Yesterday, news broke that the Houston Texans were officially giving Bill O’Brien the title of General Manager, effectively formalizing the way their organization has been operating in the seven months since they fired former GM Brian Gaine and making O’Brien more powerful within his team structure than every other coach in the league besides Bill Belichick. The only other seemingly significant voice in the football operation is now Jack Easterby, the Patriots former “character coach” who was also promoted to Executive Vice President of Football Operations — a fancy title that doesn’t seem to carry a ton of meaning if O’Brien is going to be in charge of both picking and coaching the players.
We’ve already seen a little bit of what O’Brien’s style as a GM might be. Shortly after winning the power struggle and ousting Gaine after the 2019 NFL Draft, he made a series of trades, sending out Jadeveon Clowney, Martinas Rankin, Johnson Bademosi, Julie’n Davenport, their first round picks in 2020 and 2021, their second round pick in 2021, their third round pick in 2020, and their sixth round pick in 2020. For all that, they got back Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Gareon Conley, Duke Johnson, Keion Crossen, Barkevious Mingo, Jacob Martin, Carlos Hyde, the Dolphins 2020 fourth round pick, and the Dolphins 2021 sixth round pick.
Tunsil, Stills, Martin, Johnson, Hyde, and Conley all contributed to the Texans AFC South winning 10-6 regular season and brought them just their second playoff win in franchise history, so in that sense, you can say that these trades were successful in the short term.
However, in the long term, they’re likely to look far worse. Hyde will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and Tunsil is expected to get a monster contract extension this offseason despite leading all offensive linemen in accepted penalties in 2019. It’s not like the Texans have much of a choice with Tunsil. Letting the left tackle that they spent two first round picks on walk would turn a highly questionable trade into an outright travesty. Tunsil and his agents know that and I’d expect them to take full advantage of a nearly unprecedented amount of leverage in his contract negotiations.
In the meantime, the Texans will have just one top 100 pick to restock their team with young talent in the next two drafts so they’re going to relying on O’Brien, a coach with no formal experience running a scouting department, to find value in the lower rounds to build his team with.
The Texans have to know they’re reaching the end of the line with long time superstar J.J. Watt to anchor the defense. He’s about to be 31 and the major injuries are starting to really pile up. Over the past four years Watt has played more than eight games in the regular season just once. Beyond him, there are no real formidable pieces to build around. Justin Reid is a nice young safety with some potential and D.J. Reader and Whitney Mercilus are above average in their respective roles, but none of those guys is going to carry a unit like Watt.
Sacrificing tomorrow for today is not a surprising result from consolidating power in a football coach. The reason that the GM and head coaching roles are typically separated within all sports organizations is the fact that you need one person to take the 30,000-foot view while another focuses on the day-to-day of improving the team. O’Brien has operated with zero regard for the five year plan in Houston. Even in trading away Clowney, the pick he got back simply moved the third round pick they would have been due as a compensatory pick from 2021 to 2020.
Now O’Brien will be tasked with navigating the mega-contract extensions that are due for both Tunsil and superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson. He’ll need to find a way to accommodate those deals while also improving a roster that wasn’t good enough in 2019 without the benefit of premium draft picks.
It seems like a massive amount of trust to put in a coach who has been solid, but not spectacular in his six years in Houston. O’Brien has gone 52-44 in regular season action and has won the division four of the last five years. That’s pretty good, but it’s also not uniquely spectacular. Among current head coaches, O’Brien’s .542 winning percentage ranks 17th in the league. He’s also gone just 2-4 in the playoffs with all four of the losses coming in embarrassing blowout fashion.
What, exactly, has O’Brien done that demands he be given this much power?
Don’t expect him to wield that power lightly either. Along with the higher profile moves announced yesterday, the Texans also parted ways with several other coaches and front office staff members. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who is very plugged into the Houston sports scene, also suggests that more moves on the way after the draft as well.
Look for more after the draft too. https://t.co/F6PnLy9vIr— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) January 28, 2020
With Deshaun Watson under center and back to back 10-plus win seasons, Houston seemed like Tennessee’s primary hurdle for winning the division in the immediate future. With the Colts finally learning what life is like without a generational talent at quarterback and the Jaguars, well... Jaguaring, the Titans and Texans look like the clear favorites for the AFC South crown in 2020 and beyond.
Watson’s individual brilliance makes it unlikely that Houston suddenly recedes into irrelevance, but the Texans are making a massive bet on O’Brien to be able to surround their star with the talent needed to make a run at the Super Bowl and I think that’s probably good news for Titans fans.