The Houston Texans' firing of head coach Bill O'Brien on Monday caught Texans players by surprise. Many were at home, having already finished up their film review when they received a text about a just-scheduled team Zoom meeting. A minute later, ESPN's Adam Schefter and Dan Graziano broke the news of O'Brien's firing broke on Twitter. Texans teammates then jumped on the brief Zoom meeting, where O'Brien said his goodbyes and thank yous.
The writing was on the wall after a brutal 0-4 start, including Sunday's loss to the then-winless Vikings, but players still didn't expect it to happen so soon, just a quarter of the way through the season. One Texans player says he knew it was coming at some point this season, and he says he and some of his teammates are feeling relieved because O'Brien's team culture didn't allow for guys to play loose and free. He says that has been part of the reason for this season's struggles.
"I am so excited just to go to practice tomorrow just to see how everyone's attitude is," the player said Tuesday, the players' day off. "It feels like there wasn't room for player leadership before, because everyone's voice was so suppressed. No one wanted to put themselves in the spotlight, because it felt like you would be subject to criticism for doing so. Now it feels like the door is open for guys to be themselves more and to have more fun. ... Before, it felt like if you were having too much fun, you weren't doing your job."
Tensions between O'Brien, who was the head coach and general manager, and his players came to a head two weeks ago in two situations, one on each side of the ball.
The Texans player says that during a practice in the week leading up to the Sept. 27 Steelers game, O'Brien kicked the first-team defense off the field during the 7-on-7 jog-through because it was missing a player. This wasn't typical behavior for O'Brien; he'd never kicked the defense off the field like that before. The defensive players were upset to be missing out on reps, and defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver and O'Brien had an argument about it. Star defensive end JJ Watt also argued with O'Brien, as first reported by the Houston Chronicle. O'Brien eventually restarted the practice, and the defense did end up getting in their full reps.
In the other instance, during a meeting with the offense in the Texans' indoor practice facility, two sources say 10th-year veteran receiver Randall Cobb, in his first season in Houston, confronted O'Brien because he wasn't satisfied with the way the receivers were being coached. The Texans and Cobb declined to comment on this. Through his agent, O'Brien declined comment.
These two moments exemplify a coaching issue that grew throughout O'Brien's tenure. The Texans player says assistant coaches seemed like they were often afraid to call out and correct mistakes in practice, because O'Brien expected practices to be perfect. Once, the player says, O'Brien yelled at two assistant coaches for experimenting with a certain play design during practice because he thought they should have figured out the solution before practice.
"We weren't able to even truly focus on correcting mistakes," the player said. "Because it was almost like we're not supposed to make mistakes at practice. Practice is supposed to be where you make mistakes so you won't make them in a game. But it felt like we would get so heavily criticized for mistakes in practice that we didn't get to play as free."
In defense of O'Brien, the player pointed out that he liked a lot of what the head coach created with his disciplined style. He built a strong work ethic in players and taught guys how to handle themselves like true pros. The player says that O'Brien was consistent, and players never doubted how badly he wanted to win. The player says that he and most of his teammates understood the financials of trading receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, even if they didn't agree with the move.
The Texans player says there was a sense O'Brien did have too much power within the organization, but he doesn't think O'Brien deserves the criticism he has received for his moves as a general manager. After all, under O'Brien's leadership, the Texans won four of the last six AFC South titles.
"He found a lot of talented guys," the player said. "OB the GM was pretty good. OB the head coach: It comes down to the culture. The breakdown came in the culture of the building, with creating an environment where there is opportunity for player leadership."
The Texans hired O'Brien as their head coach in December 2013, and he took on more and more responsibility as change happened above him.
He originally was paired with general manager Rick Smith. Smith took a leave of absence after the 2017 season, and Brian Gaine replaced him as GM in January 2018. Gaine had been Houston's director of player personnel from 2014-16, but his GM tenure lasted only 17 months, as the Texans fired him in June 2019.
That same month, the New England Patriots filed tampering charges when the Texans attempted to hire their director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, as general manager. Houston was forced to drop its pursuit of Caserio and decided to proceed without a GM. O'Brien, who had always been heavily involved in the draft process during his Texans tenure, added personnel to his head coaching responsibilities and was named general manager in January of this year.
While in charge of personnel, O'Brien executed a series of headline-producing trades.
In September 2019, he sent linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to Seattle for Barkevious Mingo, Jacob Martin and a third-round draft pick. He also traded Johnson Bademosi, Julien Davenport, a 2020 first-round pick, a 2021 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Kenny Stills, a 2020 fourth-round pick and a 2021 sixth-round pick.
In March, he traded All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick to Cardinals for a 2020 second-round pick, a 2021 fourth-round pick and David Johnson.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson, like the rest of his teammates, did not know this move was coming this week. Just before the season, the 25-year-old quarterback signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension (in addition to the two years remaining on his current deal), and the relatively short length of that deal (when compared with his contemporary Patrick Mahomes' 10-year extension) suggested the quarterback wanted to keep his options open for his next contract in 2026.
According to Wilson, Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair is "expected to lean heavily" on executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby in the hiring process for Houston's next coach and general manager. The Texans hired Easterby as the executive vice president of team development in April 2019 after his contract was up in New England, where he worked as the Patriots' character coach for six seasons.
Easterby had an unconventional career path to EVP of football operations. Before working for the Patriots, he worked in a chaplain role for the Chiefs. He's a versatile executive and has a hand in all different areas of the organization. Easterby was promoted in January to his current role of EVP of football operations, and he's been steadily gaining influence since he joined the organization. Per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, Easterby will be Houston's interim GM until a new one is hired.
Through his agent, a former Texans player said he was surprised that Easterby wound up the survivor in Houston because he had been a close supporter of O'Brien. A source close to the team says several current Texans players have questions about Easterby and how he rose to his current level of power.
Easterby's Texans bio says he "directs the overall culture of the organization," and the Texans player says Easterby has created fun competitions between the team for guys to get to know each other better. Last year, he divided the team into six mini teams of players from different position groups and directed team-building competitions between those teams.
The current Texans player thinks the timing of O'Brien's firing, so early in the season, actually helps the team.
"We still have a lot of football left to play," the player said. "Our team is way more talented. [But in the standings], we are on the same par as the Jets right now. Our team has too much talent on it to be where we are."