantasy baseball. Some of the stars are even scrubs at this point. Watson, Tunsil, Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks (maybe), David Johnson (maaaaybe), J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham and a few other former top picks from other teams in the secondary. 

Watt is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and can still play at a high level, but he’s not in his prime anymore. Cooks is on his fourth team. Fuller is a special talent but he’s injury prone. You’re not adding a blue-chip prospect to this roster in your first season. 

It’s a good job with a potentially great quarterback, some questionable salary cap situation,s and an, ahem, in-flux situation in the front office. 

Possible Candidates

Josh McDaniels: The most obvious candidate given Easterby’s ties to New England. McDaniels bolted the Pats for the Colts gig two offseasons ago but ultimately balked and returned home. There was a belief he’d bring Easterby with him to Indy when he went. With Tom Brady gone and the future certainly up in the air in New England at the quarterback position, would McDaniels entertain an opportunity to make a leap to a new landing spot with a franchise QB in place? By all accounts, he is a big fan of Watson. The Caserio situation could be a little tricky here, however, given the previous approach of the Pats front office man. 

Eric Bieniemy: The Chiefs offensive coordinator should be on every single coaching list you see from now until the end of the season. As Damien Williams told us on the Fantasy Football Today Twitch stream on Sunday, he’s an incredibly smart guy with a great pedigree and he’s coming from the Andy Reid coaching tree. The connection isn’t exactly strong with Easterby and the Texans, but maybe that doesn’t matter. He’s an outstanding offensive mind. 

Dabo Swinney: HELLO. Swinney is apparently also close with Easterby — how the connection was established I’m not sure, but undoubtedly it was only strengthened over the last two years with Easterby working closely with Swinney’s old quarterback Watson. Would the Clemson coach bounce for the NFL? He will likely lose Trevor Lawrence after this season and maybe he wants to take a shot at the professional level (after potentially walking off with another title). Swinney called Deshaun a “Michael Jordan” type and you don’t get many chances to work with a former quarterback who won you a national title in his prime at the next level. Plenty of people will question if Swinney can be an NFL coach given his energetic style but plenty of people questioned whether Swinney should be the next coach at Clemson. That didn’t work out well for the doubters. Worst case it ends up like Nick Saban in Miami and Swinney can go replace Saban after he retires from Swinney’s alma mater! 

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