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The Brandin Cooks Trade Continues Bill O’Brien’s Awful Offseason for the Ages

Houston’s head coach and GM has made iffy moves before, but in the past month he’s put together his bad decision-making masterpiece

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bill O’Brien already had cut off Houston’s nose to spite its face. Now, he’s chopped off its ear to replace its nose and gouged out its eye to replace its ear. The Texans traded a second-round pick to the Rams on Thursday as part of a package to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a move that’s less a case of dumb decision-making than a work of sublime performance art. Not often do we get to watch the creation of a masterpiece, but O’Brien’s 2020 offseason ranks right up there with Kanye West’s Hawaii recording sessions on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Stanley Kubrick filming 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s transcendent.

Thursday’s move comes less than a month after O’Brien traded superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals for a package including a 2020 second-round pick and running back David Johnson. Johnson’s bloated salary makes him more of a liability than an asset, so that deal was essentially a star for a second-rounder in a market where any good receiver should return first-round value. O’Brien put a $5 bill into a vending machine and left with a bag of Baked Lays. By trading a second-rounder for Cooks, O’Brien has turned around and sold his bag of Baked Lays for 75 cents.

Even putting aside the Hopkins context, the Cooks deal doesn’t make sense in a vacuum. Houston traded a 2020 second-rounder (pick no. 57) for Cooks and a 2022 fourth-rounder. This month’s draft features the deepest receiver class in years, with 11 wideouts ranked among the top 65 on my Ringer colleague Danny Kelly’s latest Big Board. Instead of drafting a young, cost-friendly receiver with one of their two second-round picks, the Texans traded for Cooks, who is in the midst of an expensive contract and who’s coming off a mediocre campaign in which he recorded 583 yards in 14 games. The main reason Cooks had arguably his worst NFL season in 2019 was because he suffered two concussions in a 25-day span, giving him five diagnosed concussions over his six-year pro career. When Cooks suffered his latest concussion in November, reporters asked whether he had considered retiring. It’s doubtful that Cooks has more short-term value than a rookie receiver, let alone more long-term value.

The move doesn’t make sense in a vacuum, but it makes perfect sense for O’Brien, whose calling card is fast becoming inexplicable transactions. After all, the past month was set in motion by his mega trade with Miami in August. Houston dealt for a package centered on Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who was a smart player to pursue. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson had been sacked 62 times the prior season, one of the highest marks in league history, and Houston needed a proven presence to shore up the left side of its offensive line. But Miami general manager Chris Grier spied a mark, charging the Texans their 2020 first-rounder, 2021 first-rounder, and 2021 second-rounder. It was a stunning haul—even Tunsil told Grier, “I would trade me for that.”

Beyond the shocking terms, O’Brien did not execute a basic, essential part of that trade: getting Tunsil, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2020 season, to agree to a contract extension. Any player headlining a trade of this magnitude has an inordinate amount of leverage. When Chicago sent a similar haul to the Raiders to land defensive end Khalil Mack in 2018, Mack agreed to an extension the day of the trade. Mack’s agents and the Bears didn’t magically agree to terms after the deal went through while singing “Kumbaya.” The terms of Mack’s extension were agreed to before Chicago mortgaged its future, because that’s how business is done.

O’Brien doesn’t understand or care to understand how business is done, and now Tunsil can ask Houston for a blank check. The team will have to pay, unless O’Brien wants to look even more foolish than he already does. Combine that with the incoming payday for Watson, who is eligible to sign a contract extension, and the Texans entered this offseason with the fear that Tunsil and Watson would take up too much of their cap. So when Hopkins correctly pointed out that his contract was not commensurate with his value, O’Brien dealt him to Arizona, making Hopkins an unexpected casualty of O’Brien’s failure to do a basic part of his GM duties in August.

There has been plenty of foreshadowing that O’Brien is not capable of serving as both Houston’s head coach and general manager. Being an NFL coach is notoriously time-consuming—Chiefs coach Andy Reid says he gets two to three hours of sleep a night before waking up at 3 a.m.—and being a GM demands closer to 100 hours a week than 40. Twice in the past three trade deadlines, the Texans have made a deal with the team they were playing that week. Do that once and it’s an anomaly. Do it twice, and it suggests that O’Brien the coach-GM likes to trade for players on the team he is already scouting because he doesn’t have time to watch film on the other 30 teams.

O’Brien has now assembled a receiving corps featuring Cooks, new free-agent signing Randall Cobb ($18 million guaranteed at signing!), Kenny Stills, and Will Fuller V. Hopefully that group can make Watson happy, even if those players’ skill sets are generally redundant—because O’Brien’s masterpiece won’t be finished until Watson determines whether signing with Houston long term is wise.

Rams general manager Les Snead is lucky that O’Brien has so thoroughly beclowned himself, because he would likely be the butt of jokes if not for Houston’s constant face-planting. The Rams traded a first-rounder to New England for Cooks in 2018 and signed him to a deal that paid him $39 million over the first two years. They will now take on $21.8 million in dead money to get rid of Cooks, surpassing what the Steelers took on to get rid of Antonio Brown and perhaps registering as the largest dead cap hit ever. Cooks will account for more dead money than 29 teams have on their entire roster. And that’s before considering that quarterback Jared Goff will account for $36 million this season.

The Rams’ cap situation is the cost of an aggressive, win-now strategy (that nearly paid off in a title) with little regard for consequences down the road. The Texans aren’t in win-now mode so much as O’Brien is in I’m gonna get fired later anyway mode. At this point he can do virtually whatever he wants in 2020, because if the team flails then he’s done so much damage that it won’t be his problem if Houston is screwed in 2022. O’Brien’s offseason for the ages may seem senseless, but that’s what happens when you do the front office equivalent of cutting off your ears and nose and gouging out your eyes.