Whereas most NFL coaches and executives looked cool, calm, and collected in their homes throughout the unprecedented remote draft this weekend, Houston’s Bill O’Brien was caught yelling into a phone with his palms facing the heavens on Friday. In the 22-second clip that aired on ESPN and circulated on social media, O’Brien appeared so unhappy with whatever transpired while Houston was on the clock with its third-round pick that he eventually stood up and stormed away from his desk. O’Brien, the only man in the NFL to have the title of head coach and general manager, did this all on live television.
Bill O’Brien was PISSED at someone for something pic.twitter.com/oPZouEcPa9— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) April 25, 2020
The Houston Chronicle reported that O’Brien had a trade worked out with the Detroit Lions, but that the Lions backed out at the last second, forcing the Texans to unexpectedly select a player (they ended up drafting Florida outside linebacker Jonathan Greenard). O’Brien had a different explanation. “We were messing on the Zoom, myself and [executive vice president of football operations Jack] Easterby and all the guys,” O’Brien told reporters. “No, nothing agitating. I didn’t ... I thought ... The camera’s on the whole time. I don’t know. We’re just messing around on the Zoom. We’re on the back patio here. We’ve done a lot of business on the back patio over the last couple months.”
Indeed, the Texans have done a lot of business the past couple of months, it’s just unclear whether any of those moves have helped the team. Under O’Brien’s leadership, Houston has made a dizzying array of short-sighted decisions that include trading superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins for pennies on the dollar, using those pennies to acquire a far worse receiver in Brandin Cooks, and losing a negotiation with left tackle Laremy Tunsil so badly that the deal established a new precedent for NFL contracts. O’Brien has managed to fill Houston’s salary cap while emptying its chest of draft picks without making his team noticeably better (and may have actually made the team worse). As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell wrote earlier this month, “The Texans seem to operate in a vacuum in which there is no concept of what the other 31 teams are doing or thinking.”
Despite Houston’s divisional-round collapse against Kansas City, O’Brien is a good head coach. The only three coaches who have won their division in four of the past five years are O’Brien, Andy Reid, and Bill Belichick. But O’Brien is also Houston’s general manager, and saying he is bad at that job would imply he had time to do it. Being a coach or a general manager in pro sports is hard and time consuming; being both is borderline impossible, unless you’re Belichick, the Patriots’ de facto GM. Being a coach requires roughly 90 hours per week, and many famously sleep in their offices. Kansas City’s Andy Reid goes to bed around midnight and wakes up at 3 a.m. The notion that any coach could also be the team’s general manager, which is also an 80-plus-hour-per-week job, is usually unrealistic at best. Not only is O’Brien trying to do both, but his front office is light on football experience. His chief lieutenant, Jack Easterby, is the former team chaplain for the Patriots and does not have much background in scouting or coaching. After the team tried and failed to hire away New England director of player personnel Nick Caserio, Texans owner Cal McNair decided to let O’Brien, the interim GM, keep the job full-time.
That gives O’Brien control over two jobs but enough time for only one. (One example that may prove this theory: Each of the past two years the Texans have made a deal at the trade deadline for a player they were set to face that week, suggesting O’Brien traded for someone he was already watching on film because he didn’t have time to scout the other 30 teams.) Him doing “business on the back patio over the last couple months” is the closest we will see to an NFL team making moves with nobody at the wheel—or, more accurately, nobody sitting in the chair.
If the Bill O’Brien era has an original sin, a moment that all of this offseason’s chaos can be traced back to, it came on August 31, 2019. On that day, O’Brien decided to reshape Houston’s roster, beginning by trading defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks in a deal that netted a third-round pick. But that was not even the most momentous trade the Texans made that day. Hours later, O’Brien traded two first-round picks and a second-rounder for a package headlined by Laremy Tunsil. The Texans definitely needed a blocker. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson was the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL in 2018, and Tunsil is one of the few elite left tackles in football. But O’Brien was paying a quarterback-level price. The package was so overwhelming that when Dolphins GM Chris Grier told Tunsil the offer, Tunsil reportedly told Grier, “I would trade me for that.”
Let’s put aside how much the Texans gave up—which was a lot—and focus on O’Brien’s biggest mistake in the deal: not negotiating a contract with Tunsil before agreeing to the trade. It is standard practice for general managers to negotiate a contract extension with a player on an expiring deal before making a significant trade. For example, when the Bears traded a similar package of draft picks to the Raiders for star pass rusher Khalil Mack in 2018, Chicago agreed to a contract extension with Mack the day of the deal. It is beyond bad practice to send away two first-round picks (plus a second-rounder) in a trade centered on a guy who isn’t on a long-term contract.
Bill O’Brien did not negotiate a contract extension with Tunsil before trading that treasure chest of draft picks. By failing to check this fundamental box, O’Brien gave Tunsil more negotiating power than any player has had in decades. Tunsil didn’t even hire an agent for his negotiation this spring, because the situation was clear: If Tunsil left in free agency, O’Brien would likely be fired.
“Look, we want Laremy here,” O’Brien told reporters in January. “Laremy knows that. ... I can unequivocally state to you that we want Laremy here for a long time.”
With unprecedented leverage, Tunsil demanded an unprecedented contract. On Friday, just hours before O’Brien’s frustration spilled out onto television, Tunsil got that unprecedented deal: a three-year extension that will pay him an average of $22 million per season and is guaranteed for a whopping $58 million, according to The Houston Chronicle. To put Tunsil’s $22 million in perspective, both Tom Brady and Drew Brees will be making $25 million this year. Tunsil is now the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history and is tied for the third-highest-paid non-quarterback after Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald, but that barely begins to describe how badly the Texans messed up.
Before Tunsil signed his deal, the highest-paid tackle in football by average annual value was Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson at $18 million. O’Brien just handed Tunsil a $4 million increase per year on top of the position leader, or an increase of more than 20 percent. Now the gap in average annual value between Tunsil and Johnson is equal to the gap between Johnson and Jack Conklin, who’s tied for being the 12th-highest-paid lineman. Tunsil will make almost as much in three years ($66 million), as Johnson will make in four years ($72 million).
Normally making someone the highest-paid player at their position by far would be enough to get a deal done. But the Texans set another precedent with this contract: Not only did they break the $20 million-per-year barrier, but they also gave Tunsil a short deal. For NFL teams, longer contracts are better. If a player overperforms, they are a good value, and if the player underperforms, they can be cut. A deal like Tunsil’s, which makes the league’s richest tackles look poor, would typically be for four or five seasons. The Texans granted Tunsil just a three-year extension, meaning he could renegotiate with them in 2023 when he is still 28 years old.
Offensive linemen must understand leverage. Longtime offensive line coach Paul Alexander wrote in his book that he judged prospects based on how they pour ketchup. A Heinz ketchup bottle is designed for people to tap the label right on the Heinz 57 logo to get the ketchup flowing. If players forcefully smacked the top of the bottle, Alexander knew they didn’t understand leverage. Strength is maximized when applied to weak spots, and a player who can’t move ketchup out of a bottle is going to have a hard time moving a 310-pound defensive tackle anywhere. Like blocking, contract negotiations are about leverage, and Laremy Tunsil knew exactly where to tap.
O’Brien and the Texans have known this Tunsil contract was coming. Combined with the coming mega-extension for Deshaun Watson, the team will commit more than a quarter of its budget to two players. So when Hopkins approached the team this offseason and said he wanted a new deal despite having three years left on his contract, the Texans were already stretched thin. But it wasn’t just about dollars and cents. Hopkins’s relationship with O’Brien was also a factor.
“There was no relationship,” Hopkins told Sports Illustrated after the trade. “Make sure you put that in there. There’s not a lot to speak about.”
If the Texans were set on trading Hopkins rather than paying him, the price floor for an acquiring team should’ve been high. From Amari Cooper to Brandin Cooks (twice) to Odell Beckham Jr., the established going rate for a no. 1 wide receiver is at least a first-round pick. Hopkins is easily more accomplished than any of those players. Of all NFL receivers through their first seven seasons, Hopkins ranks seventh in receiving yards (8,602) and is tied for second in catches (632). But O’Brien got a paltry return: Cardinals running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-rounder for Hopkins and a fourth-rounder. Johnson, who had 18 carries for 47 yards in his final seven games last year, is one of the most expensive players at a famously cost-ineffective position, so he might be a liability instead of an asset. Johnson coming onboard is also an admission that O’Brien screwed up when he traded a third-round pick for running back Duke Johnson in 2019, the most draft capital any team has given up for a running back in years. Strip away David Johnson and the other picks, and Houston essentially got a second-round pick in exchange for the second-best offensive player in franchise history.
“This is why you don’t make your coach your general manager,” an NFC GM told SI via text message.
Houston used that pick, no. 40, on Friday to draft defensive tackle Ross Blacklock out of TCU. But the Texans had already tried to replace Hopkins. O’Brien signed former Cowboys and Packers receiver Randall Cobb to a three-year deal worth $27 million with $18 million guaranteed, almost double the average annual value of the one-year, $5 million deal Cobb played for last year in Dallas. Earlier this month, O’Brien continued the illogical decision-making by trading one of Houston’s two second-round picks for Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. Last season, reporters asked Cooks about potentially retiring after he sustained four concussions in two years and five diagnosed concussions in his six-year career.
The team is literally paying for mistakes O’Brien made because he didn’t understand the basics of running a front office, and each subsequent move has been a short-sighted attempt to fix the previous mistake. This offseason, Houston has cut off its nose to spite its face, cut off its ear to replace its nose, and then overpaid for Randall Cobb to replace its ear. Now nothing is going to work as well as it was before, and the team has to stop the bleeding. The only person truly responsible for all of this chaos is O’Brien, who has accrued as much power as any executive in the NFL. The Texans are at risk of wasting Watson’s prime years, which would turn O’Brien’s original sin into a mortal one.
Houston reportedly wants to sign Watson to an extension before this season, and that deal would likely make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. That’s assuming that Watson does want to sign with Houston, which he may be rethinking if he’s been paying attention. If Watson does re-up, O’Brien will have to navigate building a team around a highly paid quarterback. Constructing a roster is much easier when the starting quarterback is on an artificially cheap rookie deal, but figuring out how to build a contender around an expensive player is much more complicated. Some would even say it’s a full-time job.