Bill O’Brien is likely headed for his first losing season as a head coach. The Houston Texans lost another one on Sunday, falling to Tennessee 24-13 to drop to 4-8 on the season. O’Brien has had 9-7 records with the Texans in his prior three seasons, and had winning records in two years at Penn State. This will be the worst result of his career no matter what.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike O’Brien.
He can be combative and stand-offish. He is not a pleasant person. He is a coachspeak machine. His offenses -- even in their playoff years -- have been well below average, even though it is his supposed forte. There appears to be a disconnect/potential power struggle going on with GM Rick Smith. His agents or representatives often leak stories favorable to O’Brien. His judgment of what makes a quality quarterback is highly questionable. He took way too long to pull the plug on a bad offensive coordinator. His clock management is laughable. He has one year left on his deal after this, and there are rumblings about a potential extension. But the big question is should he even be back next season, with all things above being the determining factors?
The answer is a resounding, no doubt yes.
Despite the record, O’Brien might be doing the best coaching job of his career. He took over offensive play calling fulltime this year, and the offense exploded when Deshaun Watson took over. But even after Watson’s injury, the play calling was better. Tom Savage -- although he played well on Sunday until he made one critical mistake-- is just unable to execute it consistently at a high level. Plus, considering all the injuries on both sides of the ball, that the Texans are even competitive is impressive.
Two of their three best defensive players have been gone since early in the year with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. The WR/TE corps has been thin and beaten up all year, leaving very few viable weapons. Promising young RB D’Onta Foreman, too, is gone. And yet the Texans players have not quit on their coach. Even in the Monday night loss to Baltimore, they played hard. They just weren’t good enough to overcome Savage’s fatal mistakes that night.
On Sunday, they again played hard against Tennessee. They were down to two healthy receivers and one tight end. They could not run the football. They simply do not have enough talent on the field to overcome any mistakes at all -- like missed field goals or allowing untimely sacks. But the effort is there. So, too, is the play calling. Those things are on O’Brien. It was on display in a 16-play drive that took over eight minutes in the third quarter. Shorthanded, with awkward personal packages, O’Brien’s team marched down the field... And missed another field goal. It’s hard to win football games when you do that.
They dodged a bullet on the play before when Savage threw into heavy coverage. O’Brien can’t make that throw for him. Or make the kick. Of course, Tennessee marched down the field after the miss and took a 17-10 lead. The Texans needed to be perfect, and they had too many penalties -- including three straight false starts on fourth down on the final drive -- and missed field goals to beat a team like Tennessee. They were as good as they could be with what they had on the field, and they came up short. Even with Savage having the best game of his career -- 31 of 49 for 365 yards and a touchdown -- the Texans just weren't good enough. Savage only had one interception, and it came throwing into double coverage in the end zone on simply a bad decision.
That’s not on O’Brien, no matter what crap he spews in the postgame presser. The Texans were in the game with less than two minutes to play. And then Savage made another mistake, and the Titans added a late touchdown run to ice the game.
O'Brien should return next season. And he should get a chance to coach Watson for a full year. Yes, he is the one who insisted Savage can play. That, and all the reasons above are why he should not be given an extension. It is one of the worst arguments in the world that a coach in the last year of his contract can’t be effective because assistants are worried about their jobs and players won’t listen. It is a results-based business. Everyone should constantly be worried. Players have contract years; coaches should too. And if O’Brien can do a good job again next season when he has his team healthy, he will get paid somewhere.
And he should. That’s how things ought to work. But he deserves the opportunity to earn that contract. And that means coming back next season. That should be a no-brainer.
This column originally appeared on SportsMap.