With a minute left to play in the first half, Deshaun Watson had announced his official arrival. The Texans quarterback looked downfield, felt the pressure, stepped up and tucked it. He stiff-armed one Bengal defender, broke right to blow past another, then turned on the jets and outran the rest. The kid had instantly created one of the most exciting moments of the young NFL season.
It’s a good thing Watson drew up that magic in the dirt because the rest of the game was room temperature dog food. Part of that is Cincinnati’s general lethargy under Marvin Lewis these days. Part of that is Bill O’Brien’s ability to diagram an offense that cures insomnia.
The Texans have had fits and starts offensively since O’Brien took over the reigns four years ago, which is ironic because he was brought in to enhance that side of the ball. Gary Kubiak built the franchise into winners, growing a 2-14 team into a 12-4 one with incremental improvement over 7 years. But he couldn’t get past the divisional round of the playoffs and the clamor grew louder. Critics believed the Texans had plateaued.
Well, 12 wins would be a wonderful plateau right now for O’Brien to rest on. Each of his three seasons have ended at 9-7, and the quarterback carousel would be comical if it wasn’t so sad. Houston has started more quarterbacks than even the disastrous Browns in this window, which says all you need to know. The Texans have won with defense (not O’Brien’s area of expertise) and rifled through signal-callers like a Wal-Mart shopper on Black Friday.
The play-calling was suspect on Thursday night in Watson’s first start. Sure, the rookie couldn’t be handed too much to digest in a short week. But O’Brien seemed to continually put Watson in predictable, difficult throwing positions by running on early downs or only calling short routes. Houston had a half dozen three-and-out drives, and was fortunate the Bengals offense was even more pathetic.
It is mind-bending how O’Brien has a reputation as an offensive mind (and continued to rise up the coaching ranks) because there’s scant evidence of this. He had finally reached the NFL after bouncing around the college ranks, and it was his stint in New England that put him on the radar as a head coaching candidate. But O’Brien’s acumen is based on simply not screwing with arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time (except for that one time he did). Like so many coordinators before him, a Pats assistant was handed a head coaching job because of the hope Brady and Belichick’s greatness rubbed off.
O’Brien had only two seasons at Penn State as the caretaker of a fractured program after the Sandusky nightmare before he was hired by the Texans. His greatest offensive accomplishment at Happy Valley? Getting a +10 TD/INT ratio out of Christian Hackenberg. But the cold, hard truth is there’s very little evidence O’Brien makes a tangible offensive difference.
O’Brien has had veteran game-managers (Brian Hoyer), young draft picks (Tom Savage), gunslingers (Ryan Fitzpatrick), and flawed flame-throwers (Ryan Mallett). He’s had high-priced free agents (Brock Osweiler) and never-will-be’s (T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden). He’s had every possible version of an NFL quarterback. This is his final chance. He’s been given a talented, mature winner to mold into a Pro Bowler. If he can’t make this work, he’s out of excuses. He’s sucked the life out of a building that once was one of the most positive environments in the league under Kubiak. Should Watson develop into a winning franchise quarterback he’ll be a hero in Houston. And forget a national championship at Clemson, Watson’s greatest success would simply be not having been corrupted by the mismanagement of his head coach.
D.A. hosts 9am-12 pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.