Bill O'Brien is a staggeringly terrible general manager.
He's also an awful head coach, as illustrated by his many suspect decisions as the Texans blew a 24-point lead to lose 51-31 to the Chiefs in the AFC divisional round (among other examples in big games). Despite his shortcomings as a game-planner and play-caller, O'Brien has a 52-44 head coaching record and has led the Texans to the playoffs four times in six years because:
- The AFC South is the NFL equivalent of a mid-major conference; and
- The Texans have always employed three or four superstars so great that they almost guaranteed the team would be competitive.
On Monday, O'Brien the terrible general manager made life harder on O'Brien the awful head coach by trading away one of those superstars for peanuts. The Texans sent three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to the Cardinals in exchange for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
It was a great trade for the Cardinals, who can now pair quarterback Kyler Murray with one of the NFL's most consistent playmakers. For the Texans, this trade is so bad that it has substrata of badness:
- Johnson is a damaged-goods running back who lost his starting job last year and is three full years removed from his last productive season. He's the kind of player who is normally traded to save cap space for a late-round pick, not for a perennial Pro Bowler in his prime with 315 catches and 31 touchdowns in the last three seasons.
- The Texans aren't some rebuilding team who can eat other teams' bad contracts in exchange for extra draft picks. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is due for a market-setting extension, and quarterback Deshaun Watson's extension is looming in the not-too-distant future. The money that will go to Johnson should be saved for one of them. Of course, the Texans did free up some cap space by getting rid of, um, Hopkins.
- Getting a second-round pick in the deal is good news for the Texans, who traded two first-round picks (and a 2021 second-rounder) to acquire Tunsil and spent some third-rounders on cornerback Gareon Conley and running back Duke Johnson last season. But the fact that the Texans gave back a fourth-round pick to seal an already laughably one-sided deal is just embarrassing.
- The Texans will take a $3 million dead-cap hit for the right to not employ Hopkins, per Spotrac, which is also laughable and embarrassing.
Hopkins was also one of the three best players on the Texans, and playoff teams rarely trade one of their three best players for a creaky running back and draft picks because it's ludicrous.
So, why did O'Brien make the deal? Houston Chronicle columnist John McClain tweeted it succinctly:
Hopkins signed a five-year, $81 million contract extension with the Texans back in August 2017. At the time, it was one of the richest receiver contracts in the NFL. But Hopkins is due to make only $12.5 million this year, so he was beginning to angle for another extension, per McClain, as great players often do when they reach the back half of long contracts.
O'Brien could have accommodated him with a new deal or patiently waited out some mild Julio Jones-style quasi-holdouts for a year or so before opening up talks. Instead, he traded Hopkins for arcade tokens.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the storyline is similar to last year's Jadeveon Clowney situation.
The Texans first franchise-tagged Clowney, another member of that dwindling corps of superstars. He refused to sign a tender offer and held out of OTAs and training camp. After no signs of meaningful contract talks, O'Brien traded the Pro Bowl defender to the Seahawks at the end of August for a third-round pick and linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin.
O'Brien the general manager seems to react personally and with hostility to player demands for more money. That's a counterproductive tendency for a general manager, whose job includes handling player demands for more money.
Of course, O'Brien isn't a full-time general manager. He's also the head coach. Head coaches don't want to hear about money or holdouts; they want to (to borrow a phrase from every coach ever asked about a player holding out during camp) focus on the guys who are here. O'Brien appears to have a hard time switching hats, which would be more excusable if he wore the head-coaching hat well at all.
In 2018, the Texans went 11-5 with Hopkins, Clowney, Watson and J.J. Watt leading an otherwise ordinary roster before O'Brien became team emperor. Last year, they went 10-6 with Hopkins, Watson and Watt leading the charge. This year, they are down to Watson and Watt, with no first-round pick thanks to Tunsil.
What happens if Tunsil begins exercising his leverage as the player O'Brien mortgaged the future for? What happens if the Watson contract situation turns into something Dak Prescott-like? Will O'Brien trade them both in a fit of pique for middle-round picks and spare parts? Could Watt lead the Texans to a 9-8 record and the seventh wild-card slot (see how seamlessly we adjusted to the new CBA rules?) supported by nobody but running backs named D. Johnson?
Even O'Brien cannot be so shortsighted that he would continue dealing away assets for pennies on the dollar. But the Texans are clearly an organization with no plan whatsoever, and O'Brien doesn't appear to realize just how hard it is to replace talent like Hopkins and Clowney. Hopkins was nearly irreplaceable for a playoff team with no other top-tier offensive weapons and no first-round pick with which to grab one. He knew it. We knew it. O'Brien didn't.
The Texans finished 4-12 in 2017, but they bounced back quickly in 2018 thanks to the healthy returns of Watson and Watt. They're one misstep or bad break away from another pratfall, this time without returning superstars to cushion the blow or a first-round pick as a consolation prize.
O'Brien won't survive a season like that. He may be the coach, general manager and everything else, but the McNair family still owns the team, and he must realize that O'Brien is burning resources just to keep the team at the playoff also-ran level. The Texans are now running out of resources, too.
So don't worry, Bill O'Brien: Pretty soon, you won't have to listen to a player's contract demands ever again.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.