By: Brian McDonald (@sackedbybmac)
How did the Houston Texans lose this game, let me count the ways.
Deshaun Watson’s interception that set up a touchdown for New England, poor punt coverage, blowing coverage against Chris Hogan multiple times, Corey Moore dropping an interception, and many more reasons that would take too long to list.
Wins and losses never come down to one thing, but there has been one consistent failure in most of the Houston Texans disappointing losses: Mistakes in game management from head coach Bill O’Brien.
Before going over the mistakes from the loss at New England, listed chronologically in the order in which they happened, check out an article I wrote during the 2016 season chronicling all the game management mistakes made by O’Brien from 2014 to that point.
Not Going for Two
Down 28-26 with 7:12 left in the 3rd quarter, Bill O’Brien decided to kick the extra point instead of going for two after a Deshaun Watson touchdown pass to Ryan Griffin.
Some will argue that going for two is “chasing points too early,” but it was the 3rd quarter not the 1st, you’re on the road, and you’re facing the New England Patriots; that situation necessitates a more aggressive approach to win the game.
Beyond that, the logic in going for two in that situation is based on simple math that too many coaches continue to ignore.
- Kicking and making the extra point makes the game 28-27, meaning they’d need a field goal to take the lead.
- Going for the two-point conversion and failing keeps the score at 28-26, meaning they’d need a field goal to take the lead.
- Going for two and converting it ties the ball game.
The negative outcome of failing to convert the two-point conversion leaves them in the same situation (needing a field goal to take the lead) that making an extra point kick does; there’s no mathematical downside to going for two in that situation.
You can either try to tie the game from three yards out, or take the overly-conservative path with an extra point that doesn’t improve your situation and leaves you in no worse shape than if you had failed on a two-point conversion.
They’d had success on offense to that point, but it’s the 3rd quarter and there’s no guarantee of advancing the ball into scoring position again, so not trying to tie the game in that situation when there’s very little downside if you fail, is too conservative and was a mistake.
On the very next possession, the Patriots moved the ball past the 50-yard line before Tom Brady seemingly got sacked on a 3rd and 21 play from the Texans 46-yard line.
Facing pressure Brady dumped the ball off to Rob Gronkowski, who advanced the ball to the Texans 38-yard line line on the play, but replays seemed to show Brady’s knee touching before he released the football. Bill O’Brien challenged the play, should have won the challenge, but the play ultimately stood as called on the field.
Here’s the problem though: Losing the challenge was actually in the Texans best interest, because winning the challenge would have likely cost the Texans valuable field position; terrible decision by O’Brien.
- Letting the play stand without a challenge puts the Patriots in a 4th down and 13 situation from the Texans’ 38-yard line.
- From that spot the field goal would be 56-yards. With the Patriots holding a one-point lead, and Stephen Gostkowski having only made one kick from that distance in his entire 12 year career, Bill Belichick was very unlikely to try a field goal. Unless you have Justin Tucker or the game is being played in Denver, very few coaches try a field goal from that distance with the lead.
- Again it’s worth mentioning, only one of Gostkowski’s 308 career field goals made have been from 56-yards or deeper; they’re not likely to attempt that kick.
- IF they do run out the field goal team to attempt the kick, then you still have the opportunity to throw the red challenge flag before they snap the ball if you think the challenge is winnable, and want to push them back out of field goal range.
- By letting the play stand and making the Patriots punt from the 38-yard line, the odds of their punter pinning the Texans inside the 20-yard line and avoiding a touchback are low. If you win the challenge and move the ball back at least eight yards—not sure how much further back the sack would have been—to the original line of scrimmage of the Texans’ 46-yard line, the odds for their punter being able to avoid a touchback and pin the Texans inside the 20-yard line improve.
- You could argue that the eight yard difference doesn’t drastically improve their odds of avoiding a touchback and getting the punt downed inside the 20-yard line, but any increase of the odds at all makes the challenge a poor decision.
We can argue about how much those eight yards changes the odds, but that’s really not the point. Any decision that increases the odds of something worse happening is a poor decision, especially when the mistake is easily avoidable and in the end costs you a timeout.
Maybe if the Texans have two timeouts at the end of the game, O’Brien doesn’t hesitate and let eight or nine seconds run off. However flawed his thinking might have been, the reason to spike the ball instead of calling timeout is to gain an extra play by saving the timeout. If they have two timeouts instead of one, then there wouldn’t be a need to spike the ball and maybe he doesn’t make that mistake.
That’s highly speculative of course, but having an extra timeout in the 2nd half is never a bad thing, on top of the likely negative impact on field position.
Kicking a Field Goal on 4th and 1 Late in the 4th Quarter
This one isn’t as easily proved with logic or math like the last two points, but was in my opinion the worst decision made by O’Brien in this game. It’s more based on feel and past experience, but hear me out.
- Leading 30-28 with 2:28 remaining in the game, and the Patriots having used two of their three timeouts, the Texans were faced with a 4th-and-1 situation.
- Go for it on 4th down and convert, the ball game is over unless there is an all-time blunder or miracle.
- In the above situation, the Patriots likely use their last timeout immediately. The Texans could then kneel the ball once to get to the two-minute warning, then with the 40-second play clock plus the time of the plays, run the ball twice to take the clock under 30-seconds before kicking a field goal if they don’t gain a 1st down.
- At that point, after the kickoff the Patriots are getting the ball with around 20 to 25 seconds left needing to go the full field for a touchdown without any timeouts; Texans win the game.
Alternatively if you do what O’Brien decided to do and kick the field goal, you’re deciding to give Tom freaking Brady the ball back with a chance to win.
- If the field goal would have put them up two scores, then forcing them to possess the ball twice would be playing the odds correctly.
- If the Texans were facing a bad quarterback like Blake Bortles, then you’re better off forcing that bad quarterback to score than trying to convert on 4th down.
- If the clock was under 1 minute and the Patriots were out of timeouts, then kicking the field goal would have been the best decision.
None of those scenarios were the case against New England.
The decision should have come down to simply this: Would you rather put the outcome of the game on gaining one yard with your offense, or stopping Tom Brady from doing something he’s done now 51 times over the last 17 seasons, lead a 4th quarter game winning drive.
They needed one yard. One damn yard.
The Texans averaged 3.9 yards per carry and gained seven 1st downs by a rushing play during the game; can’t get one yard?
They have one of the most athletic runners in the league at quarterback and a great short-yardage back in D’Onta Foreman; don’t trust them to gain one yard?
If you’d rather have the outcome of the game come down to stopping Tom Brady instead of the offense gaining one yard, I’d like to get the location of the cave you’ve been living in for the last 17 years. You’d have to have been in a coma or without a TV for the last 17 years to not see what Brady did coming before it happened.
Neither strategy with kicking the field goal or going for it is perfect or guarantees victory, so it’s all about playing the odds; the Texans took the lower percentage path.
It’s possible that he made Deshaun Watson responsible for calling timeouts—Watson was motioning for a spike—and just took the blame because he never throws his players under the bus, but that’s not an acceptable answer even if true.
O’Brien said in the post-game press conference that he screwed up; an understatement if I’ve ever heard one.
Don’t leave something up to someone else when you can do it yourself. Watson is a rookie, he’s on the road, don’t allow him to make the mistake and instead be aware enough to make the decision yourself and save the rookie from a potential error.
That being said, I don’t think that was the case.
O’Brien has had problems with game management since day one, and he’s now trying to juggle those duties with offensive play-calling once again; he just got lost and didn’t know what to do in a split second situation.
O’Brien has coached 51 regular season games, 15 pre-season games, three playoff games, and two seasons at Penn State as a head coach; it’s inexcusable for him to still make rookie mistakes.