Three Reasons Why Hiring Bill O’Brien Was A Home Run
George W. Bush still had several years left in his Presidency the last time the Houston Texans searched for a new head coach. After nearly eight full seasons as the Texans head coach, Gary Kubiak was dismissed several weeks ago, leaving the Texans to head back to the drawing board to figure out who their third coach in franchise history would be. There were several good options, but hiring Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien was the right choice. He doesn’t meet the ‘former NFL head coach’ criteria that Bob McNair mentioned, but does have head coaching experience at a major college program and was an assistant coach/coordinator for the Patriots for several seasons; close enough to me and apparently McNair. Here are three reasons why I think the choice of O’Brien was a home run.
1. Overcoming Sanctions at Penn State - Going 15-9 over the last two seasons at Penn State was a major accomplishment. Most assumed the penalties they received would be a death penalty for the program or at least hurt them severely over the next 5 years. Not only did they have scholarships cut, a bowl ban in place that would limit their appeal to the recruits they still had room to pursue, but they also lost several key starters who were allowed to transfer without sitting out a year after the scandal. To lose their leading rusher (Silas Redd), second leading receiver (Justin Brown), and an All-American kicker (Anthony Fera) on top of the already departing seniors would be a push off the cliff for most teams.
Going 8-4 in 2012 with everything that happened around that program was amazing, equal to an 11-1 type season under normal circumstances in my opinion; no surprise that he was named the national coach of the year. This season O’Brien had upset wins over two ranked teams (#18 Michigan, @ # 14 Wisconsin) and their three point loss at home to Central Florida doesn’t look nearly as bad after the Knights finished the year with 12 wins, a conference championship, and a Fiesta Bowl win over #6 Baylor. Two years isn’t a huge sample size, but O’Brien showed at Penn State an ability to get his players to play above what their talent level would suggest they were capable.
2. Quarterback Development – Part of the reason why I thought Kubiak should have been fired long before McNair finally pulled the trigger was because I had no faith in his ability to pick a quarterback. That seems odd to say considering he himself was an NFL quarterback for nine seasons, but his track record proves my point. Kubiak told everyone that he could salvage David Carr when he was hired to replace Dom Capers, but gave up on that experiment after one season.
Kubiak then picked Matt Schaub to be his franchise quarterback, an odd choice considering the type of offense he wanted to run. Schaub had some good years, but was never a great fit for the offense. Kubiak’s offense leans heavily on the outside zone/stretch runs and the bootleg play-action passes out of the same looks and formations. His offense doesn’t need to have Michael Vick running it, but there’s no doubt the system would benefit from having a mobile quarterback under center. With a quarterback who is a threat to run, a backside defender on the stretch play is forced to stay in his lane in case the quarterback keeps it and rolls out, instead of crashing down which opens up cutback lanes for the running back. Of course if they notice the defender crashing down repeatedly anyway, then a mobile quarterback would be able to burn the defense by keeping the ball on a bootleg and picking up an easy first down with his legs. Schaub was never a threat to run on bootleg plays, giving away a possible advantage.
Bill O’Brien’s experience with Tom Brady as the Patriots quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and how he developed Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg at Penn State, gives me confidence that he knows what to look for in a quarterback and how to get the best out of his quarterbacks. In 2012 his quarterback Matt McGloin completed 60.5% of his passes with 24 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions; all career bests. Over his previous two seasons before O’Brien arrived, McGloin completed 54% of his passes with 22 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. With O’Brien in 2012, McGloin led the conference in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and was fourth in passer efficiency. Without O’Brien, McGloin wouldn’t be in the NFL. This year in 2013, his freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg finished third in the conference in passing yards, and had a 2/1 touchdown to interception ratio (20/10). O’Brien can clearly coach up his quarterbacks, a valuable trait to have considering the Texans will likely select a QB with the first overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
3. Creative Offense – For a guy who was once applauded as an offensive genius, Gary Kubiak’s offense looked pretty anemic over the last several seasons. In 2010 the Texans averaged 6.0 yards per offensive play. That average dropped to 5.7 in 2011, to 5.5 in 2012, and to 5.1 this season. Don’t get me wrong, his offense had some good years, but the game is moving in a different direction.
Kubiak’s scheme is solid, but requires too many things to go well in order to succeed. What I mean by that is, you can win with defense and a strong running game, but an explosive pass offense that picks up yards in big chunks gives you better odds. If your offense depends on three and four yard gains to move the ball, it necessarily takes you longer to move into scoring range and allows more opportunities for a mistake. That type of run first system also puts you in a bad position whenever you fall behind by more than one score. Kubiak’s passing game depends on using formations that make pass plays look like run plays before the snap. If the run wasn’t a threat, the Texans passing game fell apart. Of course, some of that is on the quarterback, but not all of it is. Nearly every new rule in recent years has favored the passing game; they need a new coach that understands how to take advantage of that. That’s not to say that they should abandon the run, but at least be more creative in how its executed like we’ve seen in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Instead of running to set up the pass, I believe they need to pass to back defenders off the line of scrimmage and force opponents to put in an extra defensive back, then punish them with the run. The Patriots are considered to be a modern, pass-first team, but have finished inside the top 10 in rushing yards in each of the last two seasons; the Texans should adopt that same offensive philosophy.
In 2011 when Bill O’Brien was the Patriots offensive coordinator, they averaged 6.3 yards per play (higher than any Texans team under Kubiak) and finished 3rd in points scored. In 2012 at Penn State, Bill O’Brien’s offense ranked second in the conference in passing yards per game and tied for second in passing touchdowns per game. This season Penn State finished third in the conference in passing yards per game. Below is a description of his offense from The Sideline View:
“O’Brien favors an up-tempo offense mixing a power running game with inside and outside zone and a play-action passing attack as a counter. While Chip Kelly’s offense may not be the norm around NFL circles within two or three years, I do think O’Brien’s will be as tempo will likely continue to catch on around the league while still utilizing more traditional running and passing attacks.”
The use of an up-tempo offense is key in my opinion. Kubiak’s system lived by the motto of “take what the defense gives you,” which is a defeatist attitude to me. Much prefer an offense that attacks and forces the tempo and style of the game, not to mention the added benefit of tiring out the opposing defense. Just look at the top 10 teams in offensive yards per game this season in the NFL; almost every team in the top 10 is a team that uses an uptempo offense. Six of those top seven teams in offensive yards per game, and five of the top six in yards per play this season made the playoffs. Finally the Texans offense will join teams like the Patriots, Broncos, Eagles, Saints, and Packers in the 21st century.
This was absolutely the correct hire, but by no means is it a guarantee that they’ll win multiple championships. It does show however that to Bob McNair’s credit, he and the rest of the Texans brain trust identified their shortcomings under Kubiak and what qualities made other teams consistent winners at a high level. Bill O’Brien comes off as a hardcore football lifer with a great understanding on how to win football games; I would be surprised if he failed in Houston.