When it was over, when the Houston Texans had pulled off the improbable, when Bill O’Brien had completed the type of resurrection faded Hollywood stars only dream about, the billionaire who owns the team stood in front of the locker room door. One of those souvenir sports hats — the kind some people buy off late-night TV — covered the top of Bob McNair’s head.
Only this cap read “AFC South Champions,” making it anything but a throwaway trinket to the Houston Texans. Even to the man with the estimated $2.4 billion net worth.
“It feels good,” McNair says. “It’s the first hat, so we want more hats. But it feels good.”
Just getting this one is something of a football miracle. For much of this fall and early winter, the only football coach getting buzz in Houston was Tom Herman. The University of Houston coach captured everyone’s fancy with the force of a new Star Wars movie. O’Brien? His fall from inflated Hard Knocks grace could not have been any steeper or less graceful. His Texans looked like a hot mess. A few local media geniuses even suggested he stood in danger of being fired or needed fallback options along the lines of a bad Maryland job.
“The last thing I read was the funeral we were going to have on Kirby,” O’Brien says after a 30-6 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars emphatically stomped out any last shred of doubt about his team’s playoff future. “That’s when I put the papers down for good. Because I didn’t want to see myself in a casket, that’s for sure.”
Those ideas always held about as firm a foothold in reality as one of Art Bell‘s old late-night guests. McNair is much too smart to give up on his hand-picked coach, no matter how O’Brien’s second season went. Still, no one wanted to throw O’Brien a parade, either. Or treat wooing him to stay like a national emergency the way everyone did for Herman at UH.
Now? It’s hardly a stretch to suggest O’Brien is the better coach than Herman at this stage. He’s doing it in the best football league in the world. The difference between the college game and the NFL is the difference between your average high school and Harvard. This doesn’t detract at all from what Herman has accomplished in just one wondrous season with the Cougars.
Herman largely took the unrecognized talent already at UH and lifted it to heights that no one on Cullen Boulevard even dared imagine. He brought real swagger to the Cougars — and more importantly, cutting-edge gameplans that showed no fear. The University of Houston would attack foes under Herman, punch first — and most creatively. Even against supposed big bad Florida State.
But Herman has never had to deal with the huge talent gap O’Brien faces on a daily basis at the most important position on the field: quarterback.
O’Brien just kept finding ways to compensate for the gaping hole in his roster. Like turning Akeem Hunt — a completely un-noteworthy November pickup, a former Ravens and Giants practice squad scrub — into a real weapon. Hunt touches the ball four times and produces 25- and 27-yard plays — the two longest offensive plays of the day for the Texans against the Jaguars.
That’s using everything you’ve got as a coach. O’Brien finds a way to take advantage of Hunt’s pure speed without getting away from the Texans’ offensive identity. These are the type of invaluable, under-the-radar wrinkles that make an impact.
“The coaches do a great job of using everybody,” says running back Jonathan Grimes, another journeyman-type NFL player who has found a role — a two-touchdown role in the playoff clincher — with O’Brien.
There are few coaches who could have lifted the Texans from the muck and misery of 2-5. And not just 2-5, a scarlet letter 2-5 that included monumentally embarrassing 48-21 and 44-26 losses to mediocre Atlanta and Miami. This represents a remarkable makeover. The Texans are lucky to have one of the select few coaches with the ability to pull it off.
That’s a huge win for the franchise already — no matter what happens in that first-round playoff game against Kansas City next Saturday afternoon at NRG Stadium. O’Brien’s work this season ranks up there with his mentor Bill Belichick’s managing to turn Matt Cassel into an 11-5 quarterback in 2008 (something O’Brien saw up close as the Patriots’ receivers coach that season). This four-quarterback Texans’ resurrection is coaching-magic territory.
No one’s sold the University of Houston like Herman has this season. But it takes more than salesmanship to get professional players to follow you out of the kind of dead-season spiral that Gary Kubiak could never pull the Texans from. With a lesser coach than O’Brien — and even most coaches in the NFL are lesser — it’s not long before 2-5 becomes 5-11 or 2-14.
O’Brien turns it into 9-7 and a puncher’s chance in a suddenly wide-open AFC.
“He did a few things when we were 2-5,” McNair says. “He told the team, I want you to look in the mirror and ask yourself, ‘Are you getting the job done? Is there something that you could be doing better?’ And he said that I am going to do the same thing, and so he did and he came back and he made some changes.
“He started giving them a little more time off and a few things like that they could notice that made a difference. He was saying, I am doing my part and I want you to do your part, and I think they listened to that.”
One of the scrap-heap heroes puts it even more bluntly. “It’s not a dictatorship,” Grimes says.
O’Brien has rebuilt the Texans into a dangerous team of thinkers that lets few things faze it. Houston loses lifeline left tackle Duane Brown — arguably the most respected player in the entire locker room — to a devastating knee injury that has the team and many of the Jaguars on the field, huddling around the cart that will take Brown off. Then, the Texans retake the field and Brian Hoyer hits DeAndre Hopkins for 14 yards on the very next play. That’s focus.
O’Brien just seems to know what is needed in the moment. Take the Texans’ last possession of the first half. Holding a commanding 17-3 lead, with Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles already J.J. Watt-haunted and only 1:11 left till halftime, the Texans could have been excused for playing it ultra-conservative and just sitting on a 14-point advantage.
Instead, O’Brien had Hoyer throwing. The coach showed no fear of a mistake and supreme confidence in the quarterback he benched after the season’s first game. It worked (leading to a 51-yard Nick Novak field goal), but even if hadn’t, it’s the kind of big-picture thinking move that pays off long beyond this Sunday.
It turns out Tom Herman isn’t the only coach Houston should be grateful to have. He’s not even the best coach in the city.