HOUSTON — For the first time since the 2008 season, the Houston Texans are winless through four games.
Monday, it cost general manager and coach Bill O’Brien his job. A series of moves made by O’Brien, combined with the lousy start, led to the firing. Associate head coach Romeo Crennel is taking over as interim coach, and the rest of the coaching staff will remain in place, a source told ESPN.
Two years ago, Houston won the AFC South with a team full of stars. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was throwing to one of the best wide receivers in football, DeAndre Hopkins. On defense, J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney led an elite front seven with Tyrann Mathieu providing a spark in the secondary.
Two seasons later, only Watson and Watt are left. O’Brien let Mathieu go in free agency and traded away Hopkins and Clowney for next to nothing.
Before the 2019 season, O’Brien mortgaged the future by trading a package of picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills. He has one playoff win to show for it. Before this season, O’Brien traded Hopkins because the receiver wanted a new contract while there were three years left on his deal. The running back O’Brien got in return for Hopkins — David Johnson — is averaging 3.8 yards a carry through four games.
“This is terrible,” defensive end Watt said of the Texans’ 0-4 start. “It’s brutal. I mean, it’s depressing. It sucks. This sucks. I don’t know any other way to put it.”
Unfortunately for the Texans, and whoever will be charged with taking over as GM and coach, this winless start means more than missing the playoffs this season. Here’s why:
No draft capital
The one positive for a team that starts the season poorly and doesn’t look competitive is a chance for a high draft pick. That won’t be the case for the Texans this year.
Houston’s 2021 first- and second-round draft picks belong to the Miami Dolphins after O’Brien traded both as part of the package for Tunsil and Stills. While the first-round pick last year that went to Miami was No. 26, the Texans’ 2021 pick is suddenly looking even more appealing for the Dolphins.
Between the 2017 and 2021 drafts, Houston will have made two of its five first-round picks. (Granted, they traded one in 2017 to move up for Watson. In that same draft, however, the Texans also traded a second-round pick just to get rid of Brock Osweiler’s contract.)
The lack of draft capital is especially startling for a team about to lose its financial flexibility due to Watson’s $160 million contract, which takes effect after the 2021 season. With the huge cap hit from Watson’s contract alone, it’s crucial for the Texans to find affordable young talent. Unless they start trading players to add draft picks, they likely will to have to wait until 2022 for bankable young players to come through the draft.
When O’Brien made the trade with Miami, he did it because he wanted to protect his best player, and acquiring Tunsil and spending a first-round pick on Tytus Howard did fill big needs. However, the price for the Tunsil trade looked steep at the time and it’s even more glaring now — just more than a year later — with so many roster holes.
Of course, O’Brien never would have imagined having a high pick two years after finally protecting his franchise quarterback. But not only could the Texans have used the No. 26 pick in 2020 on a player who could make an immediate impact, but a top-10 pick in 2021 certainly could bring in a strong left tackle prospect. He wouldn’t cost an average of $22 million per season like Tunsil, either.
Per the ESPN Roster Management system, the Texans are spending more than $245 million in cash on their roster this season, more than any other team in the NFL. Even more of that money will be going toward Watson moving forward, and if Houston shows no progress the rest of the season, why would the team spend a similar amount next year?
No impact rookies
No draft capital means no young talent to build around. The Texans haven’t had the chance to draft many young impact players in recent years. While other teams are able to identify and capitalize on starters with salary cap-friendly rookie contracts, Houston’s roster is built around free-agent acquisitions and middling veterans.
In their Week 3 loss to the Steelers, the Texans did not have a single rookie play a snap from scrimmage on offense or defense. Only cornerback John Reid, a fourth-round pick, saw action on special teams.
Let that sink in. Not a single rookie. Second-round pick Ross Blacklock was inactive after he was ejected for punching a player in Week 2. Third-round pick Jonathan Greenard was inactive. Fourth-round tackle Charlie Heck was, you guessed it, a healthy scratch. Fifth-round wide receiver Isaiah Coulter is on injured reserve.
Will Fuller is the best offensive player drafted by the Texans aside from Watson, but he’s 26 now and making $10.1 million on his fifth-year option. He’ll be a free agent after this season. Otherwise, the most promising young Texans are either safety Justin Reid, a third-round pick in 2018, or tight end Jordan Akins, picked later in the same round.
Lack of talent under contract
The Texans will have to make decisions on several key players after this season, especially with the Watson and Tunsil extensions about to take effect.
Fuller is on his fifth-year option and hasn’t been re-signed because the Texans need to make sure they can depend on him. (His production has been inconsistent throughout his career, and he missed 22 games in his first four seasons due to injury.) Fuller and Stills are set to be free agents after the season.
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks is owed $12 million next season with no guaranteed money. Will Houston be able to keep him at that salary, and would Cooks be eager to take a pay cut if it means staying with the Texans? Through four games, Cooks has 10 catches for 138 yards, including no catches in Week 4. Behind Cooks, Fuller and Stills, that leaves slot receiver Randall Cobb, who has a cap hit of $10.6 million in 2021, Keke Coutee and Coulter. O’Brien didn’t show much faith in Coutee, and so far Coulter is redshirting his rookie season.
In the backfield, Johnson has a $9 million cap hit in 2021. That is a lot of money for a player who largely has been ineffective and has not shown the ability to replicate the form that got him his current contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
When listing the things Houston needs to improve, O’Brien said Sunday, “We’ve got to find a running game, a consistent running game.” O’Brien, of course, traded Hopkins for Johnson and a second-round pick (that turned into Blacklock) this offseason. The Texans also traded a third-round pick for Duke Johnson during training camp in 2019.
On the wrong path
Following the 2017 season, O’Brien signed a five-year extension that took him through the 2022 season. In January, he was also named the general manager. Now he is unemployed.
Regardless of how this season ends, it was clear to ownership that the franchise that has won the AFC South in four out of the last five years wasn’t on the right track moving forward. Houston will overhaul its front office and coaching staff.
It didn’t take long for the McNair family, the team’s owners, to rescind the faith it put into O’Brien. The McNairs have often said their goal is to bring a championship to the city of Houston. Winning an AFC South title isn’t the same as a Super Bowl and that’s why big changes are on the way.