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There’s always a college coach ready to make the leap to the NFL and this year’s selection was former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.
The Houston Texans made the switch early, and it seems clear that O’Brien was high on their list, perhaps as their number one choice.
There are several reasons to be nervous about this. The fact that he comes from the “Bill Belichick Coaching Tree” which so frequently seems to produce nothing but huge failures. Or that he has just two years at the collegiate level. Or that his highest level of NFL coaching experience is one year in 2011 when he was the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
The fact that, as reported by NFL.com’s Marc Sessler, he will handle offensive playcalling duties himself.
All are valid concerns. However, let’s take a moment to reflect on what he achieved at his last job.
When O’Brien was hired by Penn State two years ago, the program was in chaos. The scandal Penn State was embroiled in was the sort of thing coaches run from and the expectation around the world of collegiate football was that the school could get the heaviest penalties since SMU got the “death penalty” in 1987.
Penn State was banned from postseason play for four years, lost 40 scholarships and their players were allowed to transfer and play immediately.
Over the course of the next two seasons, O’Brien’s Nittany Lions went 15-9, he was able to recruit players to a university with a tarnished reputation and retain players who could have left, no questions asked.
This is a man who has been through some incredibly rough times and managed to do so successfully. While Penn State will probably always be a bit tainted by the Sandusky Child Abuse scandal, O’Brien helped bring some measure of honor and positive notoriety to it.
He can get players to buy into what he does and he can inspire them to put their best effort on the field. On top of that, he’s done good work with quarterbacks—after all he made Matt McGloin look good and also had success with Tom Brady while he was quarterbacks coach, offensive playcaller and later offensive coordinator. Whomever they end up with under center, the Texans have a guy who can wrest the most out of him and get him to develop.
Of course, the legacy of Belichick coaches isn’t great. Most have too heavy a hand and don’t last very long. O’Brien hasn’t been in New England in several years, and his experiences at Penn State should have softened his touch or at least taught him when to use a heavy hand and when not to.
And as mentioned earlier, having a first-time head coach also calling offensive plays is troubling as a head coach has to be focused on everything. Head coaches who have done this successfully tend to be guys who have a lot more experience—or at least some—at the pro level.
Still, the Texans are a team with a lot of talent already, so O’Brien has a lot to work with.
Right now, it looks like a great marriage.