The Texans decided to relieve their general manager/head coach/offensive playcaller of all of his duties on Monday afternoon following their 31-23 home loss to the Vikings on Sunday.
Dropping to 0-4 is a bad look for any coach, especially one with expectations, but this still qualifies as a bit of a surprise. Don’t get me wrong — I thought he stunk, especially as a GM — but you just don’t usually see head coaches who get fired after four games when they’ve won their division in four of the last five years.
Just nine months ago, O’Brien was leading the Chiefs at Arrowhead 24-0 in the playoffs after beating the Bills in the Wildcard Round the week before. Since that moment, his Texans have been outscored 187-87. That’s an embarrassing run for a team who considers itself among the AFC contenders.
Still, I guess I just kind of figured Adam Gase would be jobless before O’Brien.
After all, the McNair family let O’Brien run off long time (and very successful) GM Rick Smith in 2017. Less than 18 months later, they sided with their head coach in a power struggle against Smith’s replacement, Brian Gaine.
The Texans consolidated all power in O’Brien before the 2019 season and quickly watched him make a string of short-sighted moves:
- Trading away Jadeveon Clowney for a 3rd round pick and spare parts.
- Trading two 1st round picks and a 2nd for Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil and then giving him the biggest contract in the history of offensive linemen.
- A 3rd round pick for Duke Johnson just so he could give him seven touches per game.
- Another 3rd round pick for Gareon Conley.
This offseason saw more ill-advised moves, most notably, of course, being the trade that sent all-world wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for a 2nd round pick and David Johnson’s horrible contract. It was a terrible deal for Houston at the time, especially after seeing Stefon Diggs fetch a 1st round pick just days later.
It wasn’t hard to see the train wreck coming. In fact, I think pretty much everyone besides BOB himself saw that deal for the disaster it was at the time. Four weeks into 2020, Deshaun Watson looks like a mess without his favorite receiver, Johnson has proven to be a super expensive version of Carlos Hyde, and Hopkins is among the top five receivers in the NFL… again.
In one sense, the Texans had to fire O’Brien. He was making reckless personnel decisions and he wasn’t exactly a beloved figure in Houston.
However, the timing makes this look like a franchise with no plan. If you were four games away from firing Bill O’Brien, how can you possibly allow him to be in charge of making three of the biggest decisions the franchise will make in the next five years?
Trading Hopkins and signing linebacker Zach Cunningham, Tunsil, and Watson to mega-contracts sets the course for the Texans offense for years to come. This is the most expensive roster in the NFL in 2020 from a cash standpoint.
And they have the 7th, 3rd, and 2nd most committed cap space for the 2021, 2022, and 2023 seasons, respectively.
The lack of cap space is even more concerning when combined with the lack of 2021 draft picks. The Dolphins will be receiving the Texans 1st and 2nd round picks next spring, two picks that look like they might be pretty high in the draft order.
That leaves the next GM with very little in the way of tools to improve the roster heading into 2021 and it’s not as if they are bursting at the seams with young talent. Outside of Watson and starting safety Justin Reid, there aren’t a ton of 25-and-under talents on this roster to be excited about. Sure, Charles Omenihu has developed into a solid starter and the jury is still out on 2020 2nd rounder Ross Blacklock, but their lone defensive difference maker is a 31-year old J.J. Watt. This is a win-now roster that O’Brien couldn’t win with.
In the short term, former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel will take over head coaching duties. He had stepped aside from the head role on the Texans defense to allow Anthony Weaver to take over playcalling duties before this season. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, the former tight ends coach who had called plays for the first three games before O’Brien took the reigns away from him for Week 4, will go back to the controls on offense.
Crennel has been in Houston since 2014, but was a failure as a head coach in Cleveland and Kansas City previously, going a combined 28-55 over six seasons. Maybe getting rid of the unpopular O’Brien will give the players some life in the short term, but I don’t think the 73-year old Crennel is going to be the defibrillator that the Texans need to avoid giving the Dolphins a top-10 pick next spring.
The question will now be whether the presence of franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson is enough to offset the hole that O’Brien dug for his eventual successor. He’s the only thing standing between Houston and a five-alarm dumpster fire right now.
Jack Easterby — the former Patriots “character coach” — now seems poised to play a big role in choosing the next GM and head coach of the Texans. His departure from New England in April 2019 was contentious, especially after he turned around and tried to pry Nick Caserio away from his old employer.
I would highly recommend reading this piece from Greg Bedard in the Boston Sports Journal written in 2019 that predicted the exact chain of events that has led to Easterby suddenly assuming control of football decisions in Houston:
That would leave a power void in Houston for Easterby himself to step into once he ingratiates himself in the organization. (We’re only a few steps away from Easterby sidling up to McNair and being in a position to take over Texans’ entire football operations whenever O’Brien is fired.)
Easterby’s ascent from “character coach” for the University of South Carolina to the top football executive at an NFL team since 2011 is stunning and there have been some questions raised about whether or not he lied about the nature of a position that he held with the Jacksonville Jaguars back in 2004. That may ultimately be a lot to do about nothing, but from the outside looking in, I would have some concerns about Easterby if I was a Texans fan.
It is currently unclear whether or not the Texans will hire a GM or simply appoint Easterby to that role. I cannot see Caserio being the target again for the Texans after that pursuit ended with tampering charges filed by the Patriots. Caserio’s contract was extended in New England earlier this year and it’s hard to see the Kraft family changing their mind about letting their top non-Belichick personnel man leave for Houston less than a year after they shut it down.
New Titans Director of Player Personnel Monti Ossenfort, who came over from the Patriots in may to work under Jon Robinson and Ryan Cowden could be a target as well. Along with Caserio, Ossenfort was also requested to interview for the Texans GM opening in 2018, but that request was denied by the Patriots.
Would the Titans block a move to a division rival?
As for head coaches, Easterby is tightly connected to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, but is also apparently friendly with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, per Albert Breer.
Neither of those names should be terribly concerning for Titans fans. McDaniels was an epic failure in his previous ventures outside of New England. Maybe he’s learned from his experiences in St. Louis and Denver, maybe not. Swinney is a tremendous college coach, but it’s hard to see his folksy “bring your own guts” schtick working at the NFL level.
The Texans still have an elite quarterback — though it’s fair to say that Watson looks far less effective without Hopkins — and that makes them dangerous, but they’re very much in danger of ruining the gift that Rick Smith left them before he was kicked to the curb by O’Brien. Now they head into a critical GM/coaching search led by an inexperienced owner and a power-hungry character coach. Sure, they could stumble into a great hire and get this turned around, but I don’t think there is a strong reason to believe they’re going to get this right.