An Academic Question Raised by Many – The Case for O’Brien To Stay or Go? A Season Concluded with Angst But are the Texans on The Cusp of Challenging or Confined by O’Brien’s Imposed Ceiling?
Prior to the announcement that Chris Olsen will be leaving the front office, after a 13-year stint and only 2 years into a new five-year contract, if it didn’t already seem academical to debate the future of O’Brien, it certainly is now. His unwarranted grasp of control on Kirby Drive continues to strengthen. Whatever is sold in these review meetings, remains unclear, but Cal McNair continues to buy-in. As the on-field performances, do not warrant an ever-increasing span on control. As once again the Texans season crashed to an acrimonious, early play-off drubbing.
There have now been six versions of the O’Brien Texans and the results have all been similar. Quite how we he has managed to absolve himself of the blame over that span, is some feat. It would seem his ability to influence the right people, exceeds his abilities to lead and coach a pro-football team. Whilst others have ultimately been served the axe in every off-season under his tenure – both playing and coaching staff continue to be in a persistent state of change. The only two constants are O’Brien and a talent limited football team, confined to relative mediocrity.
Most Texans fans will be victims of re-occurring state of a temporary sense of progress, to then quickly be washed by a realisation of their team’s obvious shortcomings. The 2019 season was no different, although there was some signs of growth offensively. The pass protection of Watson was much improved after throwing a hefty investment of draft day capital to trade for Laremy Tunsil & Kenny Stills.
These improvements were quickly equalised by the Texans defensive talent erosion. A process accelerated by O’Brien’s paid-for shipment of Clowney to Seattle. Leaving a glaring deficiency in their pass-rush, the defence at times, looked entirely toothless. Though offence was improved beyond levels accustomed to in Houston and at times looked imperious. But the unit couldn’t produce those refreshing planes regularly enough to mask its defensive failings. The glaring defensive struggles were exposed – the leading cause for crashing out the play offs – when surrendering 51 points to the Chiefs, despite having a 24-point lead. This off season would require material change, if this weakness is to be addressed.
A Defense that Ground to a Halt – Exhausted of Talent:
The latest victim of O’Brien annual winds of change – the 72-year old defensive master – Romeo Crennel, who even he appeared to be short of ingenuity on how to consistently find schematic effectiveness from this unit. The pass rush was absent for most of the year, safety play had taken a big step back, whilst injuries and constant adjustments impacted the corner play – it was never going to be easy.
Perhaps through imposition, they moved away from Romeo’s favoured zone concepts to play predominantly man-coverage, which seemed risky without any discernible pass rush. This was predictably then exposed repeatedly by opposition offences. The criticism landed at Crennel’s door but the blame should sit squarely with O’Brien who didn’t not intervene in previous years when there were misguided attempts to scheme it’s three top edge rushers on the field together. When better talent levels were available to him, Crennels units where often top-10 in defensive rankings, but it’s grand leader did not interject with a strategic view, arguably this most important part of of his job. This was ignored and it’s knock-on effect, lead to the aforementioned penny’s on the dollar trade, a move that left a historical strength of the team with two aging edge rushers, whose longevity could easily be questioned.
The Texans primary free-agent goal must be to address its pass rush in the most feasible possible way, post its internal extensions. Even prior to the week 8 injury to JJ Watt, the pass rush was already limited, consisting of Mercilus, Watt and Reader. Seemingly, the latter is on his way out, rightly in search of a deserved a pay day for a former 6th round pick. Hopefully Houston can persuade him to stay but a few late season interviews would suggest he will reluctantly test the market. Even if DJ’s services are retained, this should not change from the 1st port of call and shopping in the first wave of free agency will be required.
Similarly, they will have to address the balance in the secondary. Any unit would be in a plight, regardless of talent, if their compatriots up-front aren’t able to generate pressure. But finding the formula for success which may be with the current or newly acquired personnel – is a key questions for their first time defensive coordinator to find the answers to. O’Brien’s biggest off season task may be to ensure Weaver isn’t hung out to dry from a talent stand point. Addressing the two most premium spots of any defence – will not be an easy task.
OB – The man of all departments but master of none
O’Brien will be of the opinion that the departed Brian Gaine’s meek attempts to improve the roster and the handling of a proposed Clowney extension put them behind the sticks before training camp started. To O’Brien’s credit, although it could have been perceived as desperate and over zealous, he did go after the glaring holes on the roster at offensive line, running back and corner, which by in large, all worked out.
Duke Johnson looked like the mobile, pass catching running back this offence needed as the check-down on pass plays. Both Conley and Hargreaves flashed at times and based on joining a team mid-season, filled in admirably. Tunsil transformed the line and elevated those around him. Kenny Stills gave a legitimate big play threat beyond the expected contributors.
There’s a clear case created for O’Brien having a future in NFL front office’s. However, based on his emotive and fragile ego as a coach, it would be unlikely he’d give up the coaching reigns, without a struggle. In, all probability it would require him to fired, if that were to occur.
The question of quality coaching, is now more important that it ever has been, with the absence of three of the most premium draft picks over the next two season. However, history of coaching up talent may be a potential concern. Rather than building on the promising rookie seasons of Keke Coutee as the answer at slot receiver & tight-end Jordan Thomas, both were allowed to regress based on a variety of factors. This was mostly due to health and poor form. Keke had two arguably game killing drops, both in losses. Thomas was rarely given a chance to receive the ball, when returning for IR.
It should rightly fall on the coaching staff to develop year two players and get the maximum from their talent. The onus was there to create an environment to allow them to respond from adversity and come back stronger, as there’s proven talent in both players, when given roles. Both were placed in the infamous Coach O’s dog house – a place notoriously difficult to ever recover from. But based the moves he has made, the team can ill-afford to push more talent out the door, if this past season is anything to learn form. Surely even O’Brien isn’t so stubborn not to realise that?
Offensive Progress on the Field to build upon:
There were signs of progress this past season, with marquee wins against the supposed upper-tier teams, where typically the inverse had been the case. The wins against New England, Kansas City, the Chargers, Indianapolis and Atlanta were highlights. Although bar the Chiefs, each of those teams had underwhelming 2019 outcomes versus the talent on their rosters. However, any opportunities to build momentum were removed after two regrettable performances against Carolina and Denver.
Two seasons have now been and gone, whilst Watson plays out his rookie-wage-scale deal, where the team arguably have passed up golden chanced of reaching a record to seal an automatic play-off seed in the AFC. In both cases they did not take their chance.
The sizable angst felt within the fan based at the conclusion of the 2019 season has been tangible. However, based on the further changes in front office, the widely assumed arrival of Nick Caserio as head of personnel, any changes to the top man’s status appear even less likely. Caserio’s arrival could been seen as a positive as it would free Bill to attend to on-field matters. Where rumbling have emanated that O’Brien has a tendency to enter the weekly game-plan process late and meddle – a feasible rationale for the inconsistencies shown. However, would Caserio be brought in with the power to give Bill the bullet if next season falls short once more?
Therefore what can be the minimum expectations for the 2020 vintage of the Houston Texans if the timelines of its current leadership are to be extended further?
Off-Season Improvements – AFC top-2 seed must be a minimum target in 2020
There now remains a sizable off-season job to extend Watson, Tunsil, Zack Cunningham, Will Fuller and then try to plug the holes on defense. The Texans have already, and in all cases questionably, extended centre Nick Martin, 30-year-old outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and punter Bryan Anger. A seemingly odd prioritisation of targets. This may have contributed to Chris Olsen’s departure, but much is unclear at this stage, with further changes to the front office rumored.
It would seem that this move has put the Texans further behind track when a monumental front office and coaching job is required to together find commonality, if a true step forward it to be taken, based on all the factors considered.
The questions for Cal McNair is: How does he see this current leadership status as tenable, if results don’t drastically improve? This after the much sought after scenario of benefiting form a franchise QB’s rookie contract as a window, now appears to have abruptly shut, just as the Texans faint hopes of success ended at Arrowhead, two weeks ago.
It would appear, for now, the current Texans are confined by O’Brien and how his flaws, then fortify a ceiling of mediocrity across the city of Houston Football. Regardless of its potential success, it would appear he will at least have another crack at tackling his football Everest. Where that will lead, would seem apparently obvious, but we’ve no choice to buckle up and guilelessly hope for better days.
We will return in the following weeks to cover Part II) Free Agency & Part III) the draft.