Monday’s news that the Houston Texans were firing head coach/general manager Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start was somehow simultaneously stunning and not surprising at all. I’ve been skeptical of O’Brien’s decision-making since he assumed personnel power in 2019, with move after move seemingly betraying either a lack of long-term vision or a failure to understand how the rest of the NFL values players. I can understand why Texans ownership would evaluate those moves and plan to find a solution to replace O’Brien as the team’s general manager in the years to come.
Firing O’Brien the coach right now, though, makes absolutely no sense. The Texans are 0-4 and flailing in the AFC South, but they’ve played the league’s toughest schedule, with games against the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers before a loss on Sunday to the Vikings. Losing to the previously winless Vikings obviously isn’t anything great, but O’Brien had won four division titles in his prior five seasons with the organization. Four losses against mostly excellent competition shouldn’t be enough to drastically steer the organizational ship in the opposite direction and start a brand-new direction. It makes you wonder how much ownership was actually paying attention before this slow start.
Let’s split the decision across O’Brien’s two different roles, because I look at each differently:
Firing Bill O’Brien the GM
How much could really have changed between now and the end of August? Sure, O’Brien’s decision to trade away wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick doesn’t look great, but it looked bad in March when ownership presumably signed off on the idea of trading away the team’s star player. Other trade acquisitions such as running back Duke Johnson and cornerback Gareon Conley have been injured. The overpays for low-ceiling free agents such as wideout Randall Cobb and safety Eric Murray haven’t gone well — the Texans were interested in free agent Earl Thomas to replace Murray in the starting lineup, with Justin Reid playing more strong safety, before O’Brien’s players reportedly talked him out of the move — but those were decisions that looked awful at the time.
O’Brien paid over the odds to lock up young core pieces including quarterback Deshaun Watson, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Zach Cunningham, handing out contracts that were more generous than market value, but that’s also not a fireable offense. Under any circumstances, the level of oversight from Texans ownership is baffling. There was a time to pull the reins back on O’Brien, but it was a while ago. His 2019 moves suggested he was overmatched when it came to trades and contract negotiations. Letting him get a second offseason in charge of personnel decisions was the mistake ownership made.
OK, so, with the Texans spending a league-high $249.3 million on players this season while starting 0-4, why not correct that mistake as early as possible and get O’Brien out of the GM chair? For one, they can’t go out and get an immediate replacement. Early reports suggest Houston will turn things over to former Patriots chaplain Jack Easterby, who was brought by O’Brien to Houston in 2019 and became vice president of football operations in 2020. Pretty much every bad move O’Brien has made over the past two years has come with Easterby in the picture, so the idea that Easterby is somehow going to fix the problems left with this organization after O’Brien’s departure seems curious.
Furthermore, while the Texans have Watson and several other promising young players, this is going to be one of the least appealing jobs in the league. The Texans didn’t have their first- or second-round picks in 2018 after trading for Watson and dumping Brock Osweiler‘s contract. They sent away 2020 first- and second-round selections as part of the trades for Tunsil and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, and while they got one back in the Hopkins deal, they don’t have their first- or second-round choices in 2021.
Any general manager who takes this job is going to be feeling the pinch of those missing picks and won’t get another crack at a high pick until 2022. Ownership just committed a ton of money to contracts, meaning the Texans aren’t likely to be aggressive in free agency over the next year or two. Plus, while some would-be general managers might be interested if they can get time to retool the roster and restock the draft capital, Houston has been wildly erratic with its timelines. Since owner Cal McNair took control after the death of his father in 2018, he has fired general manager Brian Gaine after winning a division title in his only year on the job, let O’Brien reshape the organization to his liking, then fired the former Penn State coach after an 0-4 start. Why would any promising executive with options elsewhere want to take on this role?
In reality, when the Texans let O’Brien trade away a boatload of draft picks to acquire Tunsil and moved on from Hopkins, they should have committed themselves to seeing the O’Brien experiment through until the end of 2021. That would have been the right time to reevaluate things, and if the Texans were going to move on from their coach/GM at that point, they could hire someone with a fully stocked closet of draft picks and the chance to get out from under several of O’Brien’s questionable contracts.
Firing O’Brien now acknowledges that the Texans were wrong to give him that sort of power, but it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the problems. A more realistic path would have been to use the veto power of ownership to block anything particularly egregious O’Brien had planned and tell him he was going to need to win with the roster he spent months building. That might not have gone over well — and it’s possible O’Brien wasn’t willing to work as a coach if he didn’t have full power as general manager — but the team made this bed for itself over the past two years. An 0-4 start shouldn’t have been what made the Texans realize their mistake.
Firing Bill O’Brien the head coach
Let’s add offensive playcaller to his list of duties after reports that O’Brien took over in Week 4. At times, though, his solution for any plan seemed to be rubbing more Bill on it and hoping it fixed the problem, which seemed ill-advised given that O’Brien had ceded playcalling duties to Tim Kelly in only February.
Leave O’Brien the general manager aside, though, and think strictly about the coaching side of things. Can you really justify this move? O’Brien took over a 2-14 team with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback and posted five winning seasons in six years at the helm. The only losing season he had was when Watson tore his ACL in 2017. The Texans were 52-48 over O’Brien’s six-plus years at the helm, but they won four division titles in five years.
I wasn’t optimistic about their chances of succeeding in 2020, and O’Brien hadn’t been able to push them toward an AFC title game, but how many coaches get fired after an 0-4 start against a brutally difficult schedule with that sort of résumé? It seems impossible O’Brien was fired while both the Lions’ Matt Patricia and the Jets’ Adam Gase still have their jobs.
It would be one thing if the Texans were firing O’Brien after the season and had a high-profile replacement for the job such as Lincoln Riley or Dabo Swinney. Firing him with a plan after a disappointing campaign would have been more defensible, even if I think it would have been a little harsh given years of relative success. Without a general manager, Easterby also seems set to play a meaningful role in the hiring process.
Instead, the Texans are promoting 73-year-old Romeo Crennel to take over as the team’s interim coach. Crennel, who was promoted upstairs after the Chiefs torched his defense in the divisional round, is not going to reshape the Texans. He’s 28-55 as a head coach in his career. The worst thing that could happen now is they could improve against an easier schedule and convince McNair to keep Crennel on as their permanent coach.
It’s exactly what happened in 2011, when the Chiefs ended a messy relationship with Todd Haley after a 5-8 start and promoted Crennel to the role. He finished 2-1, with the Chiefs upsetting an undefeated Packers team in his debut. Kansas City handed the permanent job to Crennel, who … promptly went 2-14 and lost his job after a year. In the long run, it worked out brilliantly for Kansas City, which was then able to hire Andy Reid after the Eagles moved on from the future Hall of Fame coach, but Crennel’s luck in a small sample set the Chiefs franchise back a year.
The Texans will be better over the rest of the season, but I suspect that will mostly be a product of the schedule getting easier. The problems on this team still exist. The trades left them with little depth. Too many of the core players (David Johnson, Will Fuller, J.J. Watt and even Watson) have major injury concerns from season to season. The secondary is a disaster, and the Texans have no clear path to fixing it. The contracts handed out and trades made by O’Brien the general manager limit the flexibility any new coach will have in reshaping the roster.
Again, it’s hard to believe ownership let O’Brien reshape the roster this spring, saw what the first month of the Texans’ season was going to look like and then fired their football czar after he started 0-4. Sunday’s game might have gone in a different direction if Fuller had come down with a one-handed catch in the end zone in the fourth quarter, which would have given the Texans the opportunity to tie the game with a 2-pointer. If Fuller came down with that catch and the Texans came back to win the football game, would ownership have given O’Brien a reprieve? Would his plans over the past 18 months suddenly have made more sense? Did it take a loss to the Vikings for McNair to pay attention to what was wrong with his football team?
Before the season, I compared O’Brien to Chip Kelly. Like O’Brien, the former Eagles coach parlayed his success in college to an NFL head-coaching role, then used his success as a coach to win a power struggle and take over personnel duties. Kelly then made a series of bizarre decisions in free agency and via trade, and when his team failed to live up to expectations, the Eagles fired him.
Kelly at least got a full season to prove his choices were as foolish as they seemed. O’Brien has had a year and four games, but he made it into the playoffs in his first season with both roles before the ugly start to 2020. Both seem subject to the Peter Principle, the idea that people in a company will rise to the level where they can prove they’re overmatched. O’Brien will get another job as a coach, but it’s difficult to imagine another team handing him personnel duties after he made nearly two years of widely panned moves.
In the end, there was nobody left for O’Brien to use as an excuse, no power to grab and no promotion to achieve. The only person more powerful than O’Brien in the organization, McNair, is the one who made the decision to cut ties with O’Brien and his plan for the team after a month of bad football. I can understand why McNair made his decision, but it seems impossible to separate what O’Brien has done from the opportunity McNair gave him to make those decisions. McNair can right the ship and turn things around if the Texans make the right hires for O’Brien’s old positions this offseason, but neither job looks particularly appealing. McNair also has proved he’s not up to his job over the past two years, but as O’Brien was reminded Monday, you can’t fire an owner.