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Texans Coach A Gambler

The Gambler: Bill O'Brien's bold play calls draw mad praise from a New York sports radio legend, defy local critics

Bill O'Brien's bold play calls draw praise from NY sports radio icon

Bill O'Brien Texans Falcons sideline
Bill O'Brien is showing he's not afraid to challenge conventional football thinking in his first few games as the Houston Texans' head coach. Photo by Michelle Watson/CatchlightGroup
Les Miles LSU
Bill O'Brien may not be as wild as LSU coach Les Miles. But he's no play caller timid soul either. Courtesy of Tiger Life
Andre Johnson Texans catch
Andre Johnson loves new Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien's aggressiveness. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Ryan Fitzpatrick alone Texans skins
Bill O'Brien needs to make sure having Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback doesn't cause him to lose his gambler's edge. Photo by Michelle Watson/CultureMapSnap
Bob McNair Texans San Diego
It sure looks like Texans owner Bob McNair handpicked the right coach for his franchise. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
Bill O'Brien Texans Falcons sideline
Les Miles LSU
Andre Johnson Texans catch
Ryan Fitzpatrick alone Texans skins
Bob McNair Texans San Diego

Bill O’Brien is not The Mad Hatter.  The Houston Texans coach will never be confused with the zany, out-there Les Miles. O’Brien won’t be munching on any of NRG Stadium’s field turf anytime soon. Or ever.

But O’Brien is showing he’s a daring play caller in his own right. This first year NFL coach is unafraid to go bold, unconcerned about occasionally stomping on staid, conventional football thinking.

That became more apparent than ever last Sunday in New Jersey and it’s a promising sign — one that goes far beyond just this season — that shouldn’t be lost in a 30-17 setback.

 If the Texans are going to be a surprise playoff team this year, they need O'Brien to roll the dice — often. 

When O’Brien’s team comes out a little timid and tentative, he coaches even more fearless. He calls a fake punt, goes for it on fourth-and-one on his own side of the 50 just minutes into the second half. O’Brien is not just going to let his Texans sit back in the doldrums and quietly absorb a beating. He’s going to do anything to change the flow of the game.

This is the clearest sign yet that Texans owner Bob McNair handpicked the right coach. The Houston media has largely missed this, getting caught up in the end result — which is how the bottom line-orientated O’Brien would probably want it — but the Texans players noticed.

“When coach sees something he thinks we can take advantage of, he’s going to go for it and call it,” the longest-suffering Texan Andre Johnson says when I ask about O’Brien’s bold calls in the visitors locker room at Met Life Stadium. “That’s a coach’s decision.

“I love it. The fake punt, going for it on fourth down, that’s being aggressive. That shows he has confidence in the team.”

New York Loves Bill O'Brien

It’s easy to see how O’Brien is winning over the Texans locker room. How he has personalities as diverse as Arian Foster and J.J. Watt buying in. O’Brien might look like a guy who could be a Wall Street accountant or a car pool dad, but there’s some gambler in him.

One that’s rooted in analytical football smarts. Study after study has shown that NFL coaches go for it on fourth down far less than the data screams they should. Going for that fourth-and-one from the Texans’ own 46-yard line — in a game they’re trailing 14-0, a game they need to shift the momentum in — is the unquestioned right call.

 “I love it. The fake punt, going for it on fourth down, that’s being aggressive. That shows he has confidence in the team.” 

The fact the Texans don’t end up making it doesn’t change that one iota. You can debate the play called itself — though if O’Brien worries this offensive line can’t plow ahead for one yard the Texans have more trouble than anyone thought — but there’s no way to argue the decision to go for it on fourth down itself.

Not with anything but tired, old thinking.

Yet it's cited as a fault by several Houston sports talk radio hosts. Heck, a Texans fan even stopped me at baggage claim to complain about the fourth-and-one. Seriously? Again, it's a no brainer. 

The same goes for that fake punt. Even if it hadn’t been successful, it would have been a great call. With Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Texans offense doing absolutely nothing, O’Brien needed to find some way to change the tenor of the game.

He did it by turning punter Shane Lechler into a quarterback.

“Any time you can do something like that, it’s fun,” Lechler says.

Yes, even year-old future Hall of Famers can be energized by the O’Brien way.

It’s a style that plays well on the New York sports talk radio airwaves as well. Mike Francesa — the often scolding signature host of Gotham's sports radio giant 660 AM WFAN — has been praising the Texans coach's offensive innovation on air.

 Sometimes playing smart, "situational" football means going bold and doing what the other team doesn't expect. 

"O'Brien's the guy who came up with the Patriots two tight end offense with Gronk (Rob Gronkowski) and (Aaron) Hernandez," Francesa says. "That's his offense.

"This guy can coach."

Francesa goes on to say that while he wasn't quite as sure O'Brien would be an NFL coaching star coming out of Penn State as he was Jim Harbaugh would be coming out of Stanford, it wasn't that big of a gap.

The Texans franchise desperately needed an original thinker, a coach who attacks rather than reacts and they seem to have found him in a Boston guy.

Now Texans fans can only hope that O'Brien doesn't become less bold with Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The coach chastises himself for having Uncle Fitz throw on a third-and-19 deep in his own territory — a play that results in an interception — after the Giants loss. And several Houston sports radio hosts and columnists have blindly (and dumbly) made the same argument.

That interception's not on O'Brien though. That's on Fitzpatrick.

A bad result doesn't necessarily make it a bad play call. The Texans need to be able to go downfield on a third-and-long when the game's not going their way.

They must forever bury the stigma of throwing eight-yard passes on third-and-10, the type of thing that too often haunted Gary Kubiak's offense.

If the Texans are going to be a surprise playoff team this year, they need O'Brien to roll the dice — often. Sometimes playing smart, "situational" football means going bold and doing what the other team doesn't expect.

"I like that coach is willing to try things," Johnson says.

You don't play the Raiders every week. A straight-forward gameplan isn't always enough. Against the Giants, O'Brien's daring play calls gave his team a chance to stay in a game they had no business still being in after a disastrous start. That's all you can ask from a coach.