On Monday morning, Bill O’Brien unknowingly addressed Texans media for the final time. A 31-23 loss to the Vikings on Sunday dropped Houston to 0-4, so the opening question posed to the seventh-year coach was obvious. If you don’t turn it around, are you worried about losing your job?
“I don’t have any control [over that],” O’Brien said. “All I can control is what I can control, and I’ve got to do a better job with the team and that’s obvious. We’re going to work hard to do that.”
O’Brien will not get the chance to see the squad’s improvement, through. The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain reported Monday afternoon that Texans owner Cal McNair had fired O’Brien, the team’s head coach and general manager, from his dual-title post. Associate head coach Romeo Crennel was named the club’s interim head coach.
Six-plus seasons after joining the Texans following a successful stint at Penn State, O’Brien will finish his Houston tenure with a 52-48 regular-season record and a 2-4 postseason mark. And while O’Brien noted on Monday that he didn’t have control over his own job status, he did have agency over just about everything else—he was the NFL’s only coach to hold a general manager title. He’d also reportedly stripped offensive coordinator Tim Kelly of play-calling duties earlier in the day. The problem may have been that O’Brien had too much control during his time with Houston.
The Texans did experience some success under O’Brien’s direction. When O’Brien was hired in 2014, he inherited a two-win squad and immediately turned it around, guiding Houston to a 9-7 record in his first season. The Texans notched that mark each of the following two seasons to capture consecutive AFC South crowns. A 4-12 record in 2017—the same year during which a rookie Deshaun Watson tore his ACL midway through the campaign—saw Houston miss the playoffs before returning to the postseason each of the past two seasons, again capturing AFC South titles. That was the positive, but O’Brien never lifted the team any higher, and the franchise seemed to slide backward as he got more power within the organization.
In June 2019, the Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine, leaving O’Brien as their de facto GM. That began an era of short-sighted moves that have left the current Texans in a hole. In August 2019, O’Brien traded star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney—whom Houston selected no. 1 overall after its two-win 2013 season—to the Seahawks for only a third-round pick. On the same day, O’Brien initiated a trade with the Dolphins in which Houston relinquished two first-round picks and a second-round pick in exchange for tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Kenny Stills, a fourth-round pick and a sixth-round pick. The deal was ridiculed as bad business, one obvious reason being that O’Brien failed to agree with Tunsil on an extension before the trade.
O’Brien’s poor decision-making spoiled the Texans’ playoff run after claiming another AFC South title at 10-6. Up 21-0 on Kansas City in the second quarter of last season’s AFC divisional matchup, O’Brien balked at attempting to convert a fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs’ 13-yard line and settled for a field goal—after a timeout. Later in the quarter, O’Brien attempted to convert a fourth-and-4 at Houston’s 31-yard line with a fake punt that didn’t work. Kansas City came back to win, 51-31. O’Brien’s offense scored just seven points after going up 24-0.
Surprisingly, even after previous negotiating gaffes and poor in-game coaching in crucial spots, O’Brien saw his power within the organization increase this offseason. In addition to retaining his coaching duties, he was named Houston’s GM, becoming the only NFL coach to hold both titles. He immediately got to work ridding the franchise of more talent. The Texans traded superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals in exchange for tailback David Johnson in a widely criticized deal. O’Brien then acquired Brandin Cooks from the Rams for a second-round pick, another questionable move. Tunsil, who directly negotiated with O’Brien on a contract extension, signed the NFL’s richest deal for an offensive lineman this offseason, agreeing to a three-year, $66 million deal.
The Texans signed Watson to a four-year, $156 million extension in early September, securing the franchise’s most prominent face for the foreseeable future. The problem, however, is that there’s not much left for the star quarterback to work with. That’s reflected in the team’s performance through the first quarter of the season. Houston ranks 27th in total offense and 29th in scoring. Its defense has given up 31 points in three of its first four contests.
Not even Watson’s heroics proved enough to save O’Brien’s job, or even secure Houston a single victory. And while the Texans’ first four opponents—the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, and Vikings—all entered the year with playoff aspirations, Houston has looked like a team in disarray. For a team that is projected to rank 26th in cap space next offseason and is without a first- and second-round pick, not seeing immediate results against top competition this year is discouraging. O’Brien’s offseason blunders may not have been enough for the team to move past him, but a winless start was.
Bill O'Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins for David Johnson, shipped out all the Texans draft picks, fired his GM and took total control of the organization, routinely put Deshaun Watson in physical harm with his play calling but it took an 8-point Week 4 Vikings loss to get him fired.— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 5, 2020
The Texans have, at points throughout the past few years, appeared to have the makings of a potential contender. There’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in J.J. Watt on one side of the ball and one of the game’s exciting signal-callers in Watson on the other. O’Brien had a chance to build on that foundation. Instead, he ripped the roster down to the studs—and now it’s time for the Texans to start over.