Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
The 0-4 Houston Texans fired head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien on Monday, and I’m here to extinguish any excuses you might find on O’Brien burner accounts or hear from those still clinging to the idea that he deserved more time to steer the Texans’ ship.
Don’t be fooled by Houston’s moderate success in the win column over the course of O’Brien’s tenure. He was a poor game manager and an even worse personnel manager who, when it mattered most, continually underachieved in both of his roles.
A supposed offensive guru, he never produced a top-10 offense in Houston. He often lacked creativity despite possessing a slew of offensive talent with which to work. He routinely mismanaged the clock, he frequently held his talented offense back with his often comically conservative play calls, and he failed on eight of his last nine coach’s challenges.
And in his short time in charge of personnel, he buried the Texans financially, traded away most of their draft capital and left them in a do-or-die position without their quarterback’s top weapon in 2020.
With the Texans realistically out of the playoff picture following a fourth consecutive loss to start the season, the Houston front office deserves some credit for recognizing all those realities and cutting bait before the official crash and burn. Still, they really should have seen this coming.
But, but, but…they made the playoffs four times in his first six full seasons as head coach!
In two of those cases, the Texans won a weak AFC South with a 9-7 record. O’Brien won more than 10 games just once in six-plus campaigns and posted a 54-52 combined regular-season and playoff record, never getting past the divisional round of the postseason.
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
That was despite the fact he had Deshaun Watson the last four years, All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for six years and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for his entire tenure in Houston.
With Watson, Hopkins, Watt and runs with elite talents like Arian Foster, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Benardrick McKinney, D.J. Reader, Whitney Mercilus, Duane Brown and Laremy Tunsil, O’Brien had to win more than two playoff games between 2014 and 2020. Period.
But, but, but…he’s an offensive genius!
Wrong. Just flat-out wrong.
In terms of yardage, O’Brien’s oft-talented offenses ranked below the league median in five of his seven seasons and never finished better than 13th. They also never ranked better than 11th in points per game, and only once did they rank in the top 10 in giveaways.
Beyond the numbers, the anecdotal evidence doesn’t support any claims that O’Brien is a mastermind.
When his team blew a 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in his last playoff game as the Texans head coach, O’Brien, who at the time was up 21-0 in the second quarter, infamously shied away from going for the jugular by kicking a field goal on a 4th-and-1 from the Kansas City 13-yard line.
A three-score game remained a three-score game, and momentum soon shifted to the Chiefs, who blew past Houston in unforgettable fashion.
On that same afternoon, O’Brien aided that momentum shift with whatever the hell this was:
There was also the time he wasted an epic Watson performance and cost his team a potentially huge win in Seattle by clamming up and taking the ball out of the quarterback’s hands late in a 2017 meeting with the Seahawks.
And the time he settled for a field goal in the final three minutes while leading by two on a 4th-and-1 in the red zone against the New England Patriots that same season—a decision that predictably resulted in a three-point loss following a game-winning drive from Tom Brady’s squad.
And that time—thoroughly documented here by yours truly—he punted on a 4th-and-5 near midfield while down a touchdown with three minutes to play in a game against the Oakland Raiders despite the fact he had just one timeout in his back pocket. The Houston offense never saw the ball again.
Those are just some of the highlights. O’Brien often got too conservative when he should be aggressive and too aggressive when he should be conservative. He put Watson in harm’s way far too frequently, and he never consistently utilized analytics or even common sense when it came to challenges and timeouts.
He’s a bad coach.
But, but, but…his schedule for the first quarter of the 2020 season was hell!
That doesn’t excuse an 0-4 start.
O’Brien went all-in on this team and this season. He was the de facto general manager when the Texans traded a third-round pick for Duke Johnson, received a mere third-round pick for Clowney and dealt away a third-rounder for Gareon Conley in 2019. That was also the case when Houston gave up two first-round picks and a second-rounder in exchange for Tunsil and Kenny Stills last September.
He was officially the general manager when they surrendered a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks, and in March, he embarrassed himself in that role by trading Hopkins for washed-up running back David Johnson.
NFL Update @MySportsUpdate
If you combined the 4 big trades made by Bill O’Brien as #Texans GM, this is what you’ll get:
Got: Laremy Tunsil, David Johnson, Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills, Jakob Martin, Mingo, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 4th, 4th, 6th
Lost: Hopkins, Clowney, Davenport, Bademosi, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 4th
Later, he decided to make Tunsil the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, and he was in charge when lucrative deals were handed out to Mercilus, Nick Martin, Zach Cunningham, Bradley Roby and Randall Cobb.
This Texans team features the second-highest-paid quarterback in league history, and no roster in football contains more players with average annual salaries of $10 million or higher. They didn’t have a first-round pick this year, and their top two 2021 selections belong to the Miami Dolphins as a result of the Tunsil trade.
If this edition of the Texans couldn’t contend for a Super Bowl, it wasn’t likely to happen for years to come. And Super Bowl contenders have to at least hang with the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens (who beat Houston by a combined margin of 31 points) while at least splitting a back-to-back stretch against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings (Minnesburgh 59, Houston 44).
Even though they’re relatively healthy, they’re just not there. And there’s no reason to expect that to change after all these years under O’Brien.
He gambled on right now, and right now, his team has gone seven consecutive regular-season/playoff games without a regulation win.
With that much money invested in that much talent following that much risk on the league-wide markets, that’s inexcusable. It’s no surprise that according to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, he was losing a veteran team before his firing.
Remember when O’Brien actually thought it made sense to start Tom freakin’ Savage over a rookie Watson at the beginning of the 2017 season? There was no upside with Savage, who everybody knew had no future as an NFL starter. The only sensible explanation was that O’Brien might not have felt his rookie first-round pick was ready for regular-season action, which is why it made even less sense when he replaced Savage with Watson midway through the very first game of the season.
Did that mean he actually thought Savage gave Houston a better chance to succeed? Watson went on to light up the league with his arm and legs over the next six weeks, while Savage performed terribly in place of an injured Watson later in the year and never took another regular-season snap in the NFL.
That should have been a sign. In hindsight, it was a clear indication that O’Brien lacks foresight and possesses poor decision-making skills when it comes to utilizing, managing and even relinquishing or acquiring personnel.
O’Brien continually mismanaged the Texans, both on and off the field. And as a result, the franchise has been left in one of the deepest holes in professional football.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.