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NFL Draft

BOB The Unbuilder: The Dismantling Of Promising Texans

  • The Draft Network
  • October 5, 2020
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Bill Belichick is both the head coach and the general manager in New England. He has the final say on essentially all football decisions, and has since 2000, when he was hired by Robert Kraft—even when Scott Pioli was the de facto general manager as the vice president of player personnel in the 2000s, Belichick still pulled the trigger on draft picks and contracts. He controlled the team.

Bill O’Brien is both the head coach and the general manager in Houston. When in New England from 2007 to 2011, O’Brien beheld firsthand the synergy in New England’s football operations, and the coaching staff and front office were headed by the same man. Without the same name recognition and allure of Belichick, O’Brien didn’t immediately wrest control of the front office from Rick Smith, the incumbent general manager and vice president of football operations—but things worked pretty well in the traditional structure. In each of O’Brien’s first three years as a head coach, the Texans went 9-7 with a different starting quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014, Brian Hoyer in 2015, and Brock Osweiler in 2016. 

To this point, the team-building had followed a familiar and encouraging script. The roster had plenty of talent to compete in the AFC, spearheaded by a violent defense boasting of a healthy J.J. Watt and a young Jadeveon Clowney. Smith had drafted well, especially in early rounds, and O’Brien clearly had the offensive creativity necessary to win with suboptimal quarterback play. The Brock Osweiler debacle was the final straw which led to the ultimate plunge: they traded up during the 2017 NFL Draft and acquired their franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson.

You don’t expect a general manager and head coach pushing their chips in on a rookie quarterback to be done in acrimony, but such was the case between Smith and O’Brien. O’Brien was apparently infuriated by the Osweiler acquisition, who Smith had thrust upon him—this after the leaked disagreement over cutting or retaining Ryan Mallett, emphasized how far apart the two were on managing the quarterback. 

While a noxious relationship is never good, the quarterback handling in Houston emphasizes the difficult, but necessary tension between a head coach and a general manager. Both the head coach and the general manager want to build a good team, but the head coach wants it now, and the general manager wants it a year from now. The head coach prioritizes continuity; the general manager, flexibility. At times, and often on the best teams, their interests align as they look to maximize winning windows or reload aging rosters. But checks and balances keep an organization in homeostasis: never overextending to capitalize on one winning window, but always willing to strike when that iron is hot.

Consider the overall handling of Osweiler as an example. No, O’Brien didn’t like the player, but the Texans were aggressive in making a play for a potential franchise quarterback, quick to acknowledge their miss and recoup some value, and aggressive again in finding the next potential quarterback with the Watson trade. In all, the exchange from Watson to Osweiler took two firsts (in the draft-day trade with Cleveland) and a second (sent in the Osweiler trade)—a fair price for that which Watson has become. The Texans returned some value by acquiring a second- and a third-round pick for Duane Brown, and a compensatory third when the Jaguars gave A.J. Bouye a fat contract. O’Brien got the quarterback he believed he could win with, and Smith got back-to-back young quarterbacks into the building for a reasonable price. 

But even as the system worked, the ire never died. O’Brien’s frustration with Smith boiled over at the end of the 4-12 2017 season, and Smith took a leave of absence from the job in December, to spend more time with his ailing wife. O’Brien had a heavy hand in the tagging of Smith’s replacement: Brian Gaine, the longtime director of player personnel in Houston who had recently left for Buffalo. O’Brien’s positive existing relationship with Gaine was highlighted as a key boon in the hire.

This was the first onset of O’Brien’s slow grab of power in the Houston front office; it was the beginning of the end. Gaine’s tenure lasted exactly 17 months with the Texans, including one short-prep 2018 draft without a first- or second-round pick, and a 2019 draft and free agency cycle without many aggressive plays. Criticized for failing to beat the Eagles in a trade-up for Andre Dillard or extend Jadeveon Clowney long-term, Gaine was tossed in another escalation of O’Brien’s influence, replaced by Jack Easterby: a stuffed shirt filled with O’Brien’s intentions

The immediate effect on Houston’s long-term health was apparent. O’Brien, not only bred in the monarchy of New England but indoctrinated by its culture-first approach, expunged Clowney for pennies on the dollar in a summer trade with the Seattle Seahawks, then over-corrected the Brown trade by sending two firsts and a second for Laremy Tunsil—the same price that Smith once paid for Watson. Without an extension at the time, Tunsil chokeholded the Texans into the biggest tackle deal on the market, while doing little to alleviate Watson’ inherent tendency to invite sacks. 

For a flash, it looked okay. Watson led a high-powered passing attack to wins over the Chiefs and the Patriots in the regular season, while Rick Smith’s draft picks in D.J. Reader, Whitney Mercilus, and Bernardick McKinney kept the defense humming in Clowney’s absence. And it should have looked okay for that brief and stunning flash: remember, the coach wants to build a winning team today. With his thumbs finally on the controls, O’Brien did what any head coach would: got as many good players as possible and started pitching fastballs. Convinced the Texans needed a scatback, he sent a fourth-rounder for Duke Johnson Jr. Convinced the Texans were a corner away, he sent a third for Gareon Conley.

The Texans were up 24 points on the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round. Never forget that.

Of course, the Texans lost to the Chiefs, because they weren’t as talented or as well-coached. With his corner position still not solved and Johnson largely contributing nothing and Watson still taking on sacks and pressures, O’Brien had the same problems, and less capital to solve them.

This is where the yank of a trusted general manager should have come: at that moment of tilt, that greedy poker novice teeming with unjustified confidence and lacking the nuts. O’Brien was pot-committed in the worst way, finally in control of a whole roster, equal parts stunned that it didn’t work and convinced it would if he took another swing. So swing he did. 

Another star player wanted a big contract to reflect his value and O’Brien sent him away. DeAndre Hopkins was traded for a second-round pick and David Johnson, not only a potential bellcow but also the receiver that Duke Johnson never was. A trade so flabbergasting in the scope of NFL transactions, it is only explicable to those who have wandered so far off the beaten path and have disregarded so wholly the conventions of team-building. Play-calling was relinquished and then recovered again, as if any clever scripting could alleviate the talent drain that O’Brien had haphazardly masterminded.

The Texans are 0-4 today. The excuses that justified losses to top AFC contenders in Kansas City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, while already failing to acknowledge why the Texans had fallen out of that tier, fell silent when Houston dropped their fourth game to the then-winless Minnesota Vikings. The long-term suffering authored by a vacant general manager role has arrived, even earlier than expected. The Texans, still buttressed by the good players that Rick Smith acquired, but limited by the voids that O’Brien created, are bad.

And because they’re bad, their first-round pick projects to be in the top five. Even that meager consolation is lost by O’Brien, as the Texans’ first-round pick belongs to the Dolphins as an enduring chuckle at the Tunsil trade; so does their second-round pick, a subsequent gut punch. The Texans will have two top-40 picks in this upcoming draft and neither belongs to them—not that they have a general manager to make the picks anyway.

O’Brien saw Belichick do it and figured he could too—a child desperate to impress his older brother, to prove he belongs. His immediate, unarguable failure reminds us why 30 other teams have general managers, when each of their coaches also insists that, were they just given full control of the roster, they could build immediate contenders. Long-term health and security cannot be sacrificed for a short-term delusion and instant and guaranteed Super Bowl contention. When you finally look back up at the hole you’ve dug, you’ll realize just how long of a climb out awaits you.

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