No One's Laughing at Bill O'Brien's Front-Office Moves in Houston Anymore

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 3, 2019

HOUSTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 01: Duke Johnson #25 of the Houston Texans scores a 14 yard touchdown against the New England Patriots during the first quarter in the game at NRG Stadium on December 01, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

The following Houston Texans column is not about any of these usual Texans topics:

  • What an excellent young quarterback/MVP candidate Deshaun Watson is;
  • Whether DeAndre Hopkins is the NFL's best wide receiver or merely one of the top two or three;
  • J.J. Watt, Hall of Famer/humanitarian/beloved-cultural-icon-in-absentia.

In fact, this column is barely about the Texans' Big Three at all.

This is a column about (gasp) other Texans players making significant contributions and (deeper gasp) what a good job Bill O'Brien is doing as both a coach and (wheezing hyperventilation) personnel guy.

It's a column we never thought would be written.

The Texans are 8-4 and coming off a convincing Sunday night win over the Patriots, a game covered nationally, as usual, as a stunning Patriots defeat, not a major victory for [insert less celebrated opponent here]. Having beaten the Chiefs earlier in the season, the Texans are on the inside track to the third seed in the AFC playoffs.

Not bad for a team supposedly being mismanaged by a mad tyrant willing to strip-mine the future for a win or two.

The Texans fired general manager Brian Gaine in June, replacing him with a subcommittee of O'Brien yes-men: personnel majordomo Jack Easterby, cap guru Chris Olsen and bass guitarist Matt Bazirgan*. Soon after seizing absolute power, O'Brien and his Scooby Gang traded All-Pro defender Jadeveon Clowney for a third-round pick and some bit players.

For an encore, O'Brien and the Pips traded away the entire future of Texans football (two first-round picks and a 2021 second-rounder, to be precise) for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who has never been confused with Orlando Pace. Other trades were scattered across the summer and early autumn, all of them drawing some measure of criticism.

It sure looked like O'Brien was flying by the seat of his pants. And perhaps he was. But his moves have paid off, at least in the short term:

  • Tunsil has played well and stabilized the Texans offensive line. Watson was sacked 62 times last year but is on pace for a less cataclysmic 47 sacks this season.
  • Receiver Kenny Stills, the rarely mentioned spare change thrown into the Tunsil trade, has 30 catches for 461 yards and two touchdowns this season, including 3-61-1 in the Patriots victory.
  • Running back Duke Johnson Jr., acquired from the Browns in August for a conditional mid-round pick, also caught a touchdown pass against the Patriots and has 679 scrimmage yards this season.
  • Carlos Hyde, acquired in a trade for lineman Martinas Rankin at the end of the preseason, is seventh in the AFC with 853 rushing yards and a more-than-respectable 4.6 yards per carry.
  • Cornerback Gareon Conley, a Raiders 2017 first-round pick who appeared to be going bust, has played surprisingly well as a starter since coming to Houston in October in exchange for yet another mid-round pick.
  • The defense surely misses Clowney, especially with Watt out for the year, but step-up performances by Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader and others have softened the blow.

Laremy Tunsil was a costly acquisition for the Texans, but he has helped keep Deshaun Watson upright more than he has been in recent seasons.
Laremy Tunsil was a costly acquisition for the Texans, but he has helped keep Deshaun Watson upright more than he has been in recent seasons.Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

O'Brien's wheeling and dealing reshaped the team's roster and identity, particularly on offense.

Stronger opponents can no longer just double-team Hopkins while chasing Watson all over the field the way the Colts did in last year's playoffs. Stills and Will Fuller V provide deep threats for Watson, Johnson offers a safety valve, and Hyde gives the team a chance to enjoy more 2nd-and-5 opportunities instead of constantly playing behind the sticks. Tunsil commits his share of penalties but allows few pressures, giving Watson time to stand in the pocket and find all those non-Hopkins people.

O'Brien's personnel fit O'Brien's offensive scheme, and so far, the new arrivals have played important and immediate roles.

The Texans are no longer a glorified basketball team getting carried to the playoffs by three or four superstars. They can now win with depth and scheme, not just Watson-to-Nuk highlights or Watt Smash heroics. That makes them far more dangerous down the stretch and in the playoffs than the one-and-done Texans teams of the past.

O'Brien's roster rebuild comes with a cost, of course.

The Texans won't pick in the first round until 2022. Tunsil is due for a contract extension, which is the sort of thing an experienced general manager would have bundled into the trade.

Despite the bills to come, the future isn't all that dire—jettisoning Clowney instead of extending him leaves them with over $75 million in 2020 cap space, per Over the Cap, and first-round picks aren't quite so precious when you are set at quarterback and pick near the end of the round—but O'Brien paid a premium to acquire the sort of sturdy linemen and offensive role players who other teams draft and develop in-house.

But let's leave tomorrow for tomorrow.

The Texans are in the heart of the Super Bowl chase at the start of December. They wouldn't be there if they had crossed their fingers and entered another season with a makeshift offensive line and an offense full of Keke Coutee and Alfred Blue types. O'Brien's trades positioned them to peak during both Watson's all-important affordable-contract seasons and a year in which the Patriots look vulnerable.

Yes, the Ravens steamrolled the Texans three weeks ago, but the Ravens steamroll everyone these days. The AFC is as up for grabs as it ever gets. Houston's offseason win-now moves have given it a legitimate shot at winning now.

Criticized for the assets he gave up in a flurry of offseason moves, Bill O'Brien has maneuvered the Texans into the AFC playoff picture as a potential Super Bowl contender.
Criticized for the assets he gave up in a flurry of offseason moves, Bill O'Brien has maneuvered the Texans into the AFC playoff picture as a potential Super Bowl contender.Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported before Sunday's victory the Texans don't plan to hire a general manager for 2020, allowing O'Brien and his Sailor Scouts to run the organization for another year. Some of us enjoyed a Sunday morning chuckle about the news. The report doesn't seem nearly as hilarious after the Patriots upset.

Yes, the Texans would benefit in the long run from some front-office checks and balances. But a lot of teams wish they had made a few daring moves to get where the Texans are right now. O'Brien the executive has given O'Brien the coach the necessary ingredients for a Super Bowl run. Let's reserve judgment until we see just what the two of them cook up.

*Bazirgan actually runs the Texans' scouting department.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeTanier.