If you actually read this post, and you’re going to respond to me on Twitter about it in good faith, please use the hashtag #ReadThePiece. I know this sounds silly, but it’s an easy way for me to separate responses that I want to honor with a real answer from people who just want to be mad about everything they read online.
This is part one of a two-part series. The second part — the one you actually care about — is coming later this week.
I’ve read a lot of the conversation around Texans Twitter about head coaches. I asked you all for your top five head coaching candidates last week:
I didn’t rush into the prospect of just throwing out head coaches that I like publicly when all this went down because a lot of it was/is conditional on certain things happening. If I had shot this poll out when Bill O’Brien was fired, I am guessing a lot of you would have put Greg Roman high up on the list. Now? Not hearing that quite as much. Maybe that’s earned, and maybe it’s not.
I also didn’t want to just neglect someone who might pop up a little bit later in the process. Sometimes letting the names simmer turns out to bring some ideas you wouldn’t have thought about in October.
Before I start naming the names, though, let me hit you guys with my mindset about the entire situation, because that informs a lot about who I want:
1) The head coach must (_MUST_) be ambitious
There were many things that pissed me off about the Bill O’Brien Era — most of them are somewhere on the pages of this blog. He overcommitted to the run when his team couldn’t really do that. He was dramatic in an unflattering way. He chose culture over stars in a league run by stars. I can go on.
But the No. 1 thing I think a head coach needs — here in particular with hands-off ownership — is ambition. I can’t tell you how many times I’d watch O’Brien stroll up to the podium and pull his “well every game is tough in the NFL, we’ve got to battle and scratch and claw, every game in the division is so difficult” stuff. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Texans would put themselves in a position where winning a 27-24 game was what the team aimed to be, and that informed things like their talent level, their drive in free agency, and their coaching philosophy.
Every year in the NFL that one of your star players has is a ticking clock. Injury attrition. Physical decline. No NFL team goes through a season without some of that hitting them. This is something that J.J. Watt has tried to get through in recent weeks to this team via stone-faced press conferences, and I think it’s wildly important.
The only time in the history of this franchise that the Texans have been able to have an empirically good unit on both sides of the ball was when they combined Gary Kubiak’s offense with Wade Phillips’ defense and spent money. The secondary in 2010 was hot garbage, they signed Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning. They drafted Watt. That team didn’t win it all because the quarterback wasn’t good enough to carry them through the truly tough playoff games — that’s not a shot at Matt Schaub, most quarterbacks aren’t! — but those were the best teams Houston ever saw. The peak died when there was no replacement plan for Schaub.
I want a head coach who doesn’t just want to make the playoffs. I want a head coach who wants to win the damn thing. Who wants to create a dynasty. Who wants to use every tool at his disposal — including analytics, scouting, taking sick plays off high-school reels — to make his team better. Who breathes that lifestyle.
It’s not enough to just “work hard.” Work isn’t enough. If it was, 32 NFL head coaches would win the Super Bowl every year. You need a top-down plan for the entire franchise to become good, stay good, and accumulate the talent that lets that happen over the long term. You can’t wishful thinking assistants into being great coaches. Bill O’Brien’s modus operandi was basically “I only employ people who are beholden to me, anyone else with an idea can screw off. We do things my way.” That’s not to say that Tim Kelly is never going to be a good offensive coordinator, nor is it to say that Anthony Weaver will never be a good defensive coordinator. But you can’t rely on coaches with that little experience in their respective fields — in Weaver’s case, with a ridiculously low level of talent — and just expect them to be great. It’s a recipe for disaster!
Speaking of which…
2) The next Texans head coach needs to hire someone with a plan for the other side of the ball
Most head coaches at this point specialize in either offense or defense. There are some coaching candidates that are special-teams guys like Dave Toub, but for the most part when you hire a head coach, you hire a system to fix one side of the ball. As we’ve seen with Gary Kubiak, that fails when that head coach has no locked-and-loaded plan for the other side of the ball. And, as we’ve seen with Bill O’Brien, that head coach has to actually be able to execute the plan on his side of the ball as well.
I’m a wide-net kind of guy on interviews. I’d listen to a lot of the grand plans of these guys and come into it with an open mind. There are absolutely guys who are higher in my ranking right now than others, but if lower-rankers come to me with a plan and I think they’ve got a good argument, I would be happy to be swayed. The potential head coach can’t just be selling me on his vision for his side of the ball — he needs to sell me on the vision for the entire franchise.
If I’m hiring an offense-first guy — who is his defensive coordinator going to be? What is his plan for J.J. Watt? (Do I need to tell him that J.J. Watt wants out?) What is his plan for getting the pass rush together? What is his plan for the secondary? How quickly does he think the unit can turn around? What are our main weaknesses there and how can they be improved tomorrow with no draft picks? And so on. If I’m hiring a defense-first guy — obviously Deshaun Watson is great, what are you doing to make him the best he can be so the Texans can have a truly special unit? What kind of strengths are you playing to? How do you fix the run game?
I need a fully-rounded plan.
3) The head coach must have a history of empirical success on his side of the ball, and there must be scouting backing up why what he did worked. You get bonus points if you do it without A-List talent.
There are certain coaches who I think have done a really good job this year, but when I look at what they’ve done in the past, I cringe a little bit. One guy who I’m not seeing get any buzz and who I probably won’t use in my post is Brian Schottenheimer. Do I think he’s an idiot? Nope. Do I think he’s doing a great job with the Seattle pass offense this year? I do. But is there a large history of success there? No. In fact, he actively covered up this passing game for much of 2018 and 2019, and a lot of his previous experience gets tied into Jeff Fisher’s brand of football.
Does that mean I won’t talk to him? No. Does it mean that he’s going to have to really convince me that he knows what he’s doing? You bet.
When the Texans hired Kubiak, one of the best things about him is that he had a history of making run offenses churn without needing a lot of talent or investment. Sure enough, the Texans signed players like Kevin Walter and Arian Foster, they traded for Chris Myers and had a Pro Bowl center for many years. Unheralded guys like Mike Brisiel made that running game go. They barely invested anything in the offense after bringing in Matt Schaub and Duane Brown and it consistently did very well. I’d be looking to replicate certain bits of that in this hire. Under O’Brien, the Texans signed many players to mid-level contracts in free agency that immediately underperformed. Particularly offensive linemen.
4) I lean towards having an offensive-minded head coach who wants to work with the things that Deshaun Watson does best: playing with tempo and playing out of empty
In my opinion, the best way to be a great team is to amplify the best thing you do. The best thing that this team has is Deshaun Watson. There are several elements around Deshaun Watson that would work well in bringing out his best. Duke Johnson, for example, cost a third-round pick and is not a particularly good inside zone back. But the Texans randomly discovered on Thanksgiving that they could throw to Duke Johnson out wide and it was a stunning revelation — something that should have been exploited for, and I am not kidding, literal years. The Texans instead had defenders tell their running backs things like this:
So my heart is more set on having a head coach that is going to make the Texans have the best passing offense in the NFL — maybe they don’t get there every year, maybe Patrick Mahomes is so special that it’s not possible to catch him — and using that as a jumping off point for the rest of the team. Watson is one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. He’s the face of the franchise. He’s been tearing things up even just ditching a lot of the bad structure that Bill O’Brien provided this team and letting Tim Kelly run the show.
Imagine if they found a system that made him even better, one that emphasizes the things he is uniquely great at. That’s my dream. Just Deshaun Watson tearing the NFL a new one every year until he gets bored.
5) I would prefer if the head coach had NFL experience coaching at the thing he’s good at, though this isn’t a dealbreaker to me
I don’t think Kliff Kingsbury has been a bad hire by any stretch of the imagination, but the firestorm that was supposed to be the Air Raid didn’t really take off the way people thought it would. Instead, he’s succeeded because he’s created a great run game with a substandard line and a dynamic running quarterback.
To me, the shape of the success matters more if it is NFL success. That doesn’t mean that I’m ruling out coaches that don’t have a ton of it, but I am more skeptical about a coach who hasn’t proven something in the NFL (or, at the very least, whose inspirations haven’t proven much in the NFL.)
Bill O’Brien was kind of a weird hire because he wasn’t statistically impressive in college, but he also was dealing with massive sanctions in the wake of the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky Nittany Lions. He did great work with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, but, well, so did everybody. Join the club.
6) If Jack Easterby remains in this front office, you can’t pick anybody from the Patriots
I don’t want the head coach that Easterby knows the best. I think any coach pick that has anything to do with the Patriots is a tough sell to the fanbase unless it’s literally Belichick or something. Maybe that’s unfair to some of those guys, but between the large recent history of failed Patriots assistants and the recent regime failure here, I can’t see it going over better than a wet fart. Sorry, but not really.
7) The small things
There’s a lot of small little bonus points in between these six things. Some things I would give extra credit for:
– Demonstrated good use analytically of timeouts and challenges. (Don’t challenge ball spots, don’t get suckered into timeouts.)
– Demonstrated use and understanding of play-action shot plays. (Area of the offense the Texans have that is currently broken.)
– Demonstrated understanding of modern offense/defense (Not shredded by RPOs, understands how to protect the middle of the field, etc.)
– Demonstrated use of adapting game plans in a successful way to overcome a weakness.
– Demonstrated ability to blow out bad teams.
Ultimately if I believe in a head coach’s ambition, I think most of these things will follow. However, the more demonstrated examples of this we have, the better. I’m not going to obsess on stuff like this, but I’m also not going to tell you it doesn’t matter.
That’s basically the gist of what I’m looking for in a head coach and what I’m hoping to figure out from the interviews. (Obviously they aren’t inviting me to the interviews, but in theory.) A lot of the things I want to know about probably won’t be brought to life in a material way for us to read and know about. But just from the outside, I hope the gist of the process looks a little something like this. I have my obvious leans and doubt they are shared by everybody, and that’s fine.
See you in a few days for the list.
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