Does Bill O'Brien Deserve More Attention for What He Did With the Texans?

The Texans had a quick turnaround from their dreadful 2013 campaign. How much of the credit does Bill O'Brien deserve?

In 2013, the Houston Texans went 3-1 in the preseason and started the year off with back-to-back wins. Following their hot start, the Texans lost every single one of their 14 remaining games. The offense sputtered, and only one team tallied fewer points over the course of the 2013 season than the Texans.

When an NFL team performs as poorly as the 2013 Texans, people lose their jobs. In this case, head coach Gary Kubiak was given the boot after a seven-year reign in Houston. Gone as well was veteran quarterback Matt Schaub, who was shipped to Oakland for a late-round pick in the offseason.

The Texans tabbed Penn State’s Bill O’Brien as their next head coach, hoping his strong offensive mind would help the team improve on that side of the ball. This improvement, however, came faster than anyone could have predicted, as the Texans went 9-7 in 2014. Just a year removed from picking first overall, and despite getting no production from that first overall pick, the Texans managed to stay in playoff contention all season long.

O’Brien was clearly a good hire for the Texans, and it's worth exploring just how much the offense improved under his guidance. Is it possible that O’Brien is not getting as much credit as he deserves? Let’s take a look.

Run-Heavy Houston

The Texans passing game struggled in 2013, but with Arian Foster shelved for a good chunk of the season, they had no choice but to air it out. They threw the ball on just under 62% of their plays, the seventh-most in the league. When you’re sporting a quarterback duo of Schaub and Case Keenum as the Texans were, using the passing game that much is not a recipe for success.

Under O’Brien’s direction, the Texans turned to the ground game far more in 2014. In fact, no team threw the ball on a lower percentage of their plays than the Texans did this season. They were one of only two teams, along with the Seattle Seahawks, to have called more run plays than pass plays. Running that often isn't a bad choice when you have Foster in tow. Of the 32 running backs who had 150-plus carries this season, Foster ranked 10th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). That is a good, not great, performance on the ground relative to his peers, but Foster makes up for it by being an excellent receiving option out of the backfield. Amongst that 32-back sample, Foster was fourth in Reception NEP.

O’Brien made good use out of his best weapon, and crafted an offense to suit the team’s strength at the running back position.

Watt Are You Doing?

A further example of O’Brien’s genius on the offensive aspect of football comes with his usage of J.J. Watt in red zone packages. Watt, the athletic freak and hands-down top defensive player in the game, had some experience at tight end before converting full-time to defense while at Wisconsin. It was O’Brien’s idea to use Watt when the team got near the goal line, and despite only playing nine snaps on offense all year, he scored three touchdowns.

Watt’s role on the offense probably was not season-altering, but O’Brien’s willingness to experiment was greatly exemplified in the way he used his star defensive lineman. It was a bold move, especially considering Watt acknowledges he did not know any of the offensive-jargon used to call plays, but it is one that ultimately paid off for O’Brien and the Texans.

By the Numbers

A nice way to look at just how much the Texans improved under O’Brien’s leadership is by looking at their team NEP data. The table below shows the strong improvement with O’Brien at the helm:

Team Passing NEP-64.7320.33
Team Rushing NEP-17.13-13.07

The improvement in the passing game was immense, as they went from a team performing amongst the very worst in the league to a middle-of-the-pack squad. They still were not a great team through the air, but O’Brien also doesn't have a true franchise quarterback to work with. To get that type of production out of a combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, and Keenum is impressive. With Andre Johnson and Deandre Hopkins established as strong receiving threats, the Texans are the definition of a team that is truly a quarterback away from being contenders. While that is easier said than done, O’Brien got the most out of a group of mediocre quarterbacks which bodes well for the future of the team.

On the ground, the team made a modest jump from 25th in the league in Rushing NEP to 21st. The ground game numbers are likely adversely affected by just how many grinding runs the team calls, but should Foster remain healthy in once again next season, O’Brien will likely stick with his run-heavy style.

None of this suggests that the Houston Texans are an offensive juggernaut, but they truly do not have the pieces to perform to that level at the moment. The notable improvement they made on the offensive side of the ball from one year to the next without a significant upgrade at the quarterback position is a testament to O’Brien’s abilities as an offensive coordinator and head coach. While the wait for a franchise quarterback could end up being a long one in Houston, the team will still be a position to succeed with O’Brien doing his best to utilize his current options.

And having this year's top-ranked defense doesn't hurt their future chances, either.