Nearly a month ago, I got to sit in a press conference where Bill O’Brien said the same thing he says after every big loss. The Colts had just destroyed his offense, holding the Texans to seven points. In so many words, it was his fault, and he’d have to coach better.
The problem isn’t that O’Brien can’t coach better. I have a lot of respect for the things he handles well, and he runs a locker room as well as any NFL coach as far as demanding the respect of his players. The problem is that there’s no actual accountability for O’Brien to coach better — at the end of the day, he is accountable only to himself as far as improving. He hasn’t done much to improve his game-calling or situational issues. The same old issues crop up over and over again. The team plays too slow in hurry-up situations. The team comes out unprepared against any head coach who plays against tendencies. The offense wants to play their game and never what the defense gives them. And so on.
Ownership — busy dealing with the fallout of Bob McNair’s death — has rubber stamped “good enough.” Brian Gaine’s done a fabulous job during his first season but clearly isn’t O’Brien’s peer as far as final say, no matter what the job titles would lead you to believe. The idea of where this head coach’s coaching will improve falls squarely on the head coach.
Enter Tim Kelly, a lifetime O’Brien assistant coach, who worked with O’Brien at Penn State as a graduate assistant. This post is going to be fairly critical of Kelly’s hiring, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with him, because I don’t think anyone can tell you how Kelly will run an offense. Kelly has never been an offensive coordinator at any level. Maybe he’s been a terrific tight ends coach — I don’t know of any way to measure his work from the outside beyond conjecture. He was made available for one media session by the Texans this year. Best I can tell from my Google-Fu, he seems to be trusted to take scouting visits for the team as well.
O’Brien has been a head coach for five seasons now. The only assistant coach he’s had on his staff that has received a real promotion from an outside team is Mike Vrabel, and Vrabel is more Romeo Crennel’s assistant than O’Brien’s. Most have either made lateral moves like Sean Ryan did in heading to Detroit, or have headed down the food chain or back to college. Pat O’Hara went from offensive assistant to quarterbacks coach under Vrabel, I guess. Wes Welker may head elsewhere for a promotion on name value alone.
This is not to say that Kelly can’t be a playcalling genius — maybe he’s a visionary and we’d have no idea from the outside. But the optics need to inform an outside take of this situation. Here are those optics: Bill O’Brien has never had a good coordinator waiting in the wings in his offensive staff, and he has promoted somebody who has never been an offensive coordinator before rather than chasing somebody, anybody, who could provide a different perspective. O’Brien has doubled down on what the Texans have already created, and offensive coaches have tended to flee his staff.
My read of the situation is that O’Brien believes he needs to have full control of this organization even though it’s clear from the outside that he is struggling with it. That it would be better off if he delegated some tasks. In the words of Richard Feynman, “you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” O’Brien believes it must all be on him, so it is.
We haven’t even gotten into whether Kelly will actually call the plays or not — maybe that’s something we get more clarity about once the hiring is official. But regardless, there’s not a lot I think anybody can be confident about with this move. If you want to explain it away from a place of optimism, you probably can. I’d just note that if the Texans hired, say, Todd Monken (to name one guy who settled for a similar job title) as their offensive coordinator, it would make me a lot more optimistic about their outlook.
A lot of a fan experience, I’ve come to realize over the years, is about expectations. What are your expectations for the season to come, and what is a reasonable expectation for this team? My expectations for the Texans are that they have so much offensive talent that, if everyone is healthy, they could still have a great offense even with mediocre playcalling. It’ll torch some other talented teams, and that will spark optimism. But my expectations are also that good coaching is necessary to beat the best teams, and nothing that O’Brien has done yet has backed up his frequent proclamations that he has to improve.
I’m a big believer of the idea that your actions speak a lot more to me than your words do. It’s easy to talk about doing something better. Harder to actually do it when you make no changes. Hopefully Tim Kelly is the next head coaching superstar and this post gets retweeted at me over and over again years from now. I wouldn’t bet on the process that created him as an offensive coordinator getting it right.