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The Texans Got Played by Bill O’Brien’s Power Play

The only benefit to O’Brien having so many jobs is that it became easily apparent who was to blame when things got bad in Houston. Make no mistake: Things are bad, but the Texans can improve quickly with a good hire to pair with Deshaun Watson.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Bill O’Brien era ended the same way it lived: without much of a plan. O’Brien was fired on Monday as the Texans head coach, general manager, and play-caller, ending one of the most confusing tenures in recent football history. O’Brien’s time in Houston was not a complete disaster—there are worse NFL coaches with jobs right now—but it wasn’t close to being a success. Since 2014, the Texans have been many things, including a playoff team, a team that got fleeced in trades, and a job-creation program for O’Brien. They fired two general managers, acquired (and jettisoned) superstars, and flirted with being an AFC contender without becoming one. O’Brien grabbed more and more power until he had it all in the last year of his tenure. In the end, his entire tenure was about power. Imagine Game of Thrones, if that show ended horribly and ended up being a massive waste of time. Oh. Right. So like Game of Thrones.

The point has been made that 2020 has warped our sense of time, but few things in the sport seem more distant than the fact that O’Brien’s Texans had a 24-0 lead on the Kansas City Chiefs in a playoff game in this calendar year. Everything felt different then. Patrick Mahomes didn’t have a Super Bowl title, DeAndre Hopkins was still a Texan, and Houston looked destined, for about a quarter, for the Super Bowl. If they defeated the Chiefs, only the Titans, a team they finished ahead of in the AFC South, stood in their way to the AFC title game. They not only failed to get past Kansas City, but their collapse started a series of events that led O’Brien, the man with every job, to be without one entirely. O’Brien’s fate was sealed by an uninspiring 0-4 start this season, a series of baffling personnel moves, and a reported rift with the man who helped him gain power, Texans VP of football operations Jack Easterby. During that playoff game in January, Rotoworld’s Patrick Daugherty wrote presciently that “Only Bill O’Brien could turn a 24-0 first-half lead on the road against a no. 2 seed into a career-ending event.” It was a joke at the time. Nine months later, it’s just a simple fact.

That game is O’Brien in a nutshell: Good enough to make the playoffs, and, in fact, be one of the last eight teams remaining. Good enough to take a big lead. But not good enough to keep that lead, keep that team together, or make the team better than it should be in 2020. Not good enough to help Deshaun Watson. O’Brien was not an Adam Gase–ian disaster. He is not Matt Patricia. He is an above-average head coach who got in above his head. The Texans enter this era without him, down a few stars he traded away, without some high draft picks he gave up, and having spent a lot of cash on a roster that simply isn’t good enough. There’s probably a universe where O’Brien stuck to being just a head coach, and both he and the Texans were better off for it.

A simple list of O’Brien’s accomplishments will leave you confused: O’Brien made four playoff appearances in his past five full seasons. He made the playoffs with Brian Hoyer and Brock Osweiler as the team’s top passers. He won the AFC South in more than half of the seasons he coached, a remarkable feat. O’Brien, strangely, delivered better coaching jobs with worse quarterbacks. He overachieved with the bad passers—not just with the Texans; he coached Christian Hackenberg at Penn State—and underachieved with Watson. He won as many playoff games with Osweiler as he did Watson: one.

The other facts of his tenure were less flattering. He made shortsighted trades that never reflected the team he had or the league he was in. He went all in without the cards to do so. It is strange that O’Brien worked in New England and learned exactly zero lessons from Bill Belichick about playing the long game. Even if you feel that you absolutely must get DeAndre Hopkins off your team, or you cannot possibly let Jadeveon Clowney play on the franchise tag, or you cannot continue on this earth without Laremy Tunsil, O’Brien completely misunderstood the market at every turn. In some cases, he misunderstood the timing of a deal; in others, he misunderstood the return the team should get for a player, but the through line is that he misunderstood.

O’Brien threw resources—picks, cash, sometimes both—at problems and never solved them. The Texans’ payroll is higher than any other team’s this season, and I don’t know one thing their roster does well. Not all of this is O’Brien’s fault; before he was GM, the Texans made plenty of mistakes. O’Brien met Osweiler for the first time at his introductory press conference after Houston signed him to a lucrative contract. That contract was so bad the Texans were forced to innovate the sport by trading Osweiler to Cleveland with a second-round pick just to dump his contract. Nothing about the past seven years in Houston was normal.

Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in football, and if he is not in a position to compete every single season, it’s a failure of coaching, personnel, or both. The fact that one man controlled both of these departments showed why O’Brien needed to go. The moment a great quarterback walks through your doors, the clock starts on maximizing their talents. O’Brien simply never got there, and everyone knew it. The Texans and O’Brien learned a valuable lesson: A talented quarterback is not a guarantee of anything. No one wins because they draft a great quarterback. They win because of what the team does to help him. A new regime gets to figure out what that means.

Houston is a great job for a coach and a GM because Watson is there. It is not nearly as good a job as it could be—O’Brien departs a winless team, without any picks in the first two rounds of the 2021 draft (they were given to Miami for Tunsil, now the highest-paid lineman in football), and without much infrastructure around Watson. He has gutted the team, and the fact that Houston is still a desirable job is due only to Watson’s presence. It would be an ideal landing spot for an innovative offensive mind like Kansas City’s Eric Bieniemy or Buffalo’s Brian Daboll, both of whom make life easier for their young quarterbacks.

This should be the first day of the rest of Watson’s football life. If the Texans make the right hire, Watson can take his place among the best in the game, all of whom have a supporting cast and play-callers who maximize their talent. O’Brien was given the greatest gift in football—a young, talented quarterback—and he screwed it up. It is not easy or fun to call for anyone’s job or say their unemployment is justified—often, a coach getting fired means dozens of people who don’t make millions of dollars, and had little to do with the moves made by the coach, are also fired. But there was no way to watch the Texans and think O’Brien deserved to be the person to fix them.

This job will not just be about scheme. A Texans player told ESPN’s Dianna Russini that there was a “feeling of relief” about O’Brien’s firing because “he was losing our trust and confidence … maybe even lost all of it.” The new coach will have to build a new culture and quickly. Watson, who turned 25 last month, has a cap hit of $40 million starting in 2022, and given those numbers and the Texans’ lack of picks, there will be extra pressure on team building and on developing players.

It appears that Easterby, the former Patriots “character coach,” has increasing sway in Houston. You may remember Easterby from the episode when the team was accused of tampering with Patriots executive Nick Caserio at the Patriots’ Super Bowl ring ceremony. O’Brien and Easterby “did not see eye to eye recently,” according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

The best time for the Texans to have fired O’Brien was a few years ago. The second-best time is now. O’Brien never should have had power. He simply did not understand value. He indicated as much when he traded one of the top receivers in football, Hopkins, for a second-round pick and a past-it running back, David Johnson. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell made the case Monday that O’Brien overpaid for basically all of his free agents and gave his core players like Watson, Tunsil, and linebacker Zach Cunningham above-market extensions. The long-term plan—if there was one—was bad.

If you want to learn about a person, the adage goes, give them power. Bill O’Brien got it, and we learned a lot. He can be successful somewhere else in the right role. Watson, hopefully, can be successful in Houston with a new regime. The Texans do not have many picks, cap space, or stars outside of Watson. That is O’Brien’s fault. What they do next will determine whether they can overcome his mistakes.