The Texans entered 2013 with Super Bowl aspirations, but things did not go according to plan. En route to limping home with a league-worst 2-14 record, Houston became the first team to jettison their head coach.
And the first team to hire a new coach for the 2014 season. With a head start on the rest of the league, the Texans wooed Bill O’Brien from Penn State to become just the third head coach in franchise history.
It’s easy to peg O’Brien as a Bill Belichick protégé, but there’s a bit more to his resume. After finishing his playing career as a linebacker and defensive end at Brown University, O’Brien joined his alma mater’s staff—first as a tight ends coach, then switching sides to coach the inside linebackers. In 1995 he left for Georgia Tech, where he worked his way up from graduate assistant to running backs coach to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach to assistant head coach in his final season with the Yellow Jackets.
In 2003 O’Brien moved on to Maryland, coaching the running backs for two seasons before taking the OC/QB coach job at Duke. Finally, in 2007 he joined Belichick in New England as an offensive assistant; in 2008 he coached the wide receivers, and in 2009 he was named quarterbacks coach.
It was in 2010 where O’Brien began to make a name for himself, guiding Tom Brady to the best TD/INT ratio of his career (36 to 4) as Brady won the NFL MVP. The following season Brady topped 5,000 passing yards for the first time in his career and also notched the best yards per attempt average of his career (8.6).
Certainly, having Tom Brady as your quarterback helps. But at Penn State O’Brien inherited former walk-on Matt McGloin and coached him up to lead the Big 10 in completions, yards, and passing touchdowns. The following season, freshman Christian Hackenberg stepped into the Nittany Lion lineup and ranked third in the conference in passing yards while posting a 2:1 TD/INT ratio.
So O’Brien’s reputation as an offensive genius and quarterback whisperer isn’t without merit. And with the Texans holding the first pick in the 2014 draft, O’Brien will have the luxury of picking the quarterback he wants to base his coaching career on.
Teddy Bridgewater seems to fit the mold of what O’Brien looks for in a quarterback; Johnny Manziel is a Texas legend with the same fiery demeanor as his potential coach; and Blake Bortles’ Central Florida team knocked off O’Brien’s Nittany Lions in Happy Valley 34-31 early in the 2013 season behind Bortles’ 20-27-288-3-1 showing. So which will it be?
“The system over the years has had mobile quarterbacks,” O’Brien said in a published report. “It’s had quarterbacks
who were six feet tall, quarterbacks that were six foot five, quarterbacks that have had all different types of skill sets. What you do is you try to look at what’s available to you, what’s already on the team and try to make sure the system fits the skill set of the players.”
In other words, the Texans aren’t telling you until Roger Goodell puts them on the clock.
Suffice it to say that whomever O’Brien tabs as the Texans’ new quarterback, the team will be decidedly more pass-oriented than in the past. Prior to the wheels falling off last season, Gary Kubiak’s offense had posted the three best rushing seasons in franchise history. However, the offense was still in decline; after averaging six yards per offensive play in 2010, that number dipped consistently—to 5.7 in 2011, 5.5 in 2012, and 5.1 last year.
In contrast, O’Brien’s New England offenses averaged 6.3 yards per play in his first season calling the plays, finishing third in the league in points. In 2011 the Patriots were second in the NFL in passing yardage, and at Penn State, O’Brien’s offense ranked second in the Big 10 in passing yards and passing touchdowns
Houston’s receiving corps is strong at the top with veteran stud Andre Johnson and up-and-comer DeAndre Hopkins. And given O’Brien’s penchant for two-tight end sets—and the Texans’ depth at the position—it may not matter that the depth thins considerably to DeVier Posey, Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez aren’t on the Houston roster, but Owen Daniels is a proven performer and Ryan Griffin has plenty of potential. Garrett Graham is an unrestricted free agent, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t return. And there’s tight end talent in the draft pool as well.
And what of the once-vaunted Houston ground game? Off the pass-heavy attack O’Brien will use plenty of play action, and the reduced workload might allow Arian Foster to regain some of his luster. Ben Tate is likely to depart via free agency, and the depth behind Foster is lacking. But with defenses focusing elsewhere, Foster could deliver another solid fantasy season—one that doesn’t ask him to carry the ball 350-plus times.
In his opening press conference in Houston, O’Brien described his offensive system as “a game plan system.”
“You have to have, in my opinion, a different game plan every week because you see so many different defenses ever week,” O’Brien said at the presser. “It’ll be a system that is adaptable and flexible.”
And, of course, one that hinges on a quarterback to be determined. Working in O’Brien’s offense should have plenty of fantasy advantages for the Texans’ new QB, and we’ve seen talented rookie quarterbacks have an immediate fantasy impact. No more banking on the Houston ground game for big fantasy digits, but if the trade-off is another passing game as productive as the Patriots have been only Foster’s dynasty owners will be disappointed.