Let Bill O'Brien be a cautionary tale for ambitious coaches. When all the power is invested in one person -- as it was in O'Brien in Houston -- there is nowhere else for the team owner to turn when the results are unexpectedly poor. On Monday, just four weeks into the regular season, just nine months after he added the general manager title to his head-coaching duties, O'Brien was fired, a stunning and swift fall for a coach who won the AFC South four of the last five seasons.
There was nearly endless palace intrigue during O'Brien's six-plus seasons in Houston, as the team went through three general managers -- including O'Brien himself -- during his tenure. And the intrigue does not end with O'Brien's exit. His hand-picked executive vice president of football operations -- the "character coach" Jack Easterby, who was brought in by O'Brien to help him evaluate the organization and fired general manager Brian Gaine, then signed off on O'Brien's personnel moves, remains in his job. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, the two were no longer seeing eye to eye, and now Easterby, whose roots are in the New England Patriots organization, is in a position to select O'Brien's successor. For now, assistant head coach Romeo Crennel will serve as the interim head coach.
It is not an overstatement to say that O'Brien the general manager got O'Brien the head coach fired. O'Brien's deals, even before he got the official GM title back in January, often swung for the fences. He acquired tackle Laremy Tunsil and receiver Kenny Stills from the Miami Dolphins a year ago in exchange for two first-round picks and a second-rounder. He shocked the NFL this spring by trading DeAndre Hopkins, one of the game's best receivers, for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick. He traded Jadeveon Clowney for a third-round pick. He had earlier let Tyrann Mathieu go in free agency. And only weeks ago, he gave star quarterback Deshaun Watson a (well-deserved) four-year, $160 million contract extension.
One problem: all of that wheeling and dealing and results did not follow. The Texans are 0-4, after falling Sunday to the previously winless Minnesota Vikings, and it probably didn't help O'Brien that J.J. Watt came out after the Vikings loss and said, "whatever we're doing is not working," a clear indication that O'Brien had lost the confidence of his most important players.
"Every decision we made was always in the best interest of the team," O'Brien said in a video conference call with reporters, still sitting in front of a Houston Texans backdrop. "There were things that happened within the walls of an organization that the outside public will never know. And I understand that."
Still, O'Brien's firing -- the first major move by owner Cal McNair since he assumed control of the team after the death of his father, Robert -- was surprisingly early, especially considering his otherwise reasonably successful record. He was 52-48 and 2-4 in the playoffs. It was hard not to look at that record and wonder how O'Brien could be out of the job while Adam Gase, whose team is also 0-4 and who does not have previous playoff appearances on his New York Jets resume, is still employed.
Even with as much dysfunction as was apparently present in Houston, in-season coaching changes remain relatively rare in the NFL because of the very short window for a turnaround, although other teams could be spurred to act so that the Texans do not get too far ahead in the race to scout out the next hot head-coaching candidates.
The lack of draft capital (Miami has their first- and second-round picks in 2021) to rebuild may scare away some general manager candidates, but the opportunity to coach Watson should be a powerful recruiting chip for the Texans. That is why the Texans will almost certainly look closely at the top offensive assistants in the game. A potential marriage with Eric Bieniemy, the Chiefs offensive coordinator who is currently flourishing with Patrick Mahomes, would seem to be a strong possibility, because Bieniemy has proven adept at working with a mobile quarterback and because Andy Reid disciples have done well as head coaches. The continued development and hot start of the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen will put offensive coordinator Brian Daboll on many radars, and Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman will certainly be on a short list, too. A new name to watch could be Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who is having success with rookie Justin Herbert. And, if Easterby remains, he is close to Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, although the McNairs may not be interested in hiring another product of the Bill Belichick coaching tree.
They have tried that once. They got plenty of drama, but no Super Bowl -- and for now, no wins -- for their trouble.