The Optimist’s Guide to Bill O’Brien

To say that Houston Texans fans have not reacted well to seeing a 24-0 lead against the Chiefs pulled out from under them would be true. It’s also to be expected. Many fans don’t believe that the Texans will advance past the divisional round as long as Bill O’Brien is the head coach. Many writers, analysts, and similar football minds have made that claim as well. The writer of this post would concede that it is highly unlikely, though perhaps not impossible.

Texans fandom on a 30,000-foot level is what happens when you crack inferiority complex (Cowboys fans everywhere) and disbelief into an omelette. There are many fans who Chicken Little the team’s problems and have wanted to fire everybody since 2015. There’s also a backlash against any negativity from our “true fans” in the community — people who are tired of the whining and want to hear that the team is going to win, even if that isn’t necessarily supported by the facts. That takes form as something like this, for example (yanked from Battle Red Blog comments section):

(Omitted name so as to not shame.)

So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to write a post that is extremely charitable to Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. It is going to change absolutely nothing, and the whole point of writing it is to prove that it’s going to change absolutely nothing. The “true fans” have long ago decided that because I have some negative takes on O’Brien — regardless of whatever positive I have to say about him — that my opinions don’t matter and that I am a hater. The people who already saw me as a reasoned voice will continue to understand the context of the article. The people who are only following because they don’t like Bill O’Brien will argue against the piece.

My point of view is that he’s a flawed head coach. But I actually think the people arguing in favor of O’Brien don’t use the right method of thinking to elucidate what he’s good at. They want to point at division titles and wins, but neither of those things are going to hold a lot of sway to the main contention that O’Brien isn’t good enough to get the Texans over the hump. Their argument is generally one of scarcity: If O’Brien isn’t good enough, who has proven he is? (Nobody. Very few coaches have ever reached that level that become available. Bill Parcells could essentially call up anybody he wanted in his prime and go there, few coaches are even on that level.)

We spend 80% of our lives in lizard-brain mode, trying so hard to hold on to whatever we believe that we’re unwilling to change our point of view. In that way, we are actually not unlike Bill O’Brien! So, in that spirit, here’s how I’d argue that O’Brien is good if you want to take that tact:

1 — Bill O’Brien improved on fourth-down decisions this year:

O’Brien shifted his thinking on fourth downs in 2019. The Texans attempted 25 fourth-down attempts this year. In 2018, they attempted 12. In 2017, 10. Now, it’s true that the amount of fourth-down attempts in and of themselves can be influenced by other things, but I think this year O’Brien went for it on a number of aggressive fourth-downs that other coaches wouldn’t. In the Oakland game, he got Jon Gruden riled up by going for it in his own territory at the start of the third quarter:

He went for it in his own territory towards the end of the second quarter in Week 14’s pantsing against the Broncos — a move that I think he had to pull given the game situation — and that didn’t work out as well. But I think it was empirically the right call.

The Texans made clear strides towards being more aggressive as an offense this year, and that was why O’Brien was in the top 10 of EdjSports’ CCI ranking as of midseason. CCI measures out how a coach fared with his opportunities against their statistical models. While O’Brien faltered a bit down the stretch, finishing at 15 after some incredibly weird decisions in the Tampa Bay game, he improved in this area this year.

2 — Estimated Wins loves Bill O’Brien

Over his six seasons in Houston, Bill O’Brien’s Texans have not always been good. What they have usually done is wound up with a win total above the quality of their team. This year, for example, the Texans had an estimated wins total per Football Outsiders of 7.3. They won 10 games. In every season except for 2017 — where Watson and J.J. Watt got hurt — O’Brien has outperformed his team’s statistical ranking. At 12.64 wins above estimated over six seasons, O’Brien’s team essentially wins two extra games per season more than they should.

If I compare that against some of the AFC’s best, it’s pretty impressive. New England, for instance, have added just 7.1 wins over estimated in the same time frame. The Chiefs have added just 0.3 wins over estimated with Andy Reid. The other long-term fixture in the AFC, Pittsburgh, has added just 3.1.

Now, do they have a cream puff schedule in some of these years? Absolutely. But this is literally the same argument people make against the Patriots’ division championships being unimpressive.

It is undeniable that O’Brien’s teams have outperformed their raw numbers often. Sometimes to a ridiculous extent. Some of these are what I’ve termed BOB games — I have no idea how they won, but they did. (Week 15 @ Tennessee this year is a good example of a BOB game.) Some of them might be something that his coaching creates. But you have to give him credit for winning what he has.

3 — The flashes are amazing

Week 6 against the Chiefs, even with Patrick Mahomes injured, I believe the Texans are about to get slaughtered by an offense that is set to wreak havoc on their undermanned defense.

Out of nowhere, the Texans come out with a brand new read-option/run-pass option-heavy system and slaughter Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. They were down 10-0 and it didn’t matter a damn bit.

The Texans couldn’t run against anybody towards the end of 2018. O’Brien pushed Deshaun Watson into the driver’s seat to deliver a 20-3 win over the Jaguars to clinch the division crown in Week 17. Watson runs 13 times for 66 yards and a touchdown.

Whenever O’Brien actually puts his whole brain into defeating a team, he so obviously comes up with good ideas that work. That he does it so rarely is heartbreaking and, I imagine, a problem that’s hard to delegate away when you make yourself the only person in the spotlight. But it also means that you can never truly count the Texans out of any game they play in.

This is hands down the most frustrating thing about being a Texans fan to me as things are currently situated.

4 — He’s finally beating teams that are good

Last year, the Texans beat the Chiefs in Kansas City, beat the Patriots at home, and beat the Titans on the road to set up their division title. The only embarrassment by a good team on the regular season ledger was against the Ravens — they played well against the Saints and lost on a last-second field goal.

You used to be able to set your watch to O’Brien teams losing against good teams. The Colts with Luck. The Patriots. The Jaguars in 2017. The Chiefs. The Steelers. Entering 2019, O’Brien was 8-23 against quarterbacks with a 60+ QBR.

He’s finally beating teams that are good. Deshaun Watson probably has a say in this, but it is an important distinction when we are looking at how likely O’Brien is to win going forward.

5 — O’Brien at GM means Winning is the Ethos

I think Bill O’Brien has been pretty short-sighted as a general manager in that I don’t think the team should have given up multiple first-round picks for Laremy Tunsil, because Tunsil did not solve the need that the Texans had to protect Deshaun Watson. The plays are supposed to protect Watson, and I think they need to grow to enable quicker/easier hot reads.

But what you cannot argue so far is that general manager O’Brien places winning above all else. Nobody else in football would make a trade so lopsided just to keep things in line to win this year. When you look at all that went right for them, and how close they were to playing the Titans at home in the AFC Championship game, it’s important to know that as much as it sometimes feels like the Texans are fighting an uphill battle, all they need are a few breaks to go their way. The Jadeveon Clowney trade stands out in contrast to this, but I think from O’Brien’s perspective he was removing a negative locker room influence — I think that was a cultural trade in his mind, and one that was probably made with a lot of Jack Easterby influence.

Do you know how many fanbases want their team to try to win? Let me single out some teams I think have fans that justifiably complain about their current situations: Jacksonville, the Chargers, Detroit, the Jets, the Giants, Cincinnati, Miami. Now, there’s something to be said for the idea of trying to win in an idiotic way — but ultimately, 31 teams don’t win every year. All it takes is one splash of luck for an idiot to be considered a genius. The Bears and Rams probably have a lot of regrets about how things unfolded this year. We might have some regrets about how the end of the Bill O’Brien Era plays out, whenever that is.

But we can’t deny that he is willing to make risky moves to win. It means the Texans are always committed to being in the pack, even if perhaps they never do enough to be considered the leaders of the pack.


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Five Thoughts on Elevating Anthony Weaver to Defensive Coordinator

On Monday, the Texans elevated defensive line coach Anthony Weaver to defensive coordinator while removing Romeo Crennel from the job. As I covered in last week’s post about the Chiefs blowup, I do think Crennel’s defense has had a problem with top-notch quarterbacks that can’t be ignored if the Texans are hoping to take the next step.

Anthony Weaver was an interesting choice because, even though he fits the mold of a Mike Vrabel, I haven’t heard a lot about other teams being interested in poaching Weaver via promotion. That doesn’t mean Weaver is a bad choice or that his tenure will wind up being bad — it just means that this is a big bet on a young coordinator.

Anyway, the thoughts:

1 — The process continues to be Bill O’Brien-centric

The very first Texans post of this blog was about how Bill O’Brien hired Tim Kelly to be offensive coordinator. In making that pick, O’Brien rewarded loyalty rather than trying to find established minds to help temper his own view of things. It was a bet on Bill O’Brien more than it was a bet on Tim Kelly. Nothing really changed with Kelly on staff in 2019, other than the fact that his press conferences were the dullest things to ever be broadcast.

When Crennel stepped down, the search for his replacement didn’t even take three hours. There were no interviews, there were no new minds brought in to give fresh input. It was straight to Weaver. Now, if the Texans are lucky, it’ll be bad process -> good result. But O’Brien continues to double down on making sure there are no other experienced offensive or defensive minds in the building. The only person on staff with non-Texans OC/DC experience is QB coach Carl Smith, who last coordinated an NFL offense in 2006.

2 — This immediately brought to mind Frank Bush

In Gary Kubiak’s first two seasons, he was held back by one of the worst defenses in the NFL, one that was coordinated by his friend Richard Smith, who had one season of experience with the 2005 Dolphins. After Smith could do absolutely nothing with the talent on hand for three seasons, the Texans hired Frank Bush as Smith’s replacement.

Bush, who had already been on the staff (check) as a defensive assistant (check), was an extremely complacent pick. Bush had a mediocre year in 2009. then followed that up with one of the worst defensive seasons of the modern era in 2010 — one where the Texans finished last in passing DVOA allowed while Kareem Jackson was dunked on by any team that could throw. One where the defense refused to blitz, as I wrote way back in the day — Jesus am I getting old when my Google search results take me to my own writing.

After he was fired, the Texans hired an extremely experienced defensive mind in Wade Phillips and drafted J.J. Watt. I’m not saying this is how that’ll shake up, but the circumstances feel similar.

3 — How much will Weaver take from Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine?

Weaver’s first NFL coaching jobs were with Ryan’s Jets and, after a one-year stint in Buffalo with Doug Marrone, with Pettine’s Browns for two seasons. That whole staff got shredded — as things in Cleveland do — and Weaver washed up in Houston.

Ryan, who was Weaver’s coordinator with the Ravens when Weaver was a player, in particular seems to hold a lot of Weaver’s mind. Both Seth Payne/Sean Pendergast spoke on his influence on Weaver on the radio, and Aaron Wilson wrote an article for the Chronicle interviewing Ryan on Weaver’s chance.

The Ryan brothers had a bit of a rude awakening as a duo as the NFL continued to evolve in the 2010s. If you don’t remember Rex Ryan’s Buffalo tenure well, it became an opposite day scenario where Tyrod Taylor of all people came in and made the offense viable with Greg Roman, but Ryan’s defense held the team back. Mario Williams vocally complained about his role. It was a little overly cute as a whole, with a lot of droppers and amoeba looks (everyone bunched at the line) that didn’t really confuse some of the NFL’s best quaterbacks.

So where does that leave the Texans? I don’t know, and I don’t think we’ll know for sure until we see the plays on the field. On paper, combining the tactics of Crennel and Ryan could create some very odd looks for an offense. Certainly the idea of Weaver keeping it simple as opposed to complex goes against that:

One area that might be interesting is how many defensive backs the Texans play. Towards the beginning of his tenure with the Jets, Ryan’s defenses innovated by playing an obscene amount of defensive backs. The Texans had a dime package last year, but it wasn’t their only third-down look. If it becomes their only third-down look, that could make spending more on defensive backs a priority.

4 — Where does this leave J.J. Watt?

One of the biggest questions I have about this defense going forward — and one of Crennel’s biggest failings — is that J.J. Watt didn’t rush inside often. That doesn’t necessarily have to be Crennel’s fault. It may be a Watt thing, it may be an injury reduction thing where they’re protecting Watt from cheap shots. But because of how Crennel played it, they never really got Jadeveon Clowney, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus on the field at the same time. Putting Watt inside last year was devastating, as Atlanta learned:

One of the easiest ways for the Texans to improve is to get better at rushing the passer. One of the easiest ways to do that is to bring in an actual replacement for Clowney in either the draft or free agency, then put Watt inside on passing downs.

I’m not saying this is all Weaver has to do to quick-fix the defense, but just that move would make a big difference as far as rushing, particularly if they were able to keep D.J. Reader and ask the offense to win three one-on-ones against four solid-to-good rushers.

Ultimately, outside of dumping a top-100 NFL player for peanuts because he wasn’t a BOB guy, Watt not playing inside more has been the biggest reason this defense hasn’t reached its potential. Is that going to change?

5 – The recent history of NFL DCs with no experience at the position hasn’t been great

Let’s look at currently employed NFL DCs who hadn’t had a coordinator job in college or the pros before taking their current job.

SF — Robert Saleh — Has had a great year, with the 49ers finishing second in defensive DVOA. But the two years to get there were 26th and 23rd, and the 49ers invested a ton of money (Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman) and draft capital (Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Deforest Buckner) to get to where they are today.
PIT — Keith Butler — Almost the same story. Third in defensive DVOA this year, but has struggled mightily over the four years before it and needed a massive talent infusion (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steven Nelson) in the secondary to turn things around.

Every other defensive coordinator that finished in the top 15 in defensive DVOA last season had some previous experience as either a college coordinator or an NFL coordinator. The only first-year, first-time coordinator I could find from last season was Miami’s Patrick Graham, who finished last in defensive DVOA. If you look at Houston’s history with it — I grant you that this happened in a Watt injury season — Mike Vrabel’s defensive coordinator work wasn’t stellar. In fact, I thought it was an upgrade for the Texans when the Titans hired him.

Again, that doesn’t mean that Weaver is a bad pick. It doesn’t mean that Weaver will be bad. But try to look at this from a probabilities standpoint — even if you think he will eventually be a good coordinator, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen in his first year. I am coming into this year with tempered expectations for this defense. Absolutely rooting for Weaver, especially because of the lack of minority defensive coordinators in the NFL today, but I don’t think we have a lot of reasons to believe in an instant turnaround right now.


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11:38 of hell: A gory, blow-by-blow look at how the Texans blew a 24-point lead in one quarter

This is your last chance to click out of the article.

With 12:28 left in the second quarter, the Texans achieved their highest EdjSports game-winning chance of the game: 84.5%. That number is derived not only from game states, but an evaluation of the two teams as a whole. So even though the lead was already enormous, you could already see a mathematical system being a little uncertain how much it meant. From a perspective of eyes on the field, the Chiefs had gone three-and-out twice, with two dropped passes and perhaps the only great Texans defensive play of the game: Justin Reid’s break up of a pass intended for Tyreek Hill.

They had a first-and-10 at the Kansas City 22, one more touchdown would put them up 28-0. Not only would they have hosted an AFC Championship game for the first time in franchise history, they would have avoided the Ravens, who spanked them 42-7 in Week 11. It was an opportunity of fortune that just simply doesn’t come along every day.

Over the next 11:38 of game time, the Texans gave up 28 consecutive points, and their GWC fell to 15.7%. Let’s look at why that happened. I’ll use as many interviews as I have to add color to this, but keep in mind that most Texans players only spoke in generalities after the game and didn’t speak to specific plays. Romeo Crennel was never interviewed on the record. What we have is a lot of Bill O’Brien talk, which I know is a massive turn-off to many fans.

OK, I warned you and gave you an intro. Let’s melt together.


1st-and-10, KC 22, 12:28 second quarter, 84.5% GWC

On first down, the Texans ran with Carlos Hyde. I’ve written all year about what a bugaboo the first-down runs have been, and I’ve written many times about my distaste of Chris Clark having a starting job. Here, both Clark and a pulling Zach Fulton blew blocks and what starts out looking like a very clean run goes for one yard:

Second-and-9, KC 21, 11:53 second quarter, 83.8% GWC

The Texans ran play-action on their next down, and the natural action of the play took Deshaun Watson to the right side, where Darren Fells was one-on-one with Tanoh Kpassagnon to hold the edge and Watson was looking up Will Fuller deep. Both Kansas City safeties played this well, and the first read was covered. Kpassagnon beat Fells and, even though DeAndre Hopkins was open to the left side, the scramble and the natural motion of the play kept the Texans away from exploiting that. Watson had to throw it away.

Third-and-9, KC 21, 11:46 second quarter, 82.3% GWC

The Texans took a timeout before their third play, when they couldn’t get their protection set in time. Something that has literally never happened every game in the O’Brien Era — it just feels like it has. They didn’t line up until there were 11 seconds on the play clock. They came right back with another deep route combo, and the Chiefs countered by faking blitz and dropping everyone deep. Watson’s only real read was the short game, and Duke Johnson came ever so close to picking it up, but he just couldn’t get there:

Fourth-and-1, KC 13, 10:58 second quarter, 81.3% GWC

Bill O’Brien kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 13. Many people I followed on Twitter in the moment decided that this was the moment that momentum shifted. Per EdjSports, the decision to kick the field goal cost the Texans 2.5% game-winning chance — their metric that examines game states.

I didn’t take much issue with the field-goal attempt. Here’s why: Andy Reid is a fairly conservative coach in his own right. He attempts plenty of fourth-and-midfield punts, and he attempts plenty of fourth-and-short field goals. It’s true that, from an optimized game theory sense, the Texans were leaving a four-score lead on the board. It’s also true that, given how Reid typically plays, the Texans likely were creating a four-score lead.

What I did take issue with on this drive comes from a lack of consistency in O’Brien’s statements. He said multiple times in his presser that he knew he needed to be aggressive. He also had to waste two timeouts. I think when O’Brien gets pissed off, he cascades himself with other bad decisions. I don’t think this was a bad decision from a 30,000-foot view, but when you view it in context with the fake punt, it’s a little more puzzling.

This play was the last play where the ball would be in Kansas City territory until 4:28 in the second quarter.


Kickoff, 10:54 second quarter, 81.6% GWC

Kickoff coverage breakdowns are not my forte, but I do want to point out on Mecole Hardman’s 58-yard return that gave the Chiefs some life that it did look like he got sprung a bit on a hold that impacted A.J. Moore’s ability to make the tackle:

Is that something that merits a ton of scrutiny? Man, I don’t think so. Obviously I want the Texans to win, and special teams have been called so tightly this year, but it didn’t mean a ton in the context of this game. That little hold there created a crease. Home-field advantage is a bitch. Note that Lonnie Johnson gets injured on this play, so the Texans have to go with Mike Adams on the next set of plays. Justin Reid is no longer playing deep and gets moved up.

First-and-10, HOU 46, 10:46 second quarter, 77.7% GWC

It took the Chiefs two (2) plays to answer with a touchdown. The first play came off play-action, with the Texans playing single-high with Adams. Adams has to commit to the post over the middle, which leaves Reid on Travis Kelce one-on-one. Great play on both sides, and it took a terrific throw by Mahomes to hit this angle and avoid the underneath zone tip. Just gotta tip your cap on that one:

First-and-10, HOU 17, 10:00 second quarter, 75.0% GWC

The next play was where the Chiefs broke Romeo Crennel’s rules. They motioned the running back Williams in to confirm coverage, but motioned him to the other side of Mahomes. As you can see from the checks, the Texans linebackers are frantically confirming that this means that Jacob Martin is in coverage. One pick play against an inexperienced coverage player later, the Chiefs are on the board:

And so it began…


First-and-10, HOU 25, 9:55 second quarter, 70.9% GWC

The Texans received a touchback and on the first play of the drive, ran with Carlos Hyde again. They pulled Tunsil across the line of scrimmage and got a good block, but once again Zach Fulton struggled to make a reach block, limiting the play to five yards:

Second-and-5, HOU 30, 9:16 second quarter, 71.4% GWC

Successful running play! Second down, the Chiefs run an eight-man box and Bill O’Brien runs directly into it. Not so successful running play!

Third-and-4, HOU 31, 8:35 second quarter, 70.6% GWC

But still, third-and-short, the Texans are able to keep the drive alive. The Chiefs show another blitz look, and throws short and outside to a single-covered Will Fuller. The ball is not even in the right area code. I’m not sure if it was a miscommunication or a straight up miss — this is what happens when your receiver never plays:

Fourth-and-4, HOU 31, 8:32 second quarter, 66.4% GWC

So now we have the fake punt. This is the play where I think momentum really swung, and I say that and I don’t altogether hate the call. It’s just how that call and the field-goal call sort of intersect: They’re not telling a consistent story. The play was schemed well, it took Daniel Sorensen coming from the middle of the field and beating Reid to the spot:

In a vacuum, is this a bad play call? No. They have to run it with Reid because he’s part of the normal look. I don’t think Reid has any running back experience at even a college level, which is annoying. But what ends up happening is you get a look and the opposing special teams player makes a great one-on-one tackle.

O’Brien said that he thought he had to score more than 24:

Andy Reid said he liked the call:

I don’t hate the fake punt, but there was an aspect of it that felt a little panicked to me. Almost like a residual “well, I didn’t get aggressive downfield but now I’m gonna flip the knob and take that momentum right back, sucker!” vibe. The thing about being aggressive on a play like this is that if you don’t get it, it can break you. It broke the Ravens not converting fourth-and-short on Saturday as well. And, well, the wind came out of the sails quickly for the Texans after this.


First-and-10, HOU 33, 8:28 second quarter, 58.7% GWC

The Texans defense got tough and allowed a touchdown in only four plays instead of two. Much improved!

Mahomes takes a shot against Vernon Hargreaves with Mecole Hardman on the outside. The safety on this play reads Tyreek Hill all the way, and then comes back to the other side late, leaving Hargreaves and Roby essentially on an island with their receivers. The ball looks like a wounded duck, but the Texans don’t capitalize on a potentially interceptable ball because Hargreaves has to play Hardman all the way with no help behind him:

Second-and-10, HOU 33, 8:23 second quarter, 60.1% GWC

On the next play, the Lonnie Johnson-Jason Kelce matchup that had been bubbling officially got cooking for the Chiefs, as Kelce left him a step behind at the line. Johnson got called for the DPI on this play. He was lucky the ball was underthrown:

First-and-goal, HOU 5, 8:17 second quarter, 53.5% GWC

First-and-goal from the 5, the Chiefs come out and run jet motion in the backfield and fake the handoff, then have Kelce come underneath. It’s actually read well by Hargreaves, who funnels Kelce to the sideline and breaks the pass up:

Second-and-goal, HOU 5, 8:11 second quarter, 54.8% GWC

Second-and-goal from the 5, the Chiefs hit pay dirt again. It’s a bunch to the right with a single-high safety, and Kelce and Johnson on the other side of the formation. Kelce actually tricks Johnson here with a stutter like he’s stopping, then continues his route to the right. Johnson kept fairly good coverage, but not good enough. Mahomes was able to buy enough time to get down in his route tree to Kelce.

Well, okay, guess the Texans have to score next series…


…Or not…

Kickoff — 8:05 second quarter, 51.5% GWC

If the game turned on the fake punt, I think DeAndre Carter’s fumble was the moment that we collectively knew that the Chiefs were about to win the game. Carter, as Mike Meltser said on his podcast, has been asking for this fumble for a while. I don’t quite know if releasing him is right — as Mike said — because he does seem to know his role in the offense in a world where Keke Coutee doesn’t. (According to O’Brien, anyway.) But he is a replaceable talent in the grander NFL landscape and this was a stomach punch.

It was the most important play of the game per EdjSports’ GWC. Cost the Texans 17.7% GWC.


It took the Chiefs three plays to score this time.

First-and-goal, HOU 6, 7:56 second quarter, 33.8% GWC

Their first play went for two yards to Kelce — I’m starting to believe they think Kelce provided matchup problems or something — they ran another play-action with Kelce rolling underneath. They were attacking the Texans horizontally, as teams should, and Johnson has to go a long way to make this play. That he makes it at all is a credit to him, but man does this defense force some poor positions:

Second-and-goal, HOU 4, 7:20 second quarter, 35.4% GWC

The Chiefs took a break from all their wild passing success and decided to run, it didn’t work. Zach Cunningham destroyed this play in the open-field:

Third-and-goal, HOU 6, 6:37 second quarter, 39.0% GWC

The Chiefs come out in a bigger set for third-and-goal, and the Texans actually swap coverage on the right side of the field to help Kelce. Unfortunately, Gareon Conley overruns the coverage to the outside. I’m not sure if that’s a scheme rule or if that’s just a mistake. Either way, he leaves enough space for Kelce to get his second touchdown:

At that point it was 24-21, and the game was officially bungled. The only question was if it could be pulled back.


First-and-10, HOU 25, 6:31 second quarter, 31.8% GWC

Houston opened in empty, with Hopkins in the slot, and got a matchup against linebacker Damien Wilson, shaded to play the run/slant. Hopkins settled, then broke a tackle for nine yards:

Second-and-1, HOU 34, 5:51 second quarter, 33.3% GWC

The Texans come back and run a read-option play that Watson keeps. It is the only offensive snap of the game for Cullen Gillaspia. He gets a good edge block to help Watson out. It goes for 10 yards, and all of the sudden the Texans are rolling again:

First-and-10, HOU 44, 5:04 second quarter, 34.8% GWC

On the next snap, Watson resets the offense — I believe he’s seeing the zone coverage — and takes a nice little open checkdown to Carlos Hyde for 10 free yards.

First-and-10, KC 46, 4:28 second quarter, 35.9% GWC

Then the Texans start to defeat themselves again. First-and-10, the Texans line up both Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde in the backfield. The give is to Hyde, and the Houston offensive linemen just have a terrible rep. Laremy Tunsil can’t stop his man. Max Scharping tries to help with two and helps with none. Nick Martin is defeated straight-up by Derrick Nnadi, who stuffs Hyde for no gain:

Second-and-10, KC 46, 3:44 second quarter, 34.8% GWC

For the second time in the only two series we have looked over where the Texans hit opposing territory, they call timeout. The Texans are lined up with 14 seconds left, Duke Johnson splits out wide with 11 seconds, and Watson doesn’t like what he sees and calls timeout before giving props to Tyrann Mathieu. There’s now 3:44 on the clock, and the Texans are out of timeouts.

The Texans motion both Johnson and Hopkins out to the left side of the field, getting chasers. It’s a screen, but the moment Tunsil lets Frank Clark into the backfield, this thing is dead in the water. Hopkins tries to lateral it to Watson because he was infected with the Josh Allen virus last week. Keep in mind, this is out of a timeout. This is when, in theory, you get your best playcall. O’Brien’s screens have been broken and relied too much on offensive line movement for years, to the point where he barely calls them. Second-and-10 in plus territory, in a situation where you probably go for it if it’s close, and that’s your playcall?

Third-and-12, KC 48, 3:02 second quarter, 31.6% GWC

On third-and-12, the Texans try to get all of it back. They run a go/post combo with their two inside receivers in a trips set to the left. Mathieu passes the post off to the safety, comes off, and breaks up the post to Hopkins:

It’s worth pointing out that the Texans had Mathieu last year and Kansas City offered him more money than the Texans did despite the Texans having more cap space. The player that the Texans brought in to replace him, Tashaun Gipson, missed this game with a back injury. I’m not saying that was the only difference between the two teams, but I do think Mathieu offers flexibility that the Texans just don’t have right now. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

The CBS crew made a big deal about Mathieu possibly getting there early. I didn’t really see it, but if you want to be that way, here you go:

If the Texans had run something shorter, they would have had a chance to go for it on fourth down, but instead they punted in Chiefs territory.


First-and-10, KC 10, 2:47 second quarter, 27.4% GWC

Patrick Mahomes got the ball at his own 10 with 2:47 to play and two timeouts. He would be past midfield in exactly three plays.

You’re not going to believe this, but the Chiefs went right at Lonnie Johnson again on the first play, and he picked up his second DPI of the day:

It was that little tug at the top of the route that earned it. Again, Tashaun Gipson’s absence showed itself. He helped hold tight ends to a very low completion rate this year, and helped limit Kelce to 58 scoreless yards in Week 6. (Johnson played some against Kelce in that game too.)

First-and-10, KC 25, 2:43 second quarter, 25.1% GWC

The Chiefs came out with a double-stacked Hill on the left side on the next play, so Bradley Roby could not be aggressive with him off the snap. The ball is a little late coming out, but Hill cleanly won to the outside for 20 more yards:

First-and-10, KC 45, 2:05 second quarter, 22.6% GWC

Fed up with getting wrecked no matter what they do out of this coverage look, the Texans finally send a real blitz on first-and-10 from the 45. The result would have my timelline screaming at me about why the Texans didn’t have a quarterback spy.

Mercilus on the right side is trying to jam Kelce, and both middle linebackers come. Mahomes is able to roll out to his right and, once there, finds that there is a vast acre of space between him and any Texans defender. He scrambles for 21 yards. The two-minute warning hits. The Chiefs are already in long field-goal range.

First-and-10, HOU 34, 1:55 second quarter, 20.5% GWC

Kansas City comes out of the two-minute warning with a trick play to nowhere. This is, hilariously enough, counted as a sack. I don’t know why they thought they needed to change anything they were doing at this point, but uh … yeah, best sack in franchise history.

Second-and-15, HOU 39, 1:48 second quarter, 23.3% GWC

Uh oh, the Chiefs are at second-and-15! Surely the Texans can … you watched this game, you know what happens next. The Chiefs run pre-snap motion against with Kelce. The Texans have finally given up on trying to cover him with Johnson and have moved on to Hargreaves. It doesn’t matter a damn bit:

First-and-10, HOU 19, 1:05 second quarter, 18.7% GWC

The play that the Chiefs run to get Sammy Watkins open over the middle of the field works, but the Texans appear to almost accidentally create some pressure as the left guard helps on J.J. Watt and gives Jacob Martin an almost unimpeded path. Mahomes runs to his right, and a 100% Watt probably has a chance to make a big play. This Watt looked gassed. Possible he was hurt at this point as well. I’m always grateful for Watt gutting it out, but this is a play that he makes if he never gets hurt in my opinion.

First-and-goal, HOU 5, 58 seconds second quarter, 17.7% GWC
Second-and-goal, HOU 5, 55 seconds second quarter, 18.3% GWC
Third-and-goal, HOU 5, 50 seconds second quarter, 20.6% GWC

Just to get us out of here as quickly as possible, it took the Chiefs three red zone plays, but they finally found someone who could catch an open ball:

The only notably positive thing you can take from a Texans perspective about those three plays is that Charles Omenihu beat his man on the second one. The Chiefs didn’t even need to get to the third quarter to erase a 24-point lead. After kicking the extra point, the Texans were left with 44 seconds and 15.5% GWC.

They left enough time for Kai Fairbairn to shank a field goal, which was very polite.


So, let’s talk about why this happened. If I had to assign the blame for this out, this is the order it goes in:

1a — I don’t think Romeo Crennel’s fastball is enough against a top-10 offense — Crennel does some great things as far as simulated pressures, but on a regular basis, too many players are left wide open over the short area of the field. The NFL right now is a league about easy offense. If you create it with a bad quarterback, you can go far. If you create it with Patrick Mahomes, it can be downright unfair to be a fan of the other team. Crennel’s hands were tied because of 1b, but this wasn’t the kind of game where he pushed the right buttons to get the Texans off the field. The Chiefs were never in any real danger of not scoring on any of these drives. The Chiefs created more drops than the Texans did actual stops.

Moreover, against a team that barely ran, Crennel played Brennan Scarlett over Jacob Martin and Charles Omenihu. I think Scarlett is a solid NFL inside linebacker, but he can’t be asked to pass rush in this game if you’re expecting good things to happen.

Crennel has learned a lot over his career, and knows a lot more about good defensive play than me. I know that he wanted to be aggressive here because he knew he was outgunned. But I would have little faith that a good offensive coordinator couldn’t exploit his defense at this point, and it’s time to admit that this is a problem.

1b — Tashaun Gipson’s injury in Week 17 destroyed the Texans — I don’t know that they would have had a chance against the Chiefs anyway, but taking away their (by the numbers) best safety this season was a deathblow against a team that schemes this well. The Texans felt they had to run single-high the entire game and use Lonnie Johnson as the main “second safety.” Johnson was crushed and there was no Plan B.

Bill O’Brien knew that Gipson was playing hurt in Week 17 — a completely meaningless game — and played him 43 snaps anyway. That’s something he’s largely escaped public scrutiny for, but I’m here to give it to him: It was idiotic.

2 — There was no pass rush — Romeo Crennel’s unit is used to giving up open receivers. The thing that’s supposed to bail them out, and the thing that came back against the Bills, was the pass rush.

Against the Chiefs, the Texans had one “sack” and three quarterback hits. They were disrupting nothing. They couldn’t create enough negative plays to get off the field in that area.

3 — Bill O’Brien’s decision making didn’t have a consistent ethos — Like I said, I’m fine with both the fake punt and the field-goal decision in a vacuum. It’s the fact that they didn’t tell a consistent tale that made them bad together. See also: If the Texans are being aggressive, why are they going for a home run on third down on their penultimate drive of the second quarter?

4 — If you come with the fake punt, you best not miss — And they did.

5 — Too much commitment to the base run game — Carlos Hyde and this offensive line mauled the Chiefs front in Week 6 when given the threat of Watson. Watson ran for 10 yards on his only real look in four series here. But the Texans just kept handing it off to Hyde with no dressing and expecting something great to happen in a playoff game. That’s, at best, a clock-killing method. At worst, it’s putting the ball in the hands of your fifth-most explosive offensive player when you have admitted you need more than 24 points to win the game.

6 — DeAndre Carter’s fumble — Inexcusable in a game of this magnitude.

7 — Offensive consistency — There are a number of plays on offense that were unforced errors: the second-and-5 Hyde run into an eight-man box, Watson’s throw to Fuller that didn’t look to be on the same page,, the screen to Hopkins. With great playcalling outside of that, you can overcome maybe one of those a drive. But you can’t create this many negative plays on your own. That’s the defense’s job.

If this brought up and/or reinforced bad memories, I apologize. Just know that we all carry this scar with us for the rest of our lives. Gen X had Bills-Oilers, and we have this.


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Bill O’Brien is Shredder

Shredder, if you were never exposed to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lore, was the main antagonist for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for many years. He wasn’t always meant to be that way — that is an invention of the original animated cartoon show — but for several years children were exposed to a world where Shredder was the main villain of the Ninja Turtles.

Shredder was portrayed as a cunning, dangerous man. He took over an entire clan of ninjas in Japan. But he had to lose to the Ninja Turtles in just about every episode because he was the villain, and they were the heroes. To do this, the show creators had to amplify Shredder’s arrogance and make him mentally weak.

These are also the main attributes of Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who has done everything he can to give himself power but never has a Plan B.


Shredder’s main henchmen are Bebop and Rocksteady, two incredibly dumb street punks that were turned into mutants but not given any intellectual boost. Every time they tangle with the Ninja Turtles, without fail, the best-case scenario was a draw. Can they handle simple robbery tasks? Sure. Can they overtake humans? Yeah!

And over the course of dozens and hundreds of episodes, how many times does Shredder square up the idea to have these two buffoons hold up the Turtles? Constantly. It never works!

But that’s what it’s like to be Shredder. You need an inability to learn from past actions. That’s where we’re at with Bill O’Brien right now. He has at least two or three decisions per game that come directly from the panic portion of his brain that cost his team timeouts. Is he going to do anything about it? Well, what are the odds that’s changing at this point? Is he going to do anything but run inside zone? Probably not! Is he going to give Deshaun Watson easy hot reads? Probably not! Is he going to give play-action plays underneath routes? Again, probably not!

Ask yourself if he’s more likely to come up with solutions, or spend two months creating a perfect offseason plan now that he has no general manager. This was the answer you give your parents when you didn’t do the homework. I think we all know the answer deep down.


Bill O’Brien and Shredder are both hilarious. Shredder is hilarious because he’s written to be hilarious and he breaks the fourth wall to do it at times. Bill O’Brien is hilarious because he has this Press Conference Mask he breaks out where he pretends he’s not in control of anything.

Bill O’Brien wants you to know that if you’re upset by Bill O’Brien, it’s really not all Bill O’Brien’s fault. There are other people involved, so many people you wouldn’t have ever heard of because you never listen to him. It’s hard work, but it’s also a culture that has to be built. Everyone has to be on the same page. It’s a massive undertaking to meet these people daily, but he does it for you. And you’re ungrateful!

Shredder’s arrogance kind of peeks out at the right times, and we get more of an unfiltered view of it, but the same driving stubbornness exists in both of them:

If Shredder weren’t written for a kids TV show, he undoubtedly would’ve said this to some passerby at some point:

O’Brien is a master of unintentional comedy. Note that he doesn’t take issues with the fact that he sucks, but rather, that the fan sucks too. He’s breaking new mediums every day.


Bill O’Brien and Shredder are both capable of highly impressive things. They have a long and extensive background in each of their professions that gives them some power when they choose to use it.

Shredder is a skilled ninja. But he’s not really interested in fighting in many episodes, almost as if he’s above it. As if, in his own head, he’s transcended that area of being worth using in a fight. Send the foot soldiers. Send Bebop and Rocksteady. Send whatever partners he has taken with him to the surface. Shredder is here to be the brains of the operation, not work like a dog.

Bill O’Brien is a terrific leader of men. He just rarely ever gets out of his own comfort zone. When he does (the first half of both Kansas City games, Week 17 against the Jaguars in 2018), and he prepares with this “us against the world” mentality, he actually is a pretty awesome coach! Like, I’m not even just saying that to try to balance the column. When he puts his mind to it and schemes up a play based on tendencies and his best guesses — when he tries! — he does so well that it’s hard to believe that the Texans ever have problems. When he first had to integrate Deshaun Watson and work with Watson’s youth in 2017 rather than trying to coach him to his preferred style, Watson was an immediate hit and the Texans looked like a juggernaut.

But that kind of spark almost never lights. It only lights enough times a year to fool everyone into thinking he’ll get it done next year with some changes.


It doesn’t matter what tools or toys Shredder has access to, he always loses. Just in the first few seasons alone, Shredder gains control of: The Technodrome rolling over the planet, a sword that lets him cut into the fabric of different dimensions, a ray that removes the power of the sun, a remote control for animals on several occasions, an anti-gravity device, an alien camera that traps people in photographs, and on and on.

When Bill O’Brien got Deshaun Watson, the expectations changed for him outwardly. It was no longer about winning the division, it was about competing for something more. But the Texans haven’t finished higher than 17th in offensive DVOA in any of Watson’s first three seasons despite giving him DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. This season they integrated Laremy Tunsil to try to fix the offensive line, Kenny Stills to add more consistency in the wake of Fuller’s injuries, and Duke Johnson to be the ultimate dump-off option and third-down back. They did all this and finished with a lower offensive DVOA than the goddamn Arizona Cardinals with a rookie quarterback. Than the Seahawks did even though they ran about as often as the Texans. Than a 49ers squad that is entirely reliant on coaching to get anywhere.

Coaching is more important than anything in the NFL right now, and I think NFL teams are still grappling with how to deal with that. What was new five years ago is old school today, and I think O’Brien has struggled to keep up with the pace of how things are changing. To his credit, he understands that he needs great talent to win in the NFL. But the cost of acquiring that talent was massive and has handicapped the Texans going forward, and without a similar improvement in coaching, it’s hard to understand this offense getting any better without Deshaun Watson completely transcending the spectrum of quarterbacking he’s currently on.

Over the last couple of years we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the Texans need more talent. It’s still true. But there are teams out there that are getting more from less than the Texans have, and don’t let that fact slip past you. Don’t let it slip past you that Deshaun Watson isn’t allowed to roll out of the pocket. Don’t let it slip past you that J.J. Watt doesn’t play inside and the team never managed to get Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Jadeveon Clowney on the field at the same time.

It’s how you can be granted a 24-0 lead in an AFC Divisional Round game and still lose by 20.


Shredder and Krang were always at each other’s throats. In a way, it helped explain a lot of the dysfunction of the bad guys. They each had different goals at times, and Shredder is outright plotting mutiny in several episodes. Krang is happy to keep Shredder around because he needs someone to do his dirty work, while Shredder resents being asked to do this dirty work and feels like his ideas are the best ones. Inevitably, this escalates into a pissing match.

There was no real boss above Krang, though. Bill O’Brien ultimately answers to ownership, and ownership decided that his view mattered more. They fired Brian Gaine. They fired Rick Smith. They futzed around with the idea of Nick Caserio for a moment, but then decided that hey, Bill O’Brien’s in control! Also, don’t blame him because it’s a collective consensus. But who has final say? Bill O’Brien.

Shredder and Krang never actually separate in the TV show itself — both of them stop appearing after their defeat in Season 8. But there is an episode in Season 3, “Shredderland,” that goes over what life looks like after Shredder kicks Krang out and rules the world:

Shredder, of course, was written in a kid’s cartoon show voice where we pretended that he could be self-reflective after winning. As we see in today’s society, self-reflection is at an all-time low and there is never any shame attached to winning by any means necessary. The world around Shredder in this episode has become a wasteland of broken and useless things … but at least he has power. But the first part — these repair requests — rings true to real life because O’Brien has assumed power, but can’t delegate it to save his life. Even just from this year, we’ve got this inside scoop from Lance Zierlein about O’Brien changing installs late in the week:

O’Brienland doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Shredderland, but this is a dangerous area for the franchise. One where a man acting in his own bold interests can cripple a franchise.

When O’Brien said that he had no idea how many draft picks he’d have at draft time, that raised a lot of alarm bells for me. Clearly nobody is going to be around to stop him or tell him otherwise — they all get fired if they do. I’m not trying to tell you I think the Texans are going to make more moves trading picks, because I honestly don’t know. But given how little they dabble in free agency traditionally, and given how O’Brien’s own reflection of the trades revolves around how they worked, why wouldn’t they keep trading? Why would they feel the slightest amount of remorse?


I don’t think O’Brien is going to lead the Texans anywhere, because giving him power is only making him more ineffective in every direction in my opinion. I don’t necessarily think the Texans are going to crash and burn, because the talent they have is too good. I don’t even think a trip to an AFC Title Game is out of the realm of possibility if Watson hits another level. Anything can happen in a one-game sample. Shredder has kidnapped a turtle before. (Usually Michelangelo, lazy party ass.)

But there’s a reason that every TV broadcaster on both networks doing the Texans playoff game picked the Texans to lose. It’s not disrespect of the team — it’s disrespect of a coach who hasn’t seemed all that interested in scheming in a long time and who invents new ways to blow games. He is the anchor around this franchise’s neck. O’Brien advocates will tell you about division championships all day long and challenge you to name a better coach, then shit on that coach. Because “You suck, too, motherfucker!” is not just something we say loudly, it is a personal ethos for many.

When we talk about the sort of cynical feeling around Houston football fans right now, a lot of it comes because they aren’t even able to envision this team taking the next step. I can’t tell you how many ordinary people in my life — people who don’t even know I write about football — tell me unprompted that O’Brien’s not a good coach when the subject hits Texans. I don’t bring this up to use it as proof that O’Brien’s bad, but proof that the city as a whole is tired. It just wants something believable to root for. Someone who, as Sean Pendergast says, won’t bamboozle you.

Shredder lasted eight seasons. That’s the earliest John McClain can see the Texans making a change: O’Brien’s eighth season, 2021.

I’m steeling myself for some enjoyable Deshaun Watson highlights. I have no expectations beyond that. Why would I? Shredder always loses in the end, and Shredder never faces any consequences.

He always escapes, just like Houston’s head football coach.


I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.

Four Downs: Chiefs 51, Texans 31

Bill O’Brien was put in the dream coaching spot. He had a 21-0 lead on the road in the AFC Divisional round, in a spot where a win would create the first AFC Championship game in the franchise history of the Houston Texans. That’s the kind of accolade where, even if the team hadn’t been empirically good this year, you can hang on the ass of every person who’s ever doubted you. He loves running out leads, but knew it couldn’t be just about that. He’d dialed up a wonderful play call for the game’s first score by faking a screen and hitting a wide-open Kenny Stills for six. He did not defer the ball at the coin toss, knowing he’d need the game script. It was beginning to look like the Texans were building an insurmountable lead. Twitter was discussing a Texans-Titans AFC South Conference Championship game and had already made it through three different iterations of Thursday Night Football/London game jokes.

To call what happened to the Texans an unraveling is an insult to the word. They didn’t just blow a lead. They didn’t just lose. They got annihilated so badly as a defense that they didn’t even have a halftime lead. They were laughed off the field so badly that the Chiefs ran out of fireworks. They allowed 51 points in about 45 minutes of football and came apart at the seams.

O’Brien blinked at fourth-and-1 at the Chiefs 13. He first claimed that he wanted to go for it, but felt that he had a first down and wanted to challenge. Wanting to challenge a spot is a horrific instinct and probably the worst idea you could ever have for a challenge outside of defensive pass interference, so naturally, the Texans failed to go for it because of that.

O’Brien’s presser was revealing in so much as he said that he thought he had to score 50 points to win this game. 50 points. So with that in mind, it makes some sense that the very next possession had this playcall on fourth-and-4:

It felt like that fake punt was what broke the Texans more than the fourth-and-1 field-goal attempt. As we learned in last night’s Titans-Ravens game, being bold is a double-edged sword. The Ravens were punished for going for it on fourth down. The Texans, here, invited the Chiefs to a short field. Once DeAndre Carter returned Tyreek Hill’s favor, the Texans were mentally cracked.

I want to marinate on how O’Brien comes out of this long-term for a bit longer than three hours before I write about it, but it goes without saying that being at the helm of one of the biggest meltdowns in NFL history while also saying that everybody is coming back and everything is fine is unbelievable. If Houston had an ownership group or anyone in power, this game alone would probably alter the way they felt about O’Brien. But when you win a coup, you get to just strut around like it doesn’t matter, so kudos, I guess. Bill O’Brien is bulletproof to everyone but the media, which he will continue to complain about constantly:

The Texans enter this offseason with no first-round pick. No easy answers exist for the spot they are in as long as O’Brien is in control, Romeo Crennel is in charge of the defense, and they won’t spend big on free agents. They will grow, they will trade more draft picks for fixes, or they will disappoint.

1 — The defense was always going to allow 50 points, O’Brien knew it

The reason the Texans were able to build the lead they did were all on unsustainable things. Patrick Mahomes wasn’t missing throws. The Chiefs weren’t having problems getting people open. They were simply dropping the ball over and over again.

That’s the problem here. When your head coach comes out after the game and says “we need to score 50 to win,” that’s a ridiculous ask. Is it the groceries or the shopper? Would Jadeveon Clowney have changed anything? The Texans mostly played straight man coverage, and they simply had no chance to rattle Mahomes.

They got one sack — a sack of Sammy Watkins — and hit Mahomes on three times in 35 dropbacks. They were able to keep the Chiefs from scoring early, but every indication was that it would be easy for them. Even in the first quarter. I can remember maybe two or three pressures the Texans got in this game, one from Whitney Mercilus, and one from Benardrick McKinney up the middle.

Houston had no answers for Travis Kelce with Tashaun Gipson sidelined. They tried to force Lonnie Johnson into coverage with him, and Johnson couldn’t handle pick plays, couldn’t stick with Kelce on crossing routes, and was whistled for a big penalty that set up one of Kansas City’s comeback scores. The fact that all this happened even despite the fact that Kansas City simply couldn’t run the ball only serves to underscore how embarrassing this is.

So the question becomes: Was this only because it was Mahomes? I don’t think so. The Texans spent a ton of this offseason bringing in new corners, and they turned over the whole cornerback crew. It didn’t actually matter how talented the guys they brought on were as compared to Johnathan Joseph, Shareece Wright, or Kareem Jackson. I don’t think Romeo Crennel did a bad job — I think he made the best out of a short period of time he had — but I also think fresh blood might be the only way the Texans can improve without reeling in another big edge star. If you spike a defensive coordinator hire, maybe you change thing in a meaningful way.

O’Brien said he expects Crennel to stay during his wrap-up presser.

2 — The tone-deaf unawareness of the O’Brien Texans

The Texans seem perpetually three steps behind with O’Brien. That they needed to use a timeout to go for it on fourth down was … mind-boggling. To call this play down by 17:

O’Brien can preach about how the media doesn’t give him a chance all he wants: Things like this are why. The Texans have never felt like a situationally-aware team under O’Brien. They had to come back from down 16-0 to make this game in the first place. They flat-lined down the stretch statistically, and got in by winning close games.

If your comeback for this is that “O’Brien is doing it all,” well, he doesn’t have to! You’re allowed to hire people to do this stuff to help you or keep you honest! It’s in the NFL rules and everything. That O’Brien stubbornly forges on and just seems to organically create situations like this isn’t a fluke. It’s who he is and how he operates, and if those things were going to change, they likely would have changed in one of his first six years as head coach.

3 — Without the read-option, the Texans couldn’t run at all

The Texans ran the ball 21 times for 94 yards, but most of that came from Deshaun Watson’s six carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, and Duke Johnson’s one (ONE?!?!!?) 11-yard run. In my experience there are a lot of fans that pre-complain about O’Brien “letting off the gas” or “resting on his laurels.” Well, 21-0 is a pretty good time to rest on one’s laurels as long as you keep it creative. The Texans didn’t. From the time they went up 24-0, the Texans ran the ball with Hyde five times and gained 11 yards.

Now that may not sound that bad — it may even sound like a typical Texans game — but this was a team they destroyed with read options. Every time they involved Watson in the running game, it worked in this game.

The Texans ran Watson intentionally three times after going up 24-0: a three-yard run on third-and-1 that came back after a holding penalty, a 10-yard play on second-and-1, and the touchdown above these words. The Chiefs as a whole were one of the worst teams in the NFL against the run, as I pointed out in the preview for Football Outsiders.

Again, as it always is with O’Brien, it’s the teases that make you upset. In Week 6 this team rolled with simple read-options and RPOs, and was able to strangle the life out of the ball. This time? It wasn’t so simple. Maybe Watson was still feeling banged up from whatever happened in Week 16, and if so I understand a bit, but there was no reason to never show this look again.

I think the Texans abandoned the run way too quick in this game. It’s easy to say that with retrospect, I know, but that defense needed time to compose themselves and never got it until it was too late.

4 — Deshaun Watson was calm and composed, but it wasn’t enough

I thought Watson played pretty well throughout this game. He wasn’t perfect, he did have plays where I think he looked to run a little too early. But I think he threw some pretty balls, and I think he did a good job of getting his team to the doorstep. Fairbairn’s missed field goal helped people develop the idea that the Chiefs were “on a run,” but the Texans ended their last three plays on downs in Kansas City territory. They couldn’t finish, and issues popped up from last week. It was fitting that the exact kind of blitz that Watson became a hero for avoiding last week was the one that ended this game.

Watson took this sack on a play where the dots would reveal nobody was even close to open, but otherwise took just two others and mostly excelled at checking the ball down over the middle. But towards the end of the fourth quarter he was harmed by an onslaught of drops. Darren Fells had a number of ones we’d look back on as extremely costly if we were in a tighter ballgame.

I don’t leave this game thinking anything has changed about Watson’s franchise quarterback status. Houston and Watson need to continue to develop the plan on blitzes to make that easy for him. They need to improve his play-action passing so that he has more routes rather than having to buy time to make something develop. And, well, I know it gets old when I say this, but they’ve got to get Duke Johnson involved before the blowout game scripts. He can’t be as shackled as he was.

It felt bad. All historical outliers do, unfortunately. We’ve all got to wear this one for a long time, you as fans, the Texans as an organization.


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Deshaun Watson, hot reads, and the Bill O’Brien offense

What was old was new again in the playoffs as the Buffalo Bills sacked Deshaun Watson seven times on just 12 blitzes, forcing seven scrambles. Watson came out just fine empirically when he was throwing the ball — he completed 20-of-25 passes for one score and lost one fumble — but the end result has created some interesting dissonance. Who is to blame — if we need someone to blame — for Watson’s sacks? I’ll tell you up front that this is not a question that has an easy answer for someone outside the building. But let’s put all the information we have out on the table.

1 — Other quarterbacks have not seen the massive increase in sack rate that Watson has under Bill O’Brien

Now, granted, all these quarterbacks were a) often given a better offensive line since Duane Brown was a Texan prior to 2017 and b) were compared against NFL stats instead of college stats. Still, that’s a startling increase for Watson only when you compare it to other players. If you’re curious about Tom Savage (read: are related to Savage), he carried an NFL sack rate of 7.9% and a college sack rate of 12.1%(!!!).

Presented with these numbers, it’s quite easy to leap to “It is Watson’s fault.” However, the quarterback — as demonstrated on the final real offensive play of Wild Card Weekend — also avoids a ton of sacks.

Remember when Sean McVay was a genius and the Rams made the Super Bowl, but everyone started copying New England’s successful Super Bowl plan and he was forced off his main game plan? Jared Goff’s 2019 implosion didn’t show us anything 2018 didn’t in small bursts — he was always a bit limited. I think the spread of information has gotten faster and faster, and — ala Independence Day — people are getting on the wiretap and getting the word out faster about how to beat certain coaches and systems. The gap between good coaching and mediocre coaching in the NFL has never been greater than it is today.

It is true that Watson has taken more sacks, but he’s also been at the helm of an offense that has seen free rushers come at him more often than any of his predecessors.

2 — Adding Laremy Tunsil has barely helped anything on this front

Tunsil would probably be in All-Pro conversation instead of the Pro Bowl land had he not false started enough to have this graphic created by CBS:

This year, with top-notch pass protection, the Texans had a moderate reduction in quarterback hit percentage — Watson was hit on a career-low 8.3 percent of his dropbacks and sacked on a career-low 8.2 percent of his dropbacks. But while adding Tunsil has undoubtedly upgraded the offensive line situation and given Watson a number of clean pockets more than Julien Davenport would have, it hasn’t actually tied together in a more cohesive offense. Watson still gets sacked a ton.

The reason — as was obvious in the 2018 season — is that Laremy Tunsil can’t block three guys on his own. Blitzes and schemed pressures are a bigger part of Watson’s sack rate than poor overall line play was.

(Which, again Tunsil fans, does not mean he was not an improvement. Please don’t turn this into a discussion about That Trade.)

3 — 2018 or 2019, it’s hard to find clips of easy hot reads

During the run up to Watson’s first playoff game in 2018, the Colts and the Jets started blitzing him relentlessly. Watson took 15 blitzes from the Jets in Week 15 and was sacked six times. On only one pass in that entire game did the Jets bring a blitz where Watson had an easy throw to make:

I can remember maybe one or two other designs by the Texans that actually capitalized on the pressure coming in either year. One of them was when Ryan Griffin faking staying in to block, but then popping out for a huge gain over an uncovered middle.

Most of the hot reads as they show on film are deep balls or balls to the flats, which are throws Watson has a harder time making against zone defenders that are waiting to sink on the ball.

One of the major sticking points of the O’Brien era has been an acquisition of players who are primarily here to create deep balls: Will Fuller, Tunsil, Kenny Stills. Yet, the Texans are comparatively awkward in play-action because they always have too many blockers, and the Texans barely even bother throwing deep when Fuller isn’t in the lineup. It creates a recipe where, even though the players have the talent to perform well, things get a little too one-dimensional at times.

Note that earlier this season the Chiefs brought a blitz on fourth-and-3 for the game and it was a slant that converted. Everyone looked like a goddamn genius just because it was a simple throw.

4 — Bill O’Brien knows enough to fix this

Listen, you can find coaching clinics where O’Brien sounds quite smart about blocking and picking up rushers, though I will admit when he says in this below clip that they “only had two answers” for blitz-zero (all-out blitz) at Penn State that was mildly concerning to me.

So the two examples in that video are to throw a screen or to slide the protection. The Texans threw just 62 passes behind the line of scrimmage all season. To put that into context, Kyler Murray led the league with 109. Nine different quarterbacks were over 90. Almost ALL of Watson’s throws in that area are to the middle — they’re little pitches off jet motion or something similar to that. Only 37% of his throws went to the sides. So they’re barely running those screens anymore.

The slide protection is what happened on Watson’s spincycle evasion last week — Buffalo brought someone that Watson couldn’t account for, so he knew he’d have to throw hot:

However, his first look was to go to DeAndre Hopkins, something that the Bills anticipated — everyone in any defensive building knows that 10 is Houston’s go-to receiver and treats him as such — and one of Buffalo’s coverage players was prepared and ready to jump the ball. Watson on Wednesday would say that he probably should have had eyes on someone else:

It’s very easy to hindsight critique Watson for this, but this is what Watson’s play personality is. He’s the guy who is going to get kicked in the eye and make the throw. He’s going for the jugular whenever he can. And of course the first read is Hopkins in Cover-0 — you want the ball to go to your best players. It’s the route depth that became the problem that forced that much time to be bought in the first place. Hopkins released outside and then went completely vertical.

I also want to post this video of O’Brien talking about Watson scrambling less this year and how that ties into his job pulling the strings:

“You cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson,” is strong. It makes a great sound byte too — who has ever wanted to be limited by a head coach?

But in this case I think it’s a bit misplaced.


The funny thing about this is a) every time I’ve seen the Texans actually put in easy hot routes for Watson to hit, he hits them and b) the Texans look fantastic as an offense when they do and it helps open up the deep passing game.

Let’s talk a little bit about “you cannot take away the instincts of a guy like Deshaun Watson.” I would argue that it’s your job as a head coach to take away some instincts if it keeps you under seven sacks — this offense gets destroyed by negative plays in every game. Too many inside zone runs that everyone sees coming, too many sacks, and too many penalties. When you don’t have the explosive plays that Fuller provides, it’s tough sledding to keep an offense afloat with so much weighing it down. That’s what we saw for Houston’s first four drives against a good Buffalo defense. That’s why the Texans’ most important offensive play this season is literally their quarterback’s +5 dexterity check bailing them out. O’Brien’s offense has somehow become a place where read-options are safer than dropbacks for his quarterback’s health.

I’m well-aware I’m not going to be changing anyone’s mind about who is “at fault” here. I read the Twitter comments. I know which side you’ve staked out. But regardless of what side you’re on, the answer is actually not all that hard. Hot routes need to be better designed and hit. You can’t run two outside curls against an all-out blitz and expect that to get it done. Run drags. Run slants. Fake blockers that become receivers. Run Duke Johnson screens. That’s four ideas off the top of my head without even thinking about it too hard. I try to praise this stuff whenever I see it, because I don’t think anyone involved is stupid. It just has become a matter of intense stubbornness, in my opinion.


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Four Downs: Texans 22, Bills 19

I’ll take it.

Bamboozled, down 13-0 only because Buffalo’s offense got conservative near the goal line, the Texans looked dead in the water in the third quarter when J.J. Watt woke up the crowd with a sack to force a field-goal and keep it a two-score game.

From there, Houston’s offense came alive, and Josh Allen proved himself woefully unable to win from structure when it counted in his first playoff game. When the Bills did get big plays to set them up in go-ahead territory, Allen couldn’t deliver. He overthrew a number of open receivers. He was nearly pick-sixed by Bradley Roby twice. He took a back-breaking intentional grounding penalty and a sack to take the Bills from long field-goal range to miracle territory. Only a long screen against a deep zone put the Bills in position to take the game to overtime. Towards the end of the fourth quarter, this happened:

The game felt drunk. It was a gutty comeback — it proved a lot about the locker room culture that Bill O’Brien has praised all season to come back down from 16-0 against a defense as good as the one that Buffalo has. I liked O’Brien’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 towards the end of the fourth quarter, the playcall was just bad.

If the game was drunk, overtime was two fighters taking turns falling asleep on each other until Duke Johnson managed to turn a third-and-18 into a first down:

From there, the madness started, and Deshaun Watson got his first playoff win after miraculously spinning out of two different Buffalo rushers, hitting an open Taiwan Jones — of all people — for a catch-and-run that essentially ended the game:

From the standpoint of what this win means to the franchise: It’s a monkey off Houston’s back. Watson had never won a playoff game before, O’Brien hadn’t won one against a quarterback with more of a pulse than Connor Cook. That matters for the culture as you try to build a long-term success.

For the short-term? Boy, the Texans were kind of lucky to win this game. Kinda really lucky. O’Brien’s slow starts continued in the playoffs. They are not taking this kind of game to Kansas City and advancing. It’s going to have to be a lot better than this if the Texans want to fashion themselves an actual contender.

1 — This is Deshaun Watson’s Franchise

Towards the middle of the third quarter there existed some real outrage about Deshaun Watson, but to me it was pretty clear that the Bills were all over his initial reads. This happened time and time again, and then I posted this one and a section of “open receiver on the screen” Twitter exploded.

Friends, quarterbacking isn’t as easy as “see open receiver on screen, hit open receiver on screen.” I turn to Watson’s quarterback coach for more analysis:

There are things to be improved on — there are always things to be improved on — but Watson is the only reason this team won this game. Every player in the locker room knows it, J.J. Watt knows it:

And saving Bill O’Brien’s bacon, as Watson did today after that limp plan from the first half, is a lot of Watson’s job description at this point. The Texans are extremely lucky to have Watson. In a past life, this was the Kansas City shutout. This was the game where Brock Osweiler coughed up three interceptions to the Patriots. Watson’s individual talent stood out on the biggest stage. Without him, all of the talk about J.J. Watt’s sack being the turning point is for naught.

The final numbers reflect a quarterback who did damn well when he was given a chance to win in the structure of the play.

Let’s head back to Watson’s sacks in a few paragraphs, because that’s certainly what jumped out to me most about this game going forward.

2 — J.J. Watt’s Comeback was a best-case scenario

I don’t have an in-game snap tracker, but J.J. Watt balled out to keep this game as low-scoring as it was. He was the primary reason Houston was able to hold the Bills to field goals on at least two drives. One, of course, was the highlight reel sack he got past Cody Ford that was credited as the turning point:

He had another hurry here near the end of regulation to help set up Allen’s two huge sacks:

The Texans finished the game with three sacks and 11 quarterback hits, as well as five different tackles for loss. Not only are those numbers enormous compared to recent games — they were the most that Houston had in any game since playing Tom Brady’s Patriots in Week 13.

More miraculously, Watt survived and thrived. He said in his post-game presser that there was a play where he felt like he could’ve been hurt, but wasn’t, and all he could do was shrug at the doctor. I don’t know how his snap count is increasing in Week 19, but it’s obviously enormous for the team that he’s back. The negative plays he creates — both with his attention and from his own moves — is about all Houston can count on as a defense right now.

3 — They must work on getting the ball out of Watson’s hands on blitzes

As I noted in my Football Outsiders game preview, the Texans have been a broken team when blitzed:

Much has been made about how Josh Allen struggles against the blitz, but in lowkey hushed whispers, let’s discuss Deshaun Watson against the blitz. Houston beat Tampa Bay to clinch the division in Week 16, but their offense was abominable as Watson took 19 blitzes per SportsRadar charting. In the seven games in which Watson was blitzed 10 or more times per SportsRadar charting this year, the Texans have a -7.6% passing DVOA and 16 turnovers. Both Baltimore and Tampa were able to chew up the Texans with their aggressive play calling; New England and New Orleans were not. Hey, I wonder which games Will Fuller played in of those four?

The Texans gave up seven sacks today and a lot of it was about the blitz. Here’s a blitz in overtime where Watson escapes the pressure, but Darren Fells drops the ball:

This was a constant issue, and it’s been a constant issue since 2018. Bill O’Brien’s offense just doesn’t have an easy hot read. A lot of them head off to the left, in an area where they can easily get intercepted. There are even some plays in this game where Watson’s hot reads are covered and taking the sack is a good idea:

Bill O’Brien needs to scrap his entire system for dealing with blitzes to the ground and start over again. Blitzes are making his offense look mentally overwhelmed.

It should not be this hard. Fake a block and send the guy on a route. Come up with a quick drag that puts a ball in space early when rushers vacate their spots. It shouldn’t be something that takes two quarters to figure out — it should in fact be something you expect.

It’s incredible just how many yards get left on the turf because the Texans just don’t do anything about this.

4 — The defense can’t get juked out of their shoes like they did in this game

Devin Singletary put together an And1 mixtape today on Houston’s underneath tacklers:

The defense immediately got lost on trick plays and was unable to deal with the mere fact that Buffalo ran jet motion on the first series:

The defense gave up 172 rushing yards. They were able to hold Buffalo to field goals, but the other AFC teams remaining do not have quarterbacks quite as green. Romeo Crennel emptied the entire sink today, up to and including rushing two guys in the last four minutes of the game. He has to play aggressive with this defense, which goes against his conservative nature, and that nature is biting the Texans.

The play-to-play work by the Bills, when they weren’t giving up tackles for loss or sacks, was just chewing up Houston. It goes without saying that they are a bit undermanned, everyone is a bit new — I get all that. But all they have left is the ability to challenge their opponents and they have to stay locked in to that philosophy and tackle when beaten. The defense was lucky today. They’re not going to be lucky against the AFC’s elites.


I’m happily writing this article free of charge — this is a labor of love as I am between Texans gigs. This is presented to you ad-free and without any hassle. If you enjoy my work and want to encourage me to produce more, please feel free to leave me a PayPal tip.