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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One Reply to “The Optimist’s Guide to Bill O’Brien”

  1. Thank you for the article, it’s good to see the other side. One point you didn’t make. This team started the season with two fatal flaws that would kill most teams. The offensive line, and. Their pass coverage. The Tunsil trade and the draft helped the line but we were never able to solve the coverage. It’s a tribute to his abilities that he shielded the weaknesses and won like he did. It was inevitable that we would crash against the elite talent. Especially with late season injuries.

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