Checking In on Bill O’Brien’s First NFL Season

With Bill O’Brien bringing his Houston Texans to Pittsburgh for a crucial Monday Night Football matchup tonight at 8:30 on ESPN, I thought it was a good time to evaluate the job BO’B has done so far in his first season after leaving Penn State for the NFL.

The Texans are second in the AFC South at 3-3, two games behind the division-leading 5-2 Indianapolis Colts. They’re 8th in the AFC, a half-game behind the 3-2-1 Cincinnati Bengals for the final wild card playoff spot in the conference. They surpassed their 2013 win total of two by the end of September. For a team that was the worst in the NFL last season, that’s a pretty decent start to the year.

A closer look at the Texans’ start to the year shows a team having trouble figuring out how good it is. They started the year off with comfortable wins against Washington (17-6) and Oakland (30-14), both of whom turned out to be among the worst teams in the league at this juncture. They then followed that up with a road loss to the New York Giants sans Arian Foster. They bounced back with a gritty win over the Buffalo Bills (still without Foster) that looks worse now that the Bills have improved with Kyle Orton starting over EJ Manuel at quarterback. The Texans are coming into this matchup on a two-game losing streak, losing to in-state rivals Dallas and division rivals Indianapolis by a combined eight points.

They’ve got some star power in JJ Watt, Arian Foster, and Andre Johnson, but O’Brien’s Texans don’t do any one thing particularly well.

BO’B worked some magic with Matt McGloin, but the quarterback situation isn’t quite the same in Houston. For as good as BO’B was with quarterbacks during his time in Happy Valley, he can only do so much with the group he has at the position this season. With no bona fide signal caller atop the draft class, O’Brien and his regime elected to draft Jadeveon Clowney first overall and go with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter. The team brought in former Patriots backup Ryan Mallett and drafted former Pitt and Rutgers QB Tom Savage (sorry, Tom), and the group as a whole could be charitably described as “mediocre.” As a result, despite a pair of very good WRs in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, the Texans rank just 28th in passing yards per game at 208.5 and Fitzpatrick has thrown an equal number of touchdowns (six) to interceptions.

O’Brien has had to lean more on a rushing offense, but luckily, it’s been able to pick up the slack. Led by Foster, Houston ranks 11th in the league at 128.5 yards/game despite Foster’s two-game absence, Foster is averaging 4.8 YPC and has five touchdowns, and the rushing attack has been able to keep them in most of their games this season.

The defense, despite the presence of Watt and Brian Cushing, has been rather average behind Romeo Crennel. It ranks 28th in opposing passing yards against and 21st in opponent rushing yards against. To be fair, though, they’ve gotten almost nothing from the aforementioned top pick Clowney, who tore his meniscus in Week 1 and hasn’t played since. Clowney is questionable for tonight’s game, and if he’s able to play he could help boost a pass rush that ranks just 19th in sacks with 10, four of which came courtesy of Watt.

Despite its obvious limitations (poor quarterback play and average defense), O’Brien’s squad has a chance to make some noise down the stretch. Starting tonight, the Texans only play three of their final 10 games against teams who currently have a winning record (vs. Philadelphia, vs. Cincinnati, and at Indianapolis). If their small group of above-average players (Watt, Foster, Johnson, Cushing, Hopkins) stay healthy and productive, the Texans could scratch out enough wins to beat out the rest of what’s shaping up to be a motley crew of competition for the 6th seed in the AFC.

The more likely outcome, though, is that the Texans play roughly .500 football down the stretch and finish somewhere around 7-9 or 8-8, missing the playoffs by a game or two. Houston seems like a classic case of being a quarterback away from being a serious contender, and after not addressing the position early in the draft last year they could dip into the draft pool of collegiate passers and try to attain their franchise quarterback. It’s not as easy to find a solid starter in the middle of the first round, though, as it is early in the draft. The Texans are in an interesting situation, however, with regards to their roster construction. Remember, this team won the AFC South and a playoff game in both 2011 and 2012, and as a result the team has a lot of veteran talent already. Watt, Hopkins, and Clowney are all under 25, but Cushing is 27, Foster is 28, and Johnson is 33. These guys aren’t getting younger, and the window with this specific group of Texans is probably shorter than many people would think. As such, O’Brien will likely need to find his franchise quarterback sooner rather than later. This could potentially put some pressure on him to draft someone this year rather than waiting for a certain 2016 quarterback prospect (Christian Hackenberg, anyone?).

In all seriousness, O’Brien’s done a pretty good job this season. They’ve beaten the terrible teams they’ve played, lost to the good ones, and split against the average ones. And for a team that went just 2-14 last season, that’s a welcome improvement. Their game tonight is the start of a crucial stretch to close the season, and a win here would go a long way in kick-starting a playoff push. O’Brien doesn’t need to make the playoffs his first season to validate his decision to leave Penn State, and his post-State College legacy won’t be written in one year, but a win tonight would be the first step in penning a nice first chapter to it.

And it’s good to know O’Brien hasn’t forgotten about Penn State.

“I love the kids at Penn State,” O’Brien, said, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review feature last week. “Those are the memories that I’ll always cherish.”

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