NFL
October 13, 2020
BY Isaiah Freedman

Houston, We Have a Problem: Can the Texans Fix Their Massive Mistakes?

The Houston Texans are in big trouble after firing Bill O'Brien, who joined the franchise as head coach in 2014 and quickly accumulated more and more power until his world crumbled around him. The Texans' former coach and general manager left the franchise in awfully bad shape, and it’s going to take some wise personnel moves to turn this ship around.

O'Brien was never a bad coach. In fact, he was quite good, winning 52% of his games over his six-year tenure. Under O’Brien, the Texans made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, and he managed to win games with such atrocities as Brock Osweiler and Brian Hoyer as his quarterbacks, which is a legitimately impressive feat considering Osweiler is out of the league and Hoyer was just benched by the Patriots after a pitiful performance.

O’Brien’s problem was his desire to control all aspects of the organization. He was stretched too thin as general manager, head coach, and recently, play-caller. That is too much responsibility for anybody not named Bill Belichick and it was frankly reckless of O’Brien to believe he could handle executive duties while also coaching the team. It’s like a restaurant that has too many menu options but doesn’t focus on making any dish special. The result is a lot of unhappy people and mistakes galore.

What were his worst moves as the Texans try to dig themselves out of this mess? 

Trade and Free Agency Failures

Some of O’Brien’s most infamous maneuvers as the sole decision-maker are aging like milk. He dealt DeAndre Hopkins, quite possibly the best receiver in the entire league, for a measly second-round pick and running back David Johnson, who has the second-highest cap hit in the league for his position at $11 million. Hopkins has been thriving so far in Arizona, compiling 528 receiving yards and the best catch percentage (84.9%) of his career, while Johnson is averaging 4.3 yards per rush and has just 11 receptions. To add a cherry on top, the Bills gave up a first-rounder for Stefon Diggs the next day. While Diggs is a great receiver, he’s a notch below Hopkins, and yet the Vikings were able to extract more for him than O’Brien could for Hopkins. It was embarrassing to see how much O’Brien misunderstood, or just did a lack of due diligence, on the trade market. Let’s also not forget that O’Brien went on to trade a second-rounder for... Brandin Cooks, a receiver! Cooks has been solid this season, but he's a walking injury liability and he's certainly no Nuk Hopkins. 

In another blockbuster trade, O’Brien received stud left tackle Laremy Tunsil in exchange for a pair of first-round picks and one second-round selection. Tunsil might be a great player at an important position, but it was a clear overpay. On top of that, O’Brien failed to negotiate a contract extension with Tunsil upon trading for him, giving him absolutely zero leverage for Tunsil’s next deal. Surrendering three quality picks to protect your franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, is understandable. But failing to ink Tuntil to a new pact proved that O'Brien wasn't the right man for the job. 

O’Brien also jettisoned star defensive end Jadaveon Clowney last season in exchange for a third-rounder and backup pass rushers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin. He has overpaid for replacement-level players and paid good players superstar-level money. As a general manager, he has consistently shown a flawed value system that has led to him getting ransacked in trades and has left the Texans in their unenviable position they sit at today. Making matters worse, he didn’t even draft a player with the third-rounder, opting to trade for oft-injured corner Gareon Conley instead.

According to Over the Cap, the Texans are already projected to be $6 million over next year's cap. Houston, at 1-4, is also without a first- or second-round pick in the upcoming draft. That Texans pick, that the Dolphins now own, is currently the No. 8 pick. Ouch. 

All that is in the past, though, so how can the Texans fix their problems and salvage their roster? 

Quarterback

On the bright side, Houston has the most valuable commodity in football: a young, franchise quarterback in Watson who is under contract through at least 2024. Drafting Watson in 2017 is easily the best move the franchise has ever made.

In his four years in the league, Watson has led 10 game-winning drives, thrown for 11,167 yards and 80 touchdown passes while adding 15 scores on the ground. Houston needs to surround Watson with better infrastructure because he's a 25-year-old stud who needs more help from his surrounding cast. 

Supporting Cast

The Texans have taken a committee approach at wide receiver, and it hasn’t quite worked out. Will Fuller, who will undoubtedly pull his hamstring before you finish this sentence, has been their best receiver by far. Fuller combines blazing speed with tons of touchdowns, but his constant soft-tissue injuries have hampered his ability to be a consistent threat. Fuller’s presence on the field has massively swayed Watson’s production in the past. Before this season, when Fuller was sidelined, Watson recorded an 89 passer rating. With Fuller on the field, that number jumped to 104. Having a vertical threat to stretch the defense who can also put up WR1 numbers is huge, and Fuller’s health will play a big role in Houston’s offensive production.

After Fuller, the other receivers of note are Kenny Stills, Randall Cobb and Cooks. Despite Cooks' big game against the Vikings in Week 5, the group has been underwhelming, to say the least. Cook is the lone receiver of the trio to reach 100 yards in a game yet, and they’ve had trouble creating separation. Cobb, Cooks and Stills are taking up significant salary-cap space, and their performances have been closer to replacement level.

It’s the same old story with the tight ends. Darren Fells is primarily a blocker, and Jordan Akins has been average, catching only one touchdown through four games. For the backs, David Johnson has underperformed and Duke Johnson has been injured and underutilized. There is a lot of potential talent on this team, but no one seems to have put it together other than Fuller.

The offensive line is not the trainwreck it used to be, but it’s still nothing to write home about. Tunsil is a good player, but, unfortunately, he can’t play five positions at once, and the Texans are ranked as the 21st offensive line and have given up the 8th most sacks as a team, according to Football Outsiders, through Week 4. On the bright side, guard Senio Kelemete has a 96% pass block win rate, which ranks eighth-best among all guards, according to ESPN. Center Nick Martin ranks ninth in the same stat, so between those two and Tunsil, the line has some quality talent, but like their offensive teammates, have been unable to coalesce into a solid unit.

Defense

The Texans have largely failed to build a good defense to help out Watson and the offense, despite having some big names. Their DVOA rank league-wide (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) ranks over the past four years are 19th, 5th, 22nd and 27th this season. Their good season was when Mike Vrabel was running the defense, and now he's running the show in Tennessee. If the Texans fired O’Brien earlier, maybe they could have kept Vrabel, who has been an excellent coach thus far, leading the Titans to the AFC Championship last season. 

Yes, all defenses are struggling since the NFL decided to basically stop calling pass blockers for holding, but 27th is bad no matter how you spin it. The decision to allow sturdy run blocking defensive tackle D.J. Reader to sign with the Bengals in free agency appears to have been yet another misstep in O’Brien’s run as GM. If you squint hard enough, Houston is left with six above-average defenders in J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, Bernard McKinley, Bradley Roby, Justin Reid, but get this: O’Brien hasn’t been able to maximize his talent.

The embattled coach leaves behind a battered and broken team, but the presence of Watson, a true franchise quarterback, an improving offensive line and a star wide receiver (when healthy), means their fortunes can only move up from here.

The question for Houston is, who will lead the next era of Texans football and which current players will survive the next regime. 

Photo:  Getty Images