The reckoning of Bill O’Brien’s power

On late Friday night and early Saturday morning, as teams were making their roster cuts, we learned exactly how Bill O’Brien feels about his job security.

The Texans, in the midst of a losing battle with Jadeveon Clowney, either could not or would not try to undo four weeks of bitterness and in-fighting that was designed to send Clowney to Miami. O’Brien surrendered and gave Clowney away to the Seahawks for Jacob Martin, Barkevious MIngo, and a third-round pick. The Texans were likely to get the pick anyway, as Clowney would have received a large free-agent contract and the Texans could have recouped a third-rounder as a compensation pick at the very least. Seattle reporters were saying that Mingo was likely to be cut. Martin, who had three sacks last year, would be an unlikely success story if he somehow came out of the wilderness.

In surrendering two first-round picks to the Dolphins, O’Brien had to come clean with his failings. Matt Kalil was never a left tackle answer, which anyone with access to five years of statistics and viewings of him could see. Tytus Howard was not an NFL-ready left tackle on Day 1, and the Texans refused to budge up some picks to get Andre Dillard, who went one pick ahead of them. While O’Brien’s role in trading Duane Brown is more unknown, he certainly didn’t raise a stink about Brown getting sent away for a second-round pick that opened up the hole in the first place. The Brown trade is, at this point, the most important turning point in franchise history. The dominant storyline of the 2018 season that the Texans never adequately replaced Brown. Regardless of whether Deshaun Watson causes more sacks empirically (true!), the tackle play was so poor last season that it exacerbated the problem. The cap space that the Texans saved by dealing Brown was not spent until the Laremy Tunsil trade was consummated.


You employ a general manager to prevent the Laremy Tunsil trade from happening.

First-round picks don’t get traded very often in the NFL. They almost never get traded for established players. Odell Beckham could only fetch one first-round pick. Keyshawn Johnson fetched two. Khalil Mack fetched two. Ricky Williams. Jay Cutler. Jeff George. Herschel Walker. Fredd Young. Eric Dickerson. Jim Everett. The only player on the list of people who fetched two who we don’t think of as a waste of the picks is Mack, and that’s only because we don’t know the entire story of that trade yet because it’s so young.

Teams that are trading two first-round picks are expecting either a transformational result to their team, a window for winning now that will soon close, or both. I think Tunsil is both a really good left tackle and someone who can’t possibly live up to the billing of this price tag. I don’t think Joe Thomas or Anthony Munoz in their primes could live up to this price tag. The person I feel the most for with this trade as far as how his on-field stock will suffer is Tunsil — he may have more leverage than any tackle has ever had, but he is not an entire offensive line unto himself. He won’t make Nick Martin block better. He can’t make Howard be NFL-ready on Day 1. Left tackle was the biggest part of Houston’s offensive line failures, but it was hardly the only part. He has now become a talking point in the sacks debate — he’ll be memed relentlessly any time Watson takes multiple sacks in the same series — and he doesn’t really deserve that. The expectations that are about to be thrust on him are going to define his career more than his play.

The Texans were able to trade these picks because Bill O’Brien cares about keeping his job and nobody was there to stop him. In that regard, it reminds me a lot of Hue Jackson’s Carson Palmer trade with the Raiders in the early 2010s. The power dynamic was broken and fractured around a recently deceased owner, the head coach seized control, and the head coach made a move that benefits only the head coach. It took several years for the Raiders to even become a functional franchise again. The Texans are in a better place than that, but in dealing all of their upcoming first-round picks, they have locked themselves into their roster as it stands, plus whatever they’re able to come up with in free agency.

They made this win-now move without even trying to keep Jadeveon Clowney. The franchise tag has a dark irony here, because in trading Clowney, the needs of the franchise were put below those of the head coach.

Bill O’Brien needed Jadeveon Clowney to be gone, because winning power struggles is more important than winning football games. When he went all-in on trading for Tunsil, that crystallized harder than anything else. Because if this franchise was committed to winning now, Jadeveon Clowney should have been a big part of that.


Let us briefly consider the nature of these moves and how they affect the stock of the 2019 Houston Texans.

With Andrew Luck retired, the Texans entered Friday afternoon with about an even shot at winning the AFC South. Some are backing the Jaguars. I would have personally picked the Titans. I don’t think the Colts are hopeless — I think they’ve got a puncher’s chance as well.

Tunsil is a true star left tackle with Pro Bowl ability. He is a massive upgrade for Watson’s blind side. Per Sports Info Solutions he finished with only 12 blown blocks allowed in 818 snaps, and allowed just two sacks. That puts him just outside of the top 20 tackles in the NFL in terms of blown blocks per snap. He did have a lot of penalties — nine of them, and 21 in the last two seasons. But otherwise, I think you could say he’s clearly one of the ten best left tackles in the league. He could play up to a top-five ranking in time.

Kenny Stills is an intriguing deep threat that the Texans didn’t have last season after Will Fuller went down. DeAndre Hopkins can win deep. Keke Coutee, when healthy, could win deep. Fuller’s health has been in consistent flux. I think the easiest way to frame this acquisition is that it is one that stabilizes the range of outcomes. Nobody knows if Coutee will be healthy except O’Brien, because they don’t talk about injuries. Nobody knows if Fuller can play a full season. Stills can be 70 percent of Fuller. Stills didn’t get a chance to use his deep speed in Adam Gase’s snoreball offense.

In losing Clowney, the Texans have committed to getting no pass-rush up the middle at all. They have committed to needing Whitney Mercilus to win on the edge. (I do think Mercilus can do this, but obviously Mercilus is not Clowney and will not play up to Clowney’s level.)

I think these moves put them a lot more firmly in the driver’s seat of the AFC South. I don’t think they make the Texans Super Bowl-bound, and I don’t think they put the Texans with much more of a chance to repeat 11 wins than they were at before. But the floor has absolutely come up a bit with real protection for Watson and less targets aimed at the lower wideout depth chart that was mostly gashed on cutdown day.

I would still not be surprised if they missed the playoffs. But this is, yes, a win-now move that has the potential to pay off for O’Brien.


When this went down I was trying to think about the best way to discuss what happened to the Texans in longform, and I think how I want to go about this is to bring up new Texans spiritual guru Jack Easterby. Easterby has a Twitter. He tweeted this recently, which I’ve been meditating on for a few days:

Easterby’s Twitter is very religious (don’t worry, we won’t talk about that) and very focused on the motivational. He’s got life coach vibes, and my read of the situation from the outside is that he has influenced Bill O’Brien to live his life and accept that mistakes may happen. That it’s okay if mistakes happen. That growth can come from it.

Which is a great philosophy to have as a human, particularly if you live in as consequence-free of a bubble as an NFL head coach is when he removes anyone who would challenge him. Bill O’Brien could get fired tomorrow and immediately get offers to be a college head coach somewhere. He may even have cultivated enough fans in NFL circles to get a head job. At the very least, he could absolutely walk in somewhere as an offensive coordinator. His circumstances would not change very much. If I made a terrible mistake tomorrow and found myself homeless, I have friends to talk to, I could find some temp work somewhere. I would be down, but I could recover with resilience.

Football teams are not people. Football teams are crippled by mistakes. When SMU got the death penalty, they didn’t come back as a major college program. When the Browns were shooting themselves in the foot over and over again, it didn’t matter how many draft picks they had — they couldn’t scout to save their lives. The 49ers and Raiders each spent turns being the laughingstocks of the NFL because of their leaders feeling this need to make, as Easterby says in this Tweet, a huge impact. Part of being a good leader is understanding your weaknesses and your blind spots, and employing people to help you through them.

If, after acquiring Deshaun Watson, the Texans were run solely by a Madden AI General Manager who picked and re-signed their best players, went after only the best free agents, and only drafted players who were high on consensus media draft boards, I think they would be in a better position as an organization than they were today. They would have Brown, Clowney, two first-round picks, would probably have made a real run at a left tackle in the draft or in free agency. Would probably not have let Rodger Saffold get away from them over a small sum. Continued salary cap expansion means that they’re in no real danger of losing Watson as long as he wants to play here.

The impact that O’Brien is making is one crafted out of his desire to put his stamp on this. What happened this Saturday as O’Brien realized that his stamp on this season was a failure was desperation. The Texans are in a much better spot to overcome this than most teams, because they have hit on Watson. Had they decided to try a win-now, aggressive, strategy in the first place, they probably would not have gotten fleeced as badly as they did.

O’Brien is human. O’Brien is learning. O’Brien is definitely making a big impact. It is the organization that is suffering for his mistakes, not him.

Jadeveon Clowney should be more valuable to the Texans than Bill O’Brien

The Texans have tolerated Bill O’Brien’s front office politics. They have enabled him to run the team more or less his way without any interference. Rick Smith is gone. Brian Gaine is gone. Jack Easterby is in. This is the only team in the NFL without a general manager. None of the assistant coaches outside of Mike Vrabel has ever made a vertical move in coach free agency post-Texans, and O’Brien continues to hire lifelong nepotism candidates who have no relevant experience. Rather than reeling in an offensive coordinator that could sharpen his game, O’Brien hired his own tight ends coach. Nobody else in the “circle of power” has any hands-on football experience. O’Brien has convinced the only people who currently matter, Cal and the late Bob McNair, that he is executing a brilliant plan to turn the Texans into the Patriots.

While this has always been deeply stupid, because O’Brien doesn’t appear to have a master plan beyond the sound of his own voice, it hasn’t ever deeply impacted the Texans in a way that makes them lose star players. Duane Brown was traded to the Seahawks in 2017, causing an offensive line black hole that O’Brien has never shown any interest in actually solving, but there are at least credible sources tying the trade to Brown’s rift with the team over racist comments by the elder McNair. It was, again, deeply stupid, but not in a way that easily implicated O’Brien.

But we have reached a point where nobody else can be blamed: Bill O’Brien doesn’t want to give Jadeveon Clowney a long-term contract. The list of players who have recorded 20 sacks and 50 tackles for loss over the last three years runs four deep: Aaron Donald, Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, and Clowney. Clowney has been to three straight Pro Bowls. He was the only reason the Texans had any interior rush last season at all, because J.J. Watt was only permitted to play outside.

When you are literally the only football guy in the room, and you have $40 million in cap space and the franchise tag number to work with, there is no excuse for not signing a superstar defender to a long-term contract in the NFL. You either think he’s a superstar or you don’t, and if you don’t, you trade him before it ever gets to this point. That O’Brien thinks Clowney isn’t a star is, I would guess, probably about his lack of availability early in his career as well as him watching Clowney come into the league as an immature 21-year-old.

Let’s take a step back and reassess Bill O’Brien’s head coaching career

The most charitable way to explain O’Brien’s career is to talk about how he commands the respect of his players and that he makes good adjustments. When Tom Savage was found lacking in early 2017 and O’Brien had to commit to Deshaun Watson, he went all-in on Watson’s positives. The offense averaged 33 points per game, led by play-action, read-option, and attacking the middle of the field with Watson. When the team desperately needed a win against the Jaguars in Week 17, he went and involved Watson in a dead running attack and rejuvenated it.

But he never pre-emptively does these things. If his adjustments are b-plus, his default game plan is ruinous. The players that he goes out of his way to sign in free agency have been woeful for the Texans. Brock Osweiler was a boondoggle. Aaron Colvin wasn’t even playing by the end of his first season. Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete made zero impact on the offensive line. When he did hit on Tyrann Mathieu, the one-year deal made it impossible to retain him without giving him a contract that O’Brien will never hand out to a non-quarterback. You all see how Matt Kalil is working out in real-time.

A game plan well-ground out.

O’Brien’s default game plan is to run the ball and play conservative. When the conservative game script does not shake out for any reason, the Texans lose. They are 4-32 when they allow 22 or more points under O’Brien. They’re 3-15 in one-score games in which they allow 22 or more points. Two of those wins, in both cases, are overtime wins. The clock management and situational playcalling have ranged from bad to hilarious at times. He was running J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork plays down 19-0 in a playoff game. O’Brien will challenge a spot and fail at it on a routine basis, lacking the basic understanding that those plays are nearly impossible to overturn.

Of course, O’Brien often talks about how he’s got to do some tidbit — or in some cases, the entire job — of coaching better after he gets pantsed by better coaches in playoff games or random regular season blowouts. He never puts in that time to get better. Fans get the same shoddy game management and that same utter shock that anybody would ever understand how to beat the team’s default strategy season after season. That he finds fault with Clowney, someone who actually has improved a lot, is deeply ironic. Projection, apparently, isn’t something that O’Brien only saves for offensive linemen with bodies he likes.

I would submit to you that an optimistic viewing of O’Brien’s tenure throughout the NFL would lead to him being called average. He’s got clear, glaring flaws and, given how the landscape of the NFL has changed so much in the past three years between analytics and fourth-down play calling, I think even an O’Brien booster would have to concede that he’s old-fashioned. This discrepancy is only going to get deeper as more teams hire for fresher ideas while imitating success.

The future of Jadeveon Clowney

We need to start off by saying that the future of an NFL player’s career is extremely complicated because attrition is so high. Clowney can step on a faulty field turf square tomorrow and never be the same player. He definitely has had his share of injuries, and past microfracture surgery is going to turn off a section of his potential market that is risk-hesitant.

At the same time, Clowney’s peers consider him one of the best players in the NFL. He’s been voted among the top 100 players in each of the last three years, and, as noted above, he has a rare knack for blowing up plays in the backfield. Even the arguments that would rely on how J.J. Watt draws double teams blow up a bit when you realize that Clowney spent much of last season at stand-up linebacker because Watt couldn’t be moved inside. He was the more valuable piece for the Texans last year on account of his versatility, in my view.

If Clowney were declared a legitimate free agent today, he’d definitely sign a $100 million contract. He might sign a record-breaking contract, though that depends more on whether a team fully fell in love with his personality and attitude. The last two EDGE players who got big free-agent contracts are Trey Flowers (five years, $90 million, $56 million in guarantees) in 2019 and Olivier Vernon (five years, $85 million, $52.5 million in guarantees) in 2017. Neither player has Clowney’s track record or seasonal ceiling.

Because Clowney came into the league so young, he would have hit free agency in his sixth season at just 26 years old. Considering many of the best pass rushers in the NFL today play well into their 30s, I think he profiles as mostly only an injury risk. I suppose if you want to look on the pessimistic side, players who win with power and speed rather than technique tend to age swiftly. I think Clowney has developed some good technique along the way as well, but that tends to be an eye of the beholder thing.

Mario Williams wound up in pretty much this same situation, hit free agency, scored a six-year, $96 million deal with $25 million in guarantees that he saw 2/3rds of. What’s that Secret of Mana opening scene flying into my head to tell me? Time flows like a river, and history repeats. They even both went to Carolina colleges. Williams peaked at about 14.1% of a team’s cap — if you convert that into 2019 dollars, Clowney would have a cap figure of $26.3 million. That’s more than Demarcus Lawrence, who was not a free agent, will ever have on a single year of his contract.

The Texans finally were able to get over the hump as a defense when they drafted J.J. Watt and installed Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. People tend to disparage Williams for this, but there were no signs that he wouldn’t have been a standout in that system had he not torn his pectoral. He’d already produced five sacks in five games. He gathered 38 in three years in Buffalo before Rex Ryan got too cute for his own good in 2015. Williams’ issues with being a “winning player” were more about Houston’s reluctance to sign defensive coordinators off a non-Gary Kubiak approved list. Sound familiar?

What does the future look like for both of these two?

It is, unfortunately, impossible for Cal McNair to realize that Bill O’Brien doesn’t understand how to make this team good. What O’Brien has done is isolate McNair from anybody who would dare question O’Brien’s football knowledge. Cal McNair isn’t going to read this post. He’s already invested a four-year contract extension of trust in O’Brien. This is a bleak future to talk about. O’Brien is going to go as far as the talent takes him, and he’s never going to believe in the talent of anyone who doesn’t fit his preferred psychological mold.

If you’re a player for O’Brien and you see him isolating Clowney like this, why would you ever expect to be rewarded? Is that the kind of example you think is a good idea to impress upon your young star quarterback who has yet to be paid?

Let’s pretend there was a person in the front office who had the roles we typically associate with a general manager. Let’s call him, say, a general manager. That person would look at the value that Clowney provides any franchise, then look at the value that O’Brien is providing this franchise. This would not be a hard decision as far as who to keep, if it’s one or the other. NFL teams take on the personalities of their coaches, and the Texans under O’Brien are conservative to an extreme in an NFL landscape that is quickly becoming about calculated aggression. Clowney is one of the most talented edge players in the NFL and, even at a market value contract, is likely to return three solid years of value.

That general manager would probably understand that Clowney has more value to the franchise than O’Brien does. And that’s exactly why there is no general manager.

Will Bill O’Brien’s plan for Duke Johnson be worth the price of admission?

I’ve been an unabashed supporter of the idea of picking up a real receiving threat at running back for some time. Houston had brief flirtations with players like Andre Ellington, but never filled the role, instead having Lamar Miller as a pseudo-three-down back while Alfred Blue played a series here or there.

One of the most obvious of obvious fits here was Duke Johnson. The Texans had cap space to absorb his fairly sizable contract (for a running back), and Johnson was disgruntled with Cleveland and their move to pick up Kareem Hunt.

I’m a huge fan of the player. I’m not as huge of a fan of the price. Let’s talk about what Johnson can offer to the team first.

On a pure X’s and O’s level, Johnson gives the Texans a legitimate threat to catch the ball when they go empty with Deshaun Watson, which is one of Watson’s favorite ways to play:

Johnson has the speed and skill to emulate what Arian Foster did for the Texans in 2014 and 2015, as the only receiver to ever catch more than 2.5 balls a game under O’Brien. Johnson, I would argue, is more explosive with the ball in his hands in space than Foster is. He’s also a more natural receiver of the ball. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from how the Texans deployed Foster.

Foster had a stretch from Weeks 5-7 in 2015 where he averaged over seven receptions per game. It ended only because he tore his Achilles in a nothing play at the end of a rainy day in Miami. (I always thought it was poetic that he hurt himself there and that he played for Miami given his first coming out party was against the Dolphins in 2009.) At the time, Houston’s non-Hopkins receivers were Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts III, and Keith Mumphery. It was a target void waiting to be filled, and Foster was the easy offense.

Foster was able to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers, and it gave the Texans an edge that they couldn’t find outside or in the slot. What I think Texans fans should be excited about is that Watson’s ability to loft the ball is one of his finest skills, and I think he’ll be able to guide Duke Johnson to space fairly easily:

In a best-case world, Johnson is a difference maker for an offense that focuses on how he, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller are so difficult to completely cover at the same time. He spreads the defense out further, he’s effective running out of shotgun, and he’s got terrific tackle-breaking ability. Per Sports Info Solutions, Johnson broke 20 tackles in just 87 touches last season. Lamar Miller had 27 in more-than-double the touch amount. If the Texans commit to Johnson as more of an every-down back when the game is close and leave the ground-and-pound for running out the clock, they’ve got the makings of a dynamic offense.

But, what is a more realistic approximation of what will happen? And why was that price so high?

Let’s assume that the Texans continue to start Lamar Miller because of seniority and he is still the main back on first- and second-down as long as Houston isn’t in comeback mode. You have cut how impactful Johnson can be.

O’Brien’s offense rarely throws to running backs. It bottomed out at 67 targets last year, and has been as high as 114 in 2015 when Foster briefly ran the show. But the context of those Foster targets is that the team had no other real receiving threats. Only three Texans on the entire roster hit more than 300 receiving yards that year, and the highest non-Hopkins player was Washington at 658. What the Texans are looking at currently is Hopkins, Will Fuller, Keke Coutee (if healthy), and a burgeoning collection of young tight ends. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed. I find it a lot harder to believe that Johnson is going to be utilized like Foster was simply because the surrounding talent should keep O’Brien from trying to solve a problem.

We also have to take into account the rest of the context of this move:
— The Texans got caught with their pants down when they released D’Onta Foreman. To have no experienced depth on hand is a sign of poor risk management. Even if they thought Foreman was a “hard worker” coming into the camp (whatever that means) and liked his personality there, they should have been concerned in advance about his Achilles recovery and made a backup back a real priority. The “need” that the Texans had for a back was caused by cascade move after cascade move of poor roster management. And I think you all know who is likely to blame for this, because this team currently has no general manager!

— I think Johnson’s a great player, but I don’t think he’s a versatile enough to deliver what O’Brien is going to want from him if they run him in base sets with Watson under center. Johnson is going to come in through most of the bonding of camp and be forced into learning a new playbook, new landmarks with new teammates, and have to deliver on the fly. What happens if he fumbles twice in his first four games? You can’t really bench Johnson, but it would make total sense that he’d be more mistake-prone early on in the season.

— You can find 70-to-80 percent of Duke Johnson’s most impressive skill on the free-agent market for pennies on the dollar. Part of the reason I advocated trading for him is that I thought the Browns would be so fed up that they’d be willing to take a lower-round pick than he was worth. Ty Montgomery was a one-year deal. Darren Sproles was hanging around all offseason. Corey Grant. Jacquizz Rodgers. Theo Riddick was available for free last week. It’s not hard to find an NFL back that can do most of what Johnson does. You use that as leverage.

Instead, the Texans gave up what will likely be a third-round pick for Johnson (it will be a fourth-rounder if he gets hurt). That’s just a mind-boggling pick request and acceptance from Bill O’Brien. No back has gone for more than that on the trade market since Trent Richardson. I’m not a Running Backs Don’t Matter guy, but you have to have your head buried in the sand to not understand that backs are devalued and that you don’t have to pay market value for them.

When expressing this opinion on internet hellscape Twitter, I was immediately assailed by Texans fans that the Texans have compensation picks and aren’t good at mid-round drafting anyway, and also they had a glaring need. Well, here are my rebuttals:

1) That doesn’t devalue the third-round pick for everyone else,
2) If your talent evaluator can’t hit a third-round pick, one of the main building blocks of an NFL roster today, why is he still employed?
3) Might be a good idea to not get mad at your backup running back and release him before you give up all of your trade leverage!

Where I’m at on this trade is that the best-case scenarios of it happen in Houston’s worst-case scenarios. If Johnson gets hurt and they get to keep the third, that’s beneficial. If other players get hurt and O’Brien has to build an offense around Johnson, I can see it being beneficial. It raises the floor of the offense, and it raises the ceiling of the offense, but both of those rely on O’Brien finding the right way to use Johnson.

Without extraordinary revamping that we rarely see from O’Brien, I would be surprised if Johnson was targeted and used enough to provide value requisite to the third-round pick.

But his best plays are going to be fun as hell to watch.