Gone are the days when NFL head coaches entered their first season with the license to develop a team over the course of a few years. The firing of Cleveland Browns head coach Rod Chudzinski marked the third consecutive season of a coach being fired after their first year with a team. Nothing is promised by desperate front offices. In 2011, Oakland fired Hue Jackson at the end of his first season after posting the franchise’s best record since 2002. The bar is at an all-time high for new hires. Last season, three coaches (Andy Reid, Mike McCoy, and Chip Kelly) took their teams to the postseason in their first year, while Chicago’s Marc Trestman and Arizona’s Bruce Arians missed a playoff berth by just one game.
Seven teams parted ways with their coach this offseason, and all seven new hires know that there are immense expectations to not only win, but to win immediately. We’ll be taking a look at a different first-year head coach each week, determining what they bring to the table, and just how well they will fit in with the current personnel.
Bill O’Brien, Houston Texans
- Georgia Tech, 1998-2000. (Running Backs Coach)
- Georgia Tech, 2001-2002. (Assistant Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Quarterbacks Coach)
- Maryland, 2003-2004. (Running Backs Coach)
- Duke, 2005-2006. (Offensive Coordinator, Quarterbacks Coach)
- New England Patriots, 2007. (Offensive Assistant)
- New England Patriots, 2008. (Wide Receivers Coach)
- New England Patriots, 2009-2010. (Quarterbacks Coach)
- New England Patriots, 2011. (Offensive Coordinator)
- Penn State, 2012-2013. (Head Coach)
The Texans entered the 2013 season following a successful 2012 campaign that had ended with a second consecutive postseason appearance. Lofty expectations followed the recent string of success of head coach Gary Kubiak and Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, but the 2013 season saw a Houston collapse that centered on the meltdown of Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Schaub. Thus, it seemed like a perfect fit when Houston hired the quarterback-centric Bill O’Brien, and few complained when O’Brien’s first act as head coach was to fire all assistants from the prior coaching staff.
O’Brien did make waves, however, when he announced that he would not be hiring an offensive coordinator. Nine other NFL head coaches call their own plays, and O’Brien is from the Bill Belichick tree of coaching, but this move is still an uncommon one. It appears that his time in New England led to a desire to maintain significant control of the gameday operations.
Making no such claim about his defensive playcalling, O’Brien opted to hire fellow Belichick alumnus Romeo Crennel to serve as the defensive coordinator. Crennel won three Super Bowls in New England as the defensive coordinator and was considered a frontrunner as New Orleans searched to fill the position last offseason. Mike Vrabel also joined the team as the linebackers coach. He played under Crennel in New England as an All-Pro linebacker. Also bolstering the Patriots connection is the hiring of George Godsey, who served as O’Brien’s offensive assistant in New England, as Houston’s new quarterbacks coach. In addition, O’Brien brought eight coaches with him from Penn State.
O’Brien is accustomed to being the guy who implements an absolute culture change after years of a program’s stability. O’Brien took over a Penn State program that had just endured 45 years of Joe Paterno and was in desperate need of a new direction. Now, on the heels of Kubiak’s eight-year tenure, he takes control of a Texans team as only the third head coach in franchise history.
O’Brien’s offensive philosophy is wholly oppositional to Kubiak’s. Kubiak famously did not allow quarterbacks to audible at the line of scrimmage, and he gained a reputation for failing to implement halftime adjustments. O’Brien prides himself on intense preparation and adjustments. He has been quoted as believing that halftime adjustments are inadequate, and, true to his formative years with the Patriots, prefers to continuously adjust throughout the entire game. Whereas Kubiak sought to limit the quarterback’s involvement in play selection, O’Brien searches for quarterbacks with a high football intelligence who can make pre-snap reads.
O’Brien also tirelessly prepares his players before a game, teaching his offensive players throughout the week about the defensive schemes and tendencies they will encounter on Sunday, and even swapping player positions around on a weekly basis to create and exploit favorable matchups. He is also partially responsible for revolutionizing the two tight-end set in New England, and his offensive contributions resulted in several franchise and all-time records, as well as numerous All-Pro players and Super Bowl appearances.
Coaching was certainly one reason for the historic success of the New England Patriots over the past ten years. Another reason, though, is the ridiculous amount of talent on both sides of the ball that allowed the Patriots to dominate the league. In just his five years with New England, the Patriots had ten first team All-Pro players. While this is encouraging on some level to Houston, it also draws concern about O’Brien’s ability to produce wins without such absurd talent at his disposal. Even in his final season at Penn State, O’Brien benefited from having the top quarterback recruit taking snaps for him.
But realistically, the concern should be less about whether O’Brien can win without New England’s pool of talent, and more about a possible reluctance to adapt his offensive philosophy to a non-future Hall of Fame quarterback. O’Brien is very focused on finding the “prototypical O’Brien passer,” and may disproportionately value intelligence over the many other qualities that a quarterback must possess to succeed in the fast-paced NFL. This is the reason why he passed on Bortles, Bridgewater, and Manziel, instead opting to select Tom Savage in the fourth round, and why O’Brien released Texans quarterbacks Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates in favor of free agent (and Harvard graduate) Ryan Fitzpatrick, who famously posted a reportedly perfect score on the Wonderlic Test. But while Fitzpatrick may display traditional intelligence, he has yet to produce a winning record as a starting quarterback.
On the defensive side of the ball, Romeo Crennel’s two-gap approach may result the underutilization of superstar J.J. Watt. Crennel’s 3-4 scheme is predicated on defensive ends absorbing large offensive lineman, which then allows the outside linebackers, who act as edge rushers, to disrupt the backfield by winning matchups with smaller blockers, usually the tight-end or running back. While this could be beneficial to rookie Jadeveon Clowney, Watt could see a decrease in productivity.
O’Brien’s philosophy of preparedness and adaptability should immediately pay dividends to a Houston team that was exposed early last season. And while his success in New England came with one of the most stacked rosters of the last twenty years, a team with Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster, Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney should be able to dominate in a relatively mild AFC South. The question, though, is whether O’Brian’s quarterbacks can flourish in the shadow of Tom Brady.