2019 should be Bill O’Brien’s last chance to get it corrected

The Houston Texans have been granted a major luxury by virtue of their standing in the AFC South throughout Bill O’Brien’s tenure. The teams in the division have often been bad. This has led to a number of easy schedules. The Texans finished with the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL last year per Football Outsiders’ opponent DVOA numbers, and they finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in O’Briens inaugural season. Their toughest schedule, in 2017, was 11th-hardest out of 32.

FO’s preseason projections didn’t have a lot of variance with what actually happened — the only meaningful difference in those years was that 2016’s schedule wound up slightly harder than expected. I’m privy to some of the early projections this year, and no matter where the landmark settles, the Texans look poised to have the toughest schedule of the O’Brien era. On a subjective level, I expect things to look even more rude.

I wrote earlier this offseason about the only time the Texans ever successfully corralled a game against a top quarterback under O’Brien — it took a superhuman effort from J.J. Watt, perhaps the best game of his career. This year, the Texans will play Pat Mahomes, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck twice, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan. The worst quarterback they’ll play is probably Joe Flacco — maybe Lamar Jackson if he doesn’t improve at all. FO’s projections are sanguine on Houston’s defense, but those projections don’t account for Houston’s enormous defensive splits depending on level of competition. There are no evident Blake Bortles or Zach Mettenbergers to beat up on this year.

So let’s start with that — the conservative ethos of O’Brien is going to be tested. Houston went 2-4 in the 2018 regular season in one-score games where they allowed 22 or more points. One of those wins occurred because Frank Reich refused to settle for a tie in Week 4, and the other came against Sam Darnold. They went 0-4 in those games in 2017, three of which actually came with Watson starting. They went 1-2 in those games in 2016, with another overtime win over the Colts. So over the past three seasons, they’re at 3-10 in close games where they allow more than 22 points, two of which were won in overtime. Want to buffer it out to O’Brien’s early career? Me too. The Texans have played 18 one-score games where they’ve allowed 22 points or more and won three of them.

This is not the only area in which conservative thinking could cost the Texans. An offseason cast in O’Brien’s mold has kept the talent from keeping up with the AFC’s big spenders. The Texans set a dollar threshold they would not pass and it took them out of the running for retaining Tyrann Mathieu (the player they really wanted). More importantly, it cost them a shot at any of the good offensive line free agents. They set a threshold on what they’d give to trade up and it priced them out of picking up a tackle prospect I think could reasonably start on Day 1 in Andre Dillard. While I think the Texans did okay in repairing the holes that free agency and retirement left, I don’t know of a single position you can point to with the confidence that they’ll definitely be better next year — it all is relying on health, jumps in player skill, or projections for non-elite rookies.

O’Brien’s moves have all spelled more than ever that he believes in making Deshaun Watson a pocket passer. Carl Smith was brought in to help Russell Wilson’s play from the pocket more — I don’t believe there’s much left to pare down of Watson’s out of structure game at this point. Watson threw just nine interceptions and had a 69.1% completion rate despite, I would argue, not being an ultra-accurate passer. Watson is not fully controllable in the way that O’Brien would prefer, but O’Brien can still exert a lot of influence as head play caller. These moves have positioned the Texans to play away from Watson’s strengths out of the structure of an offense and with his legs to force a defense to respect him as a runner.

“It’s on me,” is a pretty common O’Brien rallying cry, but never before has it been as true as it will be this year. The top-tier talent the Texans offer can still play with anybody, but this year is going to call for changes in approach away from the normal O’Brien conservative ethos. To his credit, O’Brien has been able to make some terrific in-season changes when pressed. He knew Watson wasn’t ready to run his system in 2017, and the system he created for Watson torched the NFL. He knew that the running game wasn’t playing well down the stretch last year and spent a lot of Week 17 using Watson as a designated runner to great effect.

But this is going to be a year where the ego is going to take a pounding and things aren’t going to come easy. It’s a schedule that calls for quicker adjustments than what O’Brien has done in the past. If they do what they’ve done, the Texans are going to get punched in the mouth. Playoff contention is going to involve winning a lot of close games against good quarterbacks. By the time O’Brien is ready to adjust — at least based on past history — the Texans might be so far behind in a race that it won’t matter.

As I’ve said before, the top-tier talent in Houston is as good as it is anywhere, and that will keep them in games. But I have my doubts that the Texans are going to be coached in a way that unlocks their potential. This team learned nothing from last year. It went out and got more zone cornerbacks and is going to pretend that they can instantly solve problem areas in the draft. It’s too clever by half.

And there will be no running from the blame for O’Brien, just as there wasn’t against the Colts in the playoffs. The quarterback is talented. The defensive pass rush is individually terrific, and the team has discounted cornerback because they want to get by playing zone. They had a chance to fix the offensive line and cornerback and didn’t. They stuck by their player value system and are now carrying roughly $40 million of cap space into the season. The kind of player and price intersection they are looking for is so low-risk that it can only be drafted or developed. No free agent with real options is going to sign with the Texans for what they want to offer — only the ones that have something to prove.

Narratives are an ever-evolving thing in the NFL, and few teams ever truly break out of the stratospheres they’ve been on for years. The more likely result for non-elite teams without great coaching is that they’ll bob up and down as their schedule and injuries dictate. The outside narrative might be different — look at all this talent the Texans have, there’s no way it should be missing the playoffs. Close observers have known O’Brien to be flawed and mostly one-dimensional for some time.

But if the results don’t match the talent, even the notoriously slow-to-act McNair family might have to shuffle the deck. I don’t think seven or eight wins is going to throw O’Brien in the danger window. But anything less than that and, even with three years left on the contract, the seat could get hot.

The more likely scenario is one that Texans fans will dread — a down year, no playoffs, and more excuses.

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