HOUSTON – When the time came for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair to finally expound on the job security of head coach Bill O’Brien, he wasted little breath. Standing outside the Texans’ locker room Saturday night, McNair sent an emphatic message. O’Brien is staying. As in: not getting fired, never in jeopardy of a pink slip (even if the Texans had lost to the Oakland Raiders) and already laying plans for the 2017 campaign.
Anything reported to the contrary on O’Brien elicited a warning from McNair.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t repeat it, because it’s false,” the Texans owner said, brushing off the notion that O’Brien could have been fired had Houston not beaten the Raiders 27-14 on Saturday. “… I don’t know where [reporters] get that from. There’s nothing to it. I’m not going to fire him. We’re already talking about next year, so forget that.”
Pressed about his future, O’Brien said simply, “I have a five-year contract. I have two years left. I’m looking forward to coaching here and I’m looking forward to getting ready for this next game.”
So that’s that. The Texans move on from the drama. Sort of.
There’s this thing about winning in an NFL postseason. It can put a bow on a less-than-perfect situation. It raises spirits, buoys hope and inflates optimism into a “why-not-us?” mentality. The Texans are there right now. The feelings could have been absorbed in the middle of the locker room Saturday night.
For the first time since the 2012 season, a playoff win had been secured. The Texans took a trying season and raised the bar, albeit at the expense of Connor Cook, a rookie third-string quarterback who wasn’t ready for this stage. But that didn’t resonate much in the Houston locker room, where each corner and conversation featured a smile.
Instead, plans were being made for a relaxing evening. Locker interviews? Everyone was open for business. The owner was out in the hallway talking to the media. The head coach was talking about opportunity. And why not?
“It’s the best total team effort that we’ve put out on the field all [season],” said Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown. “In December, January, February football, you have to be at your best. Right now that’s where we are. We’ve got a lot of momentum going into the second round.”
Brown is right. And that’s all great. But there’s this little odd matter of what happened this past week with O’Brien. Heading into the playoff game against Oakland, there was a prevailing wind of talk in the NFL personnel and coaching community that O’Brien could be available this offseason. Some familiar with the Texans framed it as a lose-and-he’s-fired situation. Others suggested O’Brien might be willing to part company amicably. And still others suggested that general manager Rick Smith was ready to make a move if quarterback Brock Osweiler tanked on his big playoff stage.
Winning a playoff game will whitewash much of that awkward week, but the tension was real. And it’s not new. Going back to the preseason there has been a nagging doubt about the relationship between O’Brien and Smith. McNair may not be sure where people are getting the idea that O’Brien might be elsewhere, but it’s out there. For some reason, other NFL coaches, executives and even scouting personnel say the Texans could be on the precipice of change.
And oddly enough, winning against the Raiders – or next week against the Kansas City Chiefs or New England Patriots – may fuel that talk. Indeed, winning could bolster the belief that some type of fracture is in store for the Texans. Here’s why: The people who know O’Brien believe he wants more. Specifically, more power to shape his team. More influence over his roster. More power over draft picks. More power to cut any player he sees fit at whatever moment he deems necessary. Not to mention more power over the local media, which O’Brien apparently believes gets a significant amount of leeway from the franchise.
Right now, Smith ultimately has control of most of those things. And O’Brien is very familiar with another way to do it. A way where the power flows from the head coach outward, where he provides the franchise’s blueprint. Indeed, O’Brien clawed his way up the ranks on a New England Patriots team where Bill Belichick was the center of the universe. The two still share a close relationship.
The same Belichick whom O’Brien might face in the second round of the playoffs. And the same New England franchise that – should the Texans win and advance to the AFC championship game – could help O’Brien reshape how the Texans operate.
In a way, that’s what last week was about. That’s why O’Brien’s name seems oddly prominent in the community of NFL headhunters who are looking to poach coaching talent. He is seen as a guy who might want to be available. Maybe via trade. Maybe via firing. Maybe in an “uncoupling,” where the team and coach simply agree to go other directions.
That’s a theme that hasn’t gone away for O’Brien in the surrounding NFL community. Not since November 2015, when his name was linked to the University of Maryland job. The Texans coach skewered the media for that report, but one source closely familiar with O’Brien and Smith told Yahoo Sports there was at least some suspicion inside the Houston franchise that O’Brien’s camp may have floated it. There’s no proof of that, of course, and O’Brien sternly denied any interest in the Terrapins job.
The same source said it has been clear for some time that O’Brien wants to run Houston’s ship like Belichick runs New England. But he can’t do that with the current structure, with so much of the personnel power flowing through Smith. And trying to change that, trying to gain leverage for a tighter grip on the wheel, wasn’t going to happen going 9-7 and missing (or losing early in) the playoffs.
But 9-7 and winning in the posteason? Seeing Osweiler take a tangible step forward? When it comes to O’Brien’s tenure, this is a new experience. This is tangible results. And more than ever, this is something to show ownership in the offseason and say, “I would like to have full power over the roster.”
O’Brien doesn’t have that now. But let the Texans win next week against the Chiefs or the Patriots. Give McNair and this franchise something to think about. Raise spirits. Buoy hopes. Inflate optimism. See what happens.
See how O’Brien uses it, knowing so many others in the NFL are watching and waiting to see how this unfolds.