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.
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.