By Dan Pompei
After finishing the season in a place no team wanted to be, the Houston Texans have begun the offseason in a place every team wants to be. They had their pick of head coaches, and they will have their pick of players in the May draft with the first selection. Their choices will determine the fate of this franchise over a long stretch of highway, and that will make them one of football's most interesting teams between now and July.
Their first move was hiring Bill O'Brien. Following two years at Penn State, when he resurrected a program that had been devastated by a child abuse scandal and the ensuing NCAA sanctions, O'Brien was the coach every team wanted to interview. In Houston, he is the first tulip bulb of the year, a welcome sight.
O'Brien could be in position to turn the Texans around quickly. A 2-14 team is not what the Texans were supposed to be. In fact, a Super Bowl team is what some smart men thought they could be. Putting 16 players on injured reserve has a way of turning promise to dust. As general manager Rick Smith reflects on the past and future of the ship he captains, he chooses not to think of the Texans as they were supposed to be; rather he wants to see them as what they were.
That is why O'Brien is sitting at Gary Kubiak's desk. And that is why Teddy Bridgewater may be hanging his jersey in Matt Schaub's locker. And that is why no one should be too comfortable at Two Reliant Park. "I do believe we have to be realistic," Smith said. "I think if you would have asked a lot of people at the beginning of last year if this team would have finished 2-14, I don't know if you could have gotten anybody that would have said that would be the case. There are a number of reasons why that ended up being our reality. But the truth is we were 2-14. So I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't critically look at our team and make sure we are honest in our assessment and we look at every opportunity to improve. For us to sit here and say we have a talented team and we don't have a whole lot to do, that's not the approach we're taking. We're taking the approach we have to look at every situation and every player and every process. We made the change on the coaching staff, but we can't stop there. I have to be critical in how I set up the draft process and our player acquisition process so that we learn from what we just went through."
Part of what the Texans were, though, is a team that was just bad enough to lose each of their last 14 games. All but four of their losses were by a touchdown or less, and five were by six points or less.
A quarterback can close a narrow gap, so the suspicion of many is the Texans will use that first pick in the draft either on Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles.
O'Brien's ability to maximize a quarterback clearly is part of the reason he was given this prime coaching opportunity. It was O'Brien who was coaching Tom Brady when the Patriots quarterback had his record-setting 2011 performance. In addition to being mentored by Bill Belichick, he also was touched by offensive coaches Chan Gailey and Ralph Friedgen. "Bill has a thorough understanding of what it takes to play the position and be successful at the position. He has a way about him. The definition of a good coach isn't someone who knows it all. It's the guy who can get what he understands in his brain into the other guy's brain and get him to produce that on the field. Bill has the ability to do that. He can communicate what he understands and knows about the position to the player. That's where you see the production on the field."
O'Brien has expressed his desire for a dedicated quarterback who is a "partner" in the offense, much like Brady was. Of the three top-rated draft prospects, Bridgewater is the one who widely is perceived to rate the highest on the intangible chart. But it isn't a given that the Texans will select a quarterback with the first pick in the draft.
A trade-down is absolutely in play, Smith said. And so is picking a player at another position. "If there is a quarterback worthy of the first pick, then you take him," Smith said. "If it's not a quarterback worthy of the first pick, you take the best players. I have always set the board based on value. We pick based on value, not on need. If you do that you open yourself up to mistakes. We will continue to operate that way and value our board with no regard to what we need."
What seems clear is the Texans will someway, somehow upgrade the talent under center. And really, is there a logical way for them to do that other than in the draft? "It's a quarterback league," Smith said. "You can't understate the importance of the position." They like to draft and develop and that isn't changing. Six years ago, they traded for Matt Schaub, and some such veteran solution always is possible. But it is not likely.
Ultimately, the Texans' quarterback decision will be Smith's. O'Brien wasn't hired to be Belichick. The day may come, but he has not earned the right to be lord of all his kingdom just yet.
O'Brien will tell you he is a football coach. Smith will tell you he is a general manager. And the separation of church and state is a healthy one in Houston. That is not to say Smith isn't soliciting input, however. "We have a specialist that heads up the football team and a specialist that heads up the personnel and operations," Smith said. "Those two guys have to work together in concert to build your football team. That's' the way we'll continue to do it. I think the balance and the marriage between the two is good. Coaches need to have a say in the personnel. And so do scouts. I do think he knows what good football players look like, what the physical traits and characteristics are that give guys a chance to succeed given how he is going to utilize them. He is good that way."
Ultimately, though, O'Brien was brought to Houston to lead a group of men who lost their way, to salvage a team that bottomed out. Smith thinks O'Brien is the "perfect fit" to do that, in part because he has done it before. And he is going to have help. More tulip buds will be coming up in Houston.
* * *
Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.