In Saturday night’s pre-season game versus the New England Patriots, Bill O’Brien made an odd play call. Quarterback Tom Savage had driven his team down to the Patriots 8 yard line. It was 4th and 6, in easy field goal position, but O’Brien kept his offense on the field. Was he going to test Tom Savage’s arm with a pass play? No, he made the curious decision to call a draw, in which running back Lamar Miller gained an unspectacular 2 yards. Widely hailed as an idiotic play call, I actually think O’Brien was testing Tom Savage, but not his arm. He was testing his brain. There’s a history here.
In 2015, Ryan Mallett was competing to win the starting quarterback job in training camp. Luckily for us, HBO’s Hard Knocks was there to document it all. In a pre-season game versus the 49ers, O’Brien called a quarterback sneak on 3rd and 3. Mallett failed to convert. On the sideline afterwards, O’Brien chided Mallett for not checking out of the play. Here’s the scene. It’s a quick and compelling watch.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this might have been intentional on O’Brien’s part. I thought that maybe he had misjudged or misheard the distance somehow, but still wanted Mallett to be the eyes on the field who could catch and correct his coach’s mistake.
This call was ostensibly much worse. This was different than calling a draw on third and long. In those situations, a coach is trying to grab some field position before he punts, with the outside chance of gaining the first down. It’s also done in the middle of the field, when the defense is more spread out.
The play call on Saturday night was in the tight red zone, and it was so egregiously bad that I can see only two plausible explanations.
First, there may have been issues with the headsets or communications. If that were the case, however, it seems like O’Brien could have cited it in his press conference. Instead, he simply admitted that it was a bad call.
The second explanation, which is the one that my conspiratorial heart desires, is that he was intentionally challenging Savage’s judgement on the field by feeding him a bad play. Was O’Brien using a meaningless pre-season game to give Savage (and Mallett before him) an opportunity to check out of a bad play or call a timeout? I have to say, this would require a level of self confidence that I’m not sure I could muster. O’Brien would be subjecting himself to ridicule for the sake of putting his quarterback in a teachable moment. Win or lose, Savage was going to learn something from this. The only possible way that O’Brien wouldn’t look like an idiot is if Savage succeeded.
There is a third explanation. It’s that the coach may have completely lost his marbles and made one of the most bone headed play calls in the short history of the Texans. I choose to ignore that one for now, in the same way I choose not to get my yearly physical because I don’t feel like thinking about consequences.
If this was indeed a test, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the fact that Savage failed, except that he already had an opportunity to learn this lesson in 2015. In the video, check out who’s looking over Mallett’s shoulder. Also note how hungry Vince Wilfork looks. Enjoy your retirement, big man.