Houston (CBS HOUSTON) – This past Sunday, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer dropped a bomb when he suggested Texans coach Bill O’Brien could be this year’s surprise firing. When describing Houston’s front office, Glazer called the relationship between owner, general manager, and coach “just not a good fit.”
When the opening question at Monday’s press conference addressed Glazer’s report, rather than the Texans upcoming playoff game, O’Brien said little to refute it: “I mean, I don’t think about that. I just think about this team and concentrating on the Oakland game and how far we’ve come. I don’t know – again, I don’t address those things. I just talk about where we’re at right now. I mean, I don’t even know if that’s even worthy of an answer.”
With the Texans set to host the Oakland Raiders in Saturday’s wild card round, this naturally creates an intriguing storyline around the contest. Most pundits have already deemed this game, featuring benched-and-starting-again Brock Osweiler vs. Oakland third-stringer and rookie Connor Cook as the least compelling matchup of the weekend. But now, the subplots are saucy.
Is Bill O’Brien coaching for his job? Do rumors of a possible divorce point to O’Brien wanting out or to his being forced out? Who’s really calling the shots here? And would moving on from O’Brien be the best thing for this franchise moving forward? I have thoughts on all of the above, but I’d like to address the last of these questions.
Losing Bill O’Brien would be CATASTROPHIC to the Texans. As Glazer opined, should O’Brien become available, he’d easily be the top NFL head coaching candidate on the market. The “why” there isn’t hard to decipher. The Texans are back-to-back division champions with arguably the worst quarterback situation in the league. Of the eight division winners, they are the only team dealing with shaky quarterback play. New England, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Dallas, Green Bay, Atlanta, and Seattle are all rock solid at the sport’s most important position. Many point to the reputation of the AFC South, incorrectly labeled as the worst division in football. It ranks sixth of eight in combined winning percentage, and AFC South teams had to run the gamut of the AFC West this season, arguably the strongest division.
O’Brien’s lengthy list of accomplishments doesn’t end there. His offense has turned the previously pedestrian CJ Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin into playmakers. He’s successfully utilized the added team speed from one offseason to the next, turning a previous team weakness into a strength. He’s worked successfully with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and player development under both has led the Texans to the #1 overall defensive ranking in yards per game this season. Perhaps most impressive, O’Brien won ten straight division games before last week’s otherwise meaningless season ending loss at Tennessee.
The friction between Bill O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith has apparently reached a boiling point. O’Brien’s contract states he and Smith are supposed to reach personnel decisions “in concurrence,” yet, one has to wonder who really pulled the trigger to sign Brock Osweiler. The massive four year, $72 million dollar deal now looks to be a massive albatross for the team. Osweiler’s benching against the Jaguars in Week 15 sheds some light on his true feeling about the Texans signal caller. It may be no small coincidence that reports of O’Brien’s days being numbered have surfaced shortly thereafter. There were also reports last season that O’Brien wanted to release then Texans’ quarterback Ryan Mallet after Mallet missed a team flight to Miami. In that situation, Smith reportedly rejected and ultimately overruled his head coach’s wishes. If true, this is just another example of a strained relationship between the coach and GM.
As someone who’s covered the Texans and has been at O’Brien press conferences, I can add that at times, he comes off a bit curt, abrupt, and irritated. He seems to make decisions emotionally, as displayed by his oft-occurring sideline tirades. It’s not hard to imagine that there are difficult days at the office working with someone whose operating temperature reading can be rather sweat-inducing.
Despite these faults, the notion that O’Brien is coaching for his job against the Raiders in the Texans’ playoff game on Saturday is patently absurd. O’Brien has provided stability and success in the face of dire injury and consistently dismal quarterback situations. With JJ Watt projected to be healthy, the Texans’ over/under win total was set at 8.5 by betting experts. Without Watt, your guess is as good as mine. You’d struggle to name five head coaches who’d be able to deliver back-to-back division titles, and matching playoff appearances in these circumstances.
Yet, when one considers what O’Brien has accomplished in a situation where many teams would have imploded, his value is obvious. Here’s to hoping Texans’ brass wisens up and sees it the same way.