Can Bill O’Brien the Coach Overcome Bill O’Brien the General Manager in Houston?

O'Brien dealt star wideout DeAndre Hopkins for peanuts this offseason

September 1, 2020 6:00 am
Can Bill O'Brien the Coach Overcome the Bill O'Brien the GM?
Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien chats with an assistant during training camp.
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Texans.

No. 7: Houston Texans 
2019 Record: 10-6

Points For: 378 – Points Against: 385
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 7.5

In six years as the head coach of the Texans, Bill O’Brien has five winning seasons, four division titles and has also brought Houston to the playoffs four times, winning a postseason game twice.

Clearly a competent coach at the NFL level, O’Brien had enough on-field success that the team allowed him to begin handling personnel decisions prior to last season and officially gave him the general manager title that had previously been held by Brian Gaine earlier this year. In his brief stint calling the shots in Houston’s front office, O’Brien has been active. First he traded a package of assets highlighted by pair of first-round draft picks and one second-rounder to the Miami Dolphins for star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and serviceable wide receiver Kenny Stills. Tunsil, who earned a Pro Bowl selection in his first year with Houston, was subsequently given a three-year, $66 million contract extension that made him the highest-paid offensive tackle in the NFL at the time.

Then, on the same day, instead of signing Pro Bowl pass rusher and franchise player Jadeveon Clowney to a new deal following a contract dispute, O’Brien paid him a $7 million bonus to get him to sign his tender, then swiftly dealt him to the Seahawks for a third-round pick and linebackers Jacob Martin and Barkevious Mingo.

“I think that was a day where we made some moves that we felt were in the best interest of the team, not only last year but moving into the future,” O’Brien said late last month. “I believe that if you look at the players that we were able to acquire or whether it was a pick we used to acquire a player, I believe it made us a better team.”

O’Brien can believe what he wants. At this point, the notion that those moves made the Texans better is questionable at best. But with another trade he made this offseason, there really doesn’t seem to be much of a dispute.

In a St. Patrick’s Day shocker, O’Brien agreed to send the Arizona Cardinals four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a fourth-round pick in exchange for broken-down running back David Johnson, a second-round pick in 2020 and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

By any measure, it was a head-scratcher.

In addition to being saddled with paying the rest of Johnson’s three-year, $39 million contract through 2021, the Texans did not get nearly enough for Hopkins, especially when you consider what lesser receivers have commanded on the trade market. Consider that just this offseason the Vikings were able to get first-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round picks from the Bills in exchange for 26-year-old Stefon Diggs, a wide receiver who is not nearly as good or consistent as Hopkins. 

Just 27 years old and of the league’s most durable players throughout his career (he’s suited up for 110 out of 112 possible regular-season games), Hopkins has racked up 8,602 receiving yards and 54 touchdowns over his seven NFL seasons and is hands down one of the best pass-catchers in the NFL. He was also the favorite target of franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson, who may now be slightly less inclined to take a hometown discount in ongoing extension talks than he would have if Hopkins was still in town.

To compensate for the loss, O’Brien then simply threw more money and assets at the problem he created, inking 30-year-old WR Randall Cobb (who has gone over 1,000 receiving yards just once in his career — in 2014) to a three-year, $27 million deal and trading a second-round pick to the Rams for 26-year-old wideout Brandin Cooks, an oft-injured player who will be with his third NFL team in four seasons.

Thanks to all those moves, the Texans enter the season with a receiving corps of Stills, Cooks, Cobb and Will Fuller V and very little room to improve it via free agency due to a lack of financial flexibility and not having a first or second-round pick in 2021.

The flurry of moves did not earn rave reviews around the league. In an anonymous poll of NFL agents conducted by Ben Standig of The Athletic, 11 of 30 said the Texans had the worst offseason in the NFL, the most votes of any team. “Bill O’Brien — there’s no way he should be the general manager,” one agent said. And if the moves don’t work out, he probably won’t be.

It’s a shame, because O’Brien the coach — who was able to win games before Watson was in town by getting something out of sub-par QBs like Ryan Fitzpatrick (12 starts), Ryan Mallett (six starts), Case Keenum (two starts), Brian Hoyer (nine starts), T. J. Yates (five starts), Brandon Weeden (one start), Brock Osweiler (14 starts) and Tom Savage (nine starts) — is actually pretty good.

But the moves O’Brien has made since getting control of the roster, in particular the Hopkins trade, have the potential to make ownership forget that and simply remove him from both positions sooner rather than later. It’s another division title or bust for the Texans and O’Brien in 2020. Anything else and there will likely be two vacancies to fill come February.

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