Just Who Is Bill O’Brien?
By Oliver Connolly
Every year out of the darkness of Black Monday one coaching candidate emerges as the beacon of hope for every franchise with a newly revealed ‘open’ sign above the head coach’s door. Last year Chip Kelly became the NFL’s most sought after sweetheart. This year it was Bill O’Brien.
The former Penn State head coach agreed to a long term contract with the Texans on Tuesday after being a reported target for the Browns, Vikings and Redskins. But what does O’Brien bring to the table?
O’Brien joins the Texans following successful stints as a Patriots assistant before graduating to the play-caller and Offensive coordinator. He’s another from Bill Belichick’s coaching tree to get a head coaching job in the league, but unlike Charlie Weiss, Josh McDaniels and Romeo Crennel, O’Brien has previous head coaching experience. O’Brien joined a Penn State program that has been decimated by the death of Joe Paterno and the Sandusky sex scandal.
In his two years with the program he was able to restore a professional environment around a beleaguered organisation. Every way in which he conducted himself screamed of a pro team. Former Penn State graduate Matt McGloin said;
‘‘Coach BO prepared me better than any could for this [camp with the Raiders]. I basically played for a professional team under him last year.’’
These two years of experience could be invaluable if O’Brien is to fair better than the previously mentioned Belichick protégés.
While at Penn State O’Brien displayed a great ability to get his players up for the ‘big games’ and was able to make crucial scheme and personnel changes in the biggest of spots. Wins in 2012 over Northwestern and Wisconsin were a crucial platform for the program leading into two huge wins in 2013 again over Wisconsin and Michigan; four ranked opponents with superior talent across the board. O’Brien stood up to the coaching test and came through with flying colours.
O’Brien walks into the Texans with plenty of questions about the roster, none bigger than what to do at quarterback. There’s a lot of dead money tied up in Matt Schaub’s contract but there’s no question that he’ll either be out of Houston or riding the pine come opening day of the 2014 season. The Texans hold the number one pick giving O’Brien ample opportunity to evaluate all this year’s top QB prospects that include; Teddy Bridgerwater, Jonny Manziel and Blake Bortles. Choosing which one will be the perfect fit for him in Houston will be the challenge.
O’Brien himself has shown a terrific tendency to develop quarterbacks. He took Penn State walk on McGloin and turned him into an efficient passer with big-play potential and an eventual winner as an NFL starter. He then took the country’s top passing prospect Christian Hackenburg and ingratiated him into his complex offense, leading the Nitanny Lions to a solid 8-4 year.
Nothing is more paramount to the future of the Texans than to bring in the right quarterback and the right teacher. For too long former Head Coach Gary Kubiak and Schaub lacked the necessary development. O’Brien’s proven track record in this department is an immediate upgrade.
O’Brien endeared himself to front offices in last year’s and this year’s coaching carousel largely due to the scheme he helped develop in New England and the success he found running a pro-style offense in what is now a largely spread orientated college game. Thought of throughout league circles as an innovator, he was crucial in the Patriots implementation and success in running a two-tight end. At Penn State they built of a power-run zone scheme that included one tight-end and one H-back (fig.1)
The system allowed O’Brien to build a complex bunch of formations and premeditated changes based on the defenses alignment, an offense that was extremely demanding on the quarterback’s football IQ as well as O’Brien himself who would make pre-snap reads from the sidelines.
The Texans themselves ran a zone-run scheme under Kubiak. Both Arian Foster and Ben Tate are zone-run exclusive one-cut backs. With Tate confirming he’s leaving, getting the most out of Foster takes on even more importance. He’s perfectly suited to what O’Brien is looking to do.
In the passing game, O’Brien looks to hit all phases of the defense: short, intermediate and deep on every play. With strong burners on the outside he looks to stretch a defense vertically before hitting either tight end down the seam.
It’s a complicated system that’s a near carbon copy lift of the ’08-11 Patriots but the question will remain if Houston has the right pieces. Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins more than fill the requirements of the outside receivers but although the tight end group of Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin is nothing to be scoffed at, it will need to be significantly improved if it so to become a foundation piece of O’Brien’s offense.
Under Kubiak’s watch the Texans largely ran a 3-4. O’Brien will come in looking to shift the previously successful defensive scheme from that 3-4 to a 4-3 (Fig2). O’Brien will inherit the best defensive player in the league in JJ Watt and getting the most out of him has to be his priority. By switching to a 4-3 he’ll be hoping for more isolation opportunities for Watt.
The switch in defensive philosophies is to me a strong reason why the Texans should look at defensive end Jadeveon Clowney come May. For Watt to continue his record breaking production in a 4-3 they’ll have to pair him with someone who will command nearly as much respect from
opposing offenses. Players of that ilk are tough to come by. Clowney seriously has JJ Watt type potential.
The back side of the Texans defense will be based solely on who O’Brien plans to bring with him to his Houston staff as well as which players he looks to bring back.
For all the plaudits O’Brien received for the job he did at Penn State (15-9) I do think some of this is being overstated. Penn State was smacked with severe sanctions following the Sandusky disgrace but these sanctions do not really hit the program for two more years. They aren’t a help by any means but they’ve been billed as an immediate death penalty that somehow O’Brien saved.
The fact remains despite a couple of players deferring and leaving the Lions there was still a huge amount of talent on the roster including the #1 recruited quarterback. It was a very good job but it wasn’t ground breaking. The proof really is in the pudding. Did anyone from Penn State come out in outrage and with a strong stance on O’Brien leaving for any NFL opportunity? Not really. I think they’re happy with the $6m buyout they received and an opportunity to employ a high-calibre collegiate coach such as Greg Schiano or James Franklin.
Although considered a ‘pro-guy’ and therefore less of a college risk, the fact remains he’s spent more of his career coaching amongst the college ranks. Outside of calling plays in New England has had little experience of game management in the professional ranks. Chip Kelly will tell you it really is a steep learning curve.
For O’Brien to successfully run his system he is going to have to be flexible as well as land a signal caller with an outstanding football brain. As I stated earlier his scheme has lots of premeditated reads and switches. It’s going to require a player with more than just a strong physical skill set for he and the Texans to win at this level.
It’s nothing against Bill O’Brien but another college coach upping and leaving his school for the NFL leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It shows of the whole corruption and hypocrisy of the NCAA and college sports. O’Brien is able to move to a higher paid job, with a lump sum from his buyout. The school made money on the back of his AND the players achievements; the players on the other hand, recruited by a man who now calls Houston his home, are unable to leave without facing what amounts to a punishment. Isn’t it about time that if we are going to pay these semi-professionals we allowed them free-reign to defect to an institute of their choice if the man that recruited them and made them promises leaves for a better proposition?
With the way O’Brien runs things, pro-style offense and 4-3 defense, I become more and more convinced that they should take Clowney at number one and pick up a smart player who would fit the offense system to play quarterback, say AJ McCarron.