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Culture / Sporting Life

Matthew Stafford’s a Super Bowl Quarterback If Bill O’Brien’s His Coach

The Real Truth About the Texans’ Screamer

BY // 11.03.16

Matthew Stafford walks into the room, wearing a simple American bull T-shirt (the bull’s colored red, white and blue in an U.S. flag homage), jeans and worn flip flops. The Dallas high school product is back home in Texas — and he’s poised to perhaps become the highest-paid player in NFL history in the near future. But he looks pained at the moment.

This is how too many postgame sessions have gone for Stafford over the years, in Texas and out. The 28-year-old Stafford’s long been one of football’s most underrated quarterbacks. But he’s still penalized by horrific coaching, a lack of resources around him and cruel fate (see the egregious blown calls in that playoff loss at Dallas in January 2015). This scene’s the result of another lost Sunday — a 20-13 setback to the Houston Texans that’s even more stinging in its finality and futility several days later).

I can’t help but flash back to that scene — Stafford shuffling into another too-cramped interview room to deliver a largely monotone assessment of another disappointing (and bizarre) afternoon as the Detroit Lions’ quarterback — as Houston media voice after Houston media voice tries to claim that Texans coach Bill O’Brien hasn’t accomplished anything with his 5-3 team. Seriously?

If Matthew Stafford played for Bill O’Brien, he’d be a Super Bowl quarterback. Stafford’s entire career trajectory would be different.

Matthew Stafford's a Super Bowl quarterback if Bill O'Brien is his coach.
Matthew Stafford’s a Super Bowl quarterback if Bill O’Brien is his coach.

O’Brien drags an immensely flawed roster and an overmatched quarterback (albeit one whom O’Brien handpicked in free agency) to a 5-3 record at the season’s halfway point. Stafford’s own coach, Jim Caldwell, makes the inexplicable decision to try an onside kick in a seven-point game with nearly three minutes left and four chances to stop the clock in his hands, and dooms Stafford and Detroit to a 4-4 record and likely another January spent watching the playoffs.

O’Brien finds a way to get a team with no quarterback (and no J.J. Watt) to 5-3, on playoff track. Caldwell finds a crazy way to not finish the first half with a winning record despite having one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.

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If these two coaches are simply flipped, the Lions are 5-3 or better and the Texans are 4-4 or worse. Coaching matters immensely in the NFL — and it’s time to appreciate the fact that Houston has one of the better ones. Yes, these Texans get blown out by the elite teams. But it’s a miracle they’ve been beating so many of the average teams consistently. Houston’s NFL fate could be much worse. It could be Stafford’s NFL fate.

“We shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times with some untimely penalties, and that really hurt us,” Stafford says. Story of his life. Story of his franchise.

The Detroit Lions lost one of the best defensive players in football (Ndamukong Suh) for nothing a few years ago. That’d be almost like the Texans losing J.J. Watt. Solid franchises don’t do that sort of thing. The Texans are on much more secure ground than many around here would like to acknowledge. They aren’t exactly the NFL’s version of the Cleveland Indians in terms of historic futility. They’re not close to the Detroit Lions — whose stretch of endless woe dates back to 1957.

Houston’s not in that shape. And a lot of that has to do with Bob McNair’s handpicked coach. No wonder why O’Brien came off as more than a little testy following the win over the Lions.

“It’s been pretty up and down, but there’s five more ups than three downs,” O’Brien says, the edge apparent in his voice. “I thought it was a good win for our team.”

Yes, O’Brien went ballistic on special teams coach Larry Izzo on the sidelines and initially claimed he didn’t remember it (before the video evidence became too powerful to ignore). But, so what? Did you really think the intense competitor nicknamed Teapot during his days toiling under Bill Belichick in New England suddenly transformed into a feel-good softie in Texas? O’Brien blows his top. It’s part of what he does. It’s a small piece of the way he drives a team — and coaching staff.

“Obviously, things happen on the sideline,” Izzo says. “You learn to not take them personally and thank goodness for that, because if people took what I say personally, then I don’t know where we would be. Just chalk it up to it’s an intense game and two intense people during a game.”

Of course, Izzo can’t say anything else. O’Brien is his boss. But along with the screaming, this coach seems to have built plenty of loyalty. His players almost always play hard for him. Even when the quarterback matchup is a landslide advantage for the other team.

Stafford has it all — incredible arm strength, an architect’s touch for unlikely angles, the size and guts to thrive in the NFL. But he still leaves Texas with another loss, another hollow feeling. His coach never finds a way to get him the ball with a chance to win it. And now you can all but forget about him getting back to Houston  for the Super Bowl.

“I wish I could have done it earlier in the game,” Stafford says. “I’ve got to play better. We’ve got to play better as a team, as an offense, earlier in the game so we’re not in that situation.”

It seems unlikely that Stafford will be driven from the game in frustration, like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson before him in Detroit. The kid who went to Highland Park High School with Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, whose own team always gives him a playoff chance by spending freely, still seems too happy-go-lucky for that.

Matthew Stafford has a good life. He’s married to his college cheerleader sweetheart. He has a supportive family. He’s already rich — and destined to be even richer. He just doesn’t have a coach like Bill O’Brien.

That leaves a career void. One Texans fans might be wise to remember. Drive this coach away — and it’s easy to imagine first-year Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn jumping at the chance to pair his former Patriots co-worker with Stafford.

Any coach would want to work with Stafford, who’s just now entering his quarterback prime. And McNair seems to know that.

“Look, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” McNair says of Stafford. “I have tremendous respect for him.”

Texans fans should have equal respect for their coach — and what his loss would mean.

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