In six years under head coach Bill O’Brien, the Houston Texans have five winning seasons and four AFC South titles. All that success has yielded just two postseason victories.
The first was three years ago when the Texans were fortunate enough to face the Connor Cook-led Raiders. The second came on the first weekend of 2020 via an overtime victory over the Bills. It was about as ugly as an NFL playoff game can get, with both teams ruining golden chances to seal the win. The Texans fell into a 16-0 hole and didn’t score any points until late in the third quarter.
Deshaun Watson came to the rescue in overtime when he shook off two Buffalo pass rushers and found Taiwan Jones for a 34-yard completion. That set up a chip-shot field goal to win. It also bailed O’Brien out of a game he deserved to lose.
The Texans followed that win by jumping out to a 24-0 lead over the Chiefs in the Divisional Round. But instead of cruising to a spot in the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history, Houston promptly squandered its huge lead. Kansas City torched the Texans in the last 40 minutes of the game to win, 51-31.
The Texans had it!— SB Nation (@SBNation) January 12, 2020
Then they didn't pic.twitter.com/EB8szBM4Op
It was a blown opportunity to finally do big things, which has been par for the course in Houston. For essentially the entire O’Brien era, the Texans have been stuck being a good-but-not-great football team. Watson’s late-game heroics against the Bills didn’t change that.
The Texans should ask themselves how much longer they want to allow a coaching staff to waste a team that should be doing so much more.
O’Brien takes risks at all the wrong times
Margins are slim in the NFL and even slimmer in the playoffs. It doesn’t take much to lose a game, which means coaches can’t afford to make costly mistakes. O’Brien has been making them for years. That was on full display in the team’s two playoff games this January.
Houston had all the momentum early against the Chiefs. After three touchdowns in the first quarter, the Texans had a shot to keep the ball rolling early in the second quarter when they drove into the red zone.
The Texans could’ve gone for the throat of a Kansas City defense that was on the ropes. But rather than trying to convert a fourth-and-1, the Texans decided to kick a 31-yard field goal. O’Brien told reporters after the game that the Texans didn’t have a play they liked for the situation.
O’Brien said he & Texans went into game believing they needed 50 points to leave KC with a win today. Said he kicked a FG earlier bc they didn’t have a play there that he liked.. #HOUvsKC— Kimberly Jones (@KimJonesSports) January 12, 2020
He explained the decision further to ESPN’s Ed Werder.
I walked with #Texans HC Bill O’Brian from his dressing room to the team bus. One interesting point about not going on fourth-down at KC 11 was he sent in a play for first down, believing they made it, not fourth down. Changed mind during TO go kick FG.— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) January 13, 2020
Those are stunning answers from a coach who comes away sounding wholly unprepared. How did the Texans not have a red zone play ready to get one yard? They couldn’t find one after calling a timeout? At that point, Houston was moving the ball with ease against a Chiefs defense that allowed 4.9 yards per carry during the regular season, fourth-most in the NFL.
The tide immediately turned after that decision. Kansas City scored a touchdown on its next possession and the comeback was on.
His worst mistake of the game came not much later, when Houston tried a fake punt from its own 31-yard line. The foolish risk came with the momentum now firmly in Kansas City’s favor. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work at all.
O’Brien didn’t have much of an explanation for that call either and told reporters “it just didn’t work out.”
That set up the Chiefs for another short touchdown to cut the Texans’ lead to 10. It’s not O’Brien’s fault that Houston fumbled the next kickoff. But it’s easy to point to his two decisions as the turning point that set the Chiefs up for monstrous comeback.
His coaching mistakes almost cost the Texans on Wild Card Weekend too.
O’Brien decided to use his first challenge of the game less than eight minutes into the first quarter against Buffalo. Watson threw a pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the middle of the field, and the Texans thought it should’ve been a pass interference penalty.
Sucker challenge incoming -- Texans believe this is DPI. pic.twitter.com/AzLb3edavc— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) January 4, 2020
There’s certainly contact between the two players (even if it’s mostly initiated by Hopkins), but few watching expected it to be overturned. One, because it looks like tight, mostly clean coverage against a physical receiver. And two, because pass interference challenges are hardly ever successful.
O’Brien should know that firsthand. He challenged a much more blatant example of interference on Hopkins back in November and was still unsuccessful.
Humphrey definitely interfered with Hopkins. It’s being challenged but won’t hold my breath they overturn it. pic.twitter.com/ajhRLAJgFW— Steve Gallo (@SteveGalloNFL) November 17, 2019
Altogether, O’Brien used a challenge eight times in 2019 and was only successful on one.
His decision to throw a red flag on a call that clearly wouldn’t be overturned looked even worse a few minutes later. On the Texans’ next possession, Watson ran down the right sideline for what looked like a first down. He was ruled out of bounds a few yards short of the line to gain.
With one challenge already gone, O’Brien opted against using his second and final challenge of the game. It’s no guarantee he would’ve won, but the Texans had a much better chance at that one than the pass interference review.
After a sack on the next play, the Texans’ drive ended with a punt in Buffalo territory, another painfully conservative decision.
O’Brien can’t figure out when to go for it on fourth down
The Texans’ first two offensive drives against the Bills both crossed into Buffalo territory. The opening drive got to the 37-yard line, but the Texans chose to take an intentional delay of game penalty rather than attempt to convert a fourth-and-8. The second drive ended with a punt on fourth-and-9 at Buffalo’s 46-yard line.
While playing the field position game made some sense, the Texans were held scoreless in the first 43 minutes of the game. A little urgency would’ve been nice. Houston is loaded with playmakers and finished fourth in the NFL in successfully converted fourth downs during the regular season with 13.
The only time the Texans did go for it on fourth down against the Bills was in the final minutes of regulation. They opted against a 47-yard field goal try to increase their lead to 22-16 lead, and instead went with a Watson sneak.
That’s the call the Texans should’ve made against the Chiefs — a team with one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. But against the Bills, who allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL in 2019, Watson was stuffed.
O’Brien said the Texans knew they needed about 50 points to beat the Chiefs, and that’s the team he settled for three against. Against the Josh Allen-led Bills, he was overaggressive and gave Buffalo a shot to tie. That’s exactly what the Bills did with a 47-yarder from Stephen Hauschka that forced overtime.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy to criticize many of these risks and fourth-down decisions already knowing the result. Still, O’Brien somehow seems to get all of the big ones — especially in important games — wrong. It’s been a problem for years and O’Brien isn’t learning from his mistakes.
There was the time in 2016 when he punted on a fourth-and-5 near midfield in a crucial Monday Night Football game in Mexico against the Raiders. The Texans were trailing 27-20 with just over three minutes left and never touched the ball again.
In 2017, he chose to kick a field goal in the red zone against the Patriots to turn a two-point lead into a five-point lead with 2:28 left. By not trying to convert a fourth-and-1, O’Brien gave Tom Brady a chance to drive the field for a game-winning touchdown. Predictably, Brady pulled it off.
Then there was the Texans’ postseason loss to the Colts last season when Houston went for five fourth downs and turned the ball over on downs three times.
The Texans converted 52 percent of their fourth-down attempts in 2019, but you wouldn’t know it by watching team’s biggest games. That’s when O’Brien just can’t seem to make the right call.
How much longer are the Texans going to be OK with early exits?
The Texans are too talented in every facet to be cranking out winning seasons that never advance past the Divisional Round. Watson is one of the most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL, and he’s surrounded with weapons like DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills in the receiving corps.
While the defense has fallen off from its status as one of the NFL’s elite, it still has J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus up front. It has also added ascending young talent like safety Justin Reid and linebacker Zach Cunningham.
The Texans actually appeared to be making progress in 2019. They beat the Chiefs in October, the Patriots in December, and got an honest-to-goodness playoff win against a team not starting a backup quarterback. However, the season ended in disappointment just like every other year.
Even O’Brien had difficulty explaining his team’s inability to get over the hump.
Question: What’s holding your team back right now?— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) January 12, 2020
“I don’t know. We’ve got to look at everything.” - Bill O’Brien pic.twitter.com/ThnCf2XXuy
The Texans do need to look at everything, and that starts at the very top. O’Brien isn’t just the head coach, he’s also the de facto general manager. There’s no one else to blame for the team’s consistent failures.
In the offseason, O’Brien mortgaged the team’s future by trading away its 2020 and 2021 first-round picks as well as a 2021 second-round pick. Those moves signaled Houston believed it was ready to win right now. It hasn’t managed to do that, though.
Will the Texans actually fire O’Brien? Probably not. For one, players — including Watson — have been vocal supporters of the coach.
“No doubt. You might have doubt, but I don’t. I love that man.”— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) January 13, 2020
Deshaun Watson on if Bill O’Brien is the right coach to lead the Texans. pic.twitter.com/laLkcDO1LL
The Houston Chronicle’s John McClain, who’s covered the Texans for the franchise’s entire existence, says there’s no chance O’Brien is headed for the exits.
Let me repeat: Bill O’Brien will NOT be fired no matter how loud fans demand it! Ain’t happening! But it’s certainly ok to vent!— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) January 12, 2020
That’s not too surprising considering the list of coaches fired after leading their team to a postseason win is short. The most recent example was when the Titans dismissed Mike Mularkey after the 2017 season.
Tennessee decided just advancing to the Divisional Round wasn’t good enough, and Mike Vrabel was tasked with taking the team to another level. Now they’re headed to the AFC Championship Game. The Texans would be wise to follow in their footsteps.