[UPDATE: The Texans have reportedly hired Mike Devlin and the new offensive line coach]
Something happened on Thursday that Texans fans probably aren’t very accustomed to seeing. Head coach Bill O’Brien decided to cut ties with offensive line coach Paul Dunn. Historically, most of the coach firings in Houston have been of the reactive versus proactive variety. I believe this move gives a window into the future of the O’Brien regime.
It always seemed to me that one of Gary Kubiak’s major faults as a head coach was his evaluation of assistant coaches. His first defensive coordinator, Richard Smith, has been excoriated by almost every former player I’ve talked to. Frank Bush supervised the league’s 32nd ranked defense in the NFL in 2010 before being let go.
O’Brien appears to have more of a cutthroat mentality. Smith and Bush (under the previous regime) produced the type of results that indicated major changes had to be made. After a somewhat surprising 9-7 season, O’Brien wasn’t necessarily in a position to have to make any changes.
Evaluating offensive line play in the NFL isn’t an exact science. Every team has its own grading systems, and the outside evaluators may not always know the specific responsibilities the linemen have on every play. With that disclaimer, here is a look at a few statistical/evaluative nuggets on the Texans 2014 OL:
Pro Football Focus graded the line as the 5th best in the NFL. The website grades Houston 12th in pass blocking, 3rd in run blocking, and 10th in penalties. They note the strong play of Brandon Brooks and the turnaround season of Derek Newton.
For a more statistical perspective, Football Outsiders has the Texans OL 23rd in the run game, and 8th in pass blocking (adjusted sack rate). They have all of the explanations for their stats at the top of the link. As a general principle, FO adjusts for down, distance, situation, and opponent. They are trying to find clean statistics, without biases.
In my view, I think the OL performed somewhere between both the PFF evaluation, and the stats on Football Outsiders. The Texans were 5th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, but they were a heavy-volume run team. The line also seemed to improve in pass protection towards the end of the season. Like the whole team after the bye, the OL finished the season on a high note.
The big drop-off between the production of Arian Foster (4.8 YPC) and Alfred Blue (3.1 YPC) makes you wonder how much of the effectiveness of the running game simply came down to the talent healthy at RB. On the other hand, the line wasn’t in an easy spot. O’Brien and George Godsey’s overall philosophy this season was to pound the football. It’s easier to run the ball when the QB is Aaron Rodgers, versus the amalgamation of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, and Case Keenum. The decreased threat at quarterback created more stacked defensive fronts.
Ultimately, it’s hard to determine how much Paul Dunn added or subtracted here. He took over a line with 2 higher level veterans (Duane Brown, Chris Myers), an up and coming guard (Brooks), replacement level guard (Ben Jones), and very shaky right tackle (Newton). The line generally had a solid season and improved, but that could have happened without Dunn. O’Brien could have, and likely did, conclude that an average offensive line coach may have produced the same type of results.
To add some context here, former Texans offensive lineman Charles Spencer had some unkind thoughts on the hiring of Dunn last year:
Dunn had been let go in Atlanta, and new OL coach Mike Tice kept reiterating during Hard Knocks that he was brought in to “toughen up” that group. In light of that, I’m not really surprised by Thursday’s news.
Hiring a coaching staff is made more difficult because of the availability of assistant coaches at any one time. Maybe O’Brien has a new hire in mind who wasn’t available last January. Remember, the Texans pursued Mike Munchak and Brian Ferentz before they went/returned to Pittsburgh and Iowa, respectively. Dunn was the third choice at best, and maybe seen as a more of a stopgap.
What’s next? O’Brien has proven he is willing to cut the cord when he proactively sees that a change could help his football team. With that, I’m very curious about his evaluation of Bob Ligashesky. The special teams unit improved in coverage this season. However, the kick and punt returns rated dreadfully, and finished 28th overall in DVOA. Maybe that can be explained by personnel, especially with the relative lack of speed on the special teams units.
All in all, an intriguing start to the Texans offseason.
Mike Meltser can be heard on MaD Radio from 10am-2pm
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