The old saw about Gary Kubiak, back when he coached the Texans (2006-13), was that he was too conservative. This is a common attribute among football coaches, and it was fairly attributed to Kubiak. By the end, his playbook had receded to Tecmo Bowl thickness, and every play-action pass seemed designed to get the ball into the hands of a slow tight end, four yards downfield.
(Personnel may have had something to do with that).
And so what usually happens when you fire a conservative guy is, you hire a risk-taking guy, an innovator, a “riverboat gambler.” Instead, the Texans hired Bill O’Brien. Now, after back-to-back playoff appearances, the beat-up Texans are 4-9 and have been eliminated from the playoffs. There has been some light chatter that another team may offer O’Brien a job, and although I can’t really prove it, I suspect that would be best for the Texans in the long run.
O’Brien, now in his fourth season as an NFL head coach, is a fundamentally cautious man whose tendency is to default to the most Football Coach thing he can think of, even in the face of extraordinary evidence. The quintessential example of this came at the start of this year, when, in a move I will never stop bringing up, O’Brien chose to start Tom Savage over Deshaun Watson to start the year. Savage, who had accomplished exactly nothing as an NFL player during his three years in Houston, played so poorly he was benched at halftime. Watson came in and lit the NFL on fire for several weeks before going down with a knee injury. Watson played in two national championship games at Clemson, was the Texans’ No. 1 pick, and was obviously ready for the NFL from his first snap. If he started every game for Houston this year, the Texan would be in the playoffs for the third year in a row, even without J.J. Watt, and O’Brien would be one of the hottest names in the business.
The injuries to Watson and Watt aren’t O’Brien’s fault, and in a backward way befitting a deeply conservative organization, this actually works in O’Brien’s favor. Because of injuries and quarterback play, expectations have been so low during his time in Houston that three 9-7 finishes in a row make it difficult to cobble together much of an argument against him.
And yet I can’t shake the feeling that if, one of these years, the Texans made it through a whole season with Watt and a competent quarterback, and had a real shot at the AFC championship, and they were down four with 2:30 left and had the ball fourth-and-4 on the New England 45, O’Brien would send out the punt team.
Is that an unfair hypothetical? Possibly. Would that hypothetical decision be theoretically justifiable? Probably. Can I present you with a body of evidence suggesting O’Brien “can’t win the big one?” Certainly not. Does any of this change my subjective opinion that O’Brien lacks confidence in his own identity as a coach and as a result is overly concerned about whether or not be can be blamed by the local press? No.
And I am not the only one who thinks this.
Yet he has a winning record as an NFL head coach, and by all accounts a good reputation among his peers. It would not be a surprise to see another NFL team poach him from Houston, and that might not be such a bad thing.
Then again, Gary Kubiak won a Super Bowl, so what do I know?