Bill O’Brien’s decision to trade DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals was a rare consensus-building moment, a trade so awful that not a single person ventured to defend it, despite countless hours of programming to fill in a 24-hour news cycle. It once seemed inconceivable that we’d even have a season, but now that we’re well on our way, O’Brien’s awful decision-making in his unilateral role as head coach and general manager is compounding for the Houston Texans, with the team’s flaws increasingly on display as an open wound.
We’re only entering Week 2, but the Texans truly could be in an insurmountable hole, brought on by O’Brien’s singular oversights, by the end of the weekend.
O’Brien really only has one asset at this point, but it’s an important one. Deshaun Watson continues to provide O’Brien with a vote of confidence, even though his popular opinion has eroded over the past two seasons. This has been Watson’s long-standing position, backing O’Brien after the 2017 season, the quarterback’s rookie year when he emerged as one of the NFL’s brightest talents, before suffering a gruesome knee injury in practice that ended his sensational debut campaign. Fast forward three years and Watson’s voice is the most important in the franchise — it’s more important than J.J. Watt’s and carries even greater weight while the Texans’ ownership group appears to be in a state of flux after Bob McNair died in November 2018.
Watson’s loyalty to his coach is commendable, if impractical. O’Brien lowered the ceiling on one of the NFL’s most promising teams, an observation even casual observers could make. Now that games are being played and these are no longer online arguments, O’Brien’s decisions are being amplified. David Johnson wasn’t necessarily bad in Week 1, rushing for 77 yards on 11 carries, but even if he improbably returned to his 2016 All-Pro form, he wouldn’t come close to replicating Hopkins’ value.
Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills, along with a 2020 fourth- and 2021 sixth-round pick were acquired in O’Brien’s other catastrophic trade as the Texans sent back their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks to the Dolphins, along with their 2021 second-round pick, offensive lineman Julien Davenport and cornerback Johnson Bademosi. Tunsil is a good left tackle, earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 2019. To receive the return on value expected from this trade, Tunsil will have to morph into the second coming of Jonathan Ogden. It just sets up such an unfair predicament for Johnson, Stills, Tunsil, or Brandin Cooks (acquired along with a 2022 fourth-round pick, in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick) to be expected to elevate this team because of a poor vision.
Beyond unfair, it makes life more difficult for Watson. Watson is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks but was under constant pressure against the Chiefs, getting hit eight times, and his stat line is generous considering he did most of his damage in garbage time. It’s hard to make plays when your offensive weapons can’t get open, or your new left tackle can’t afford to give you much time to operate effectively in the pocket. By lowering the talent level of the Texans in a misguided attempt at a shakeup, O’Brien might’ve effectively muted his franchise player.
The schedule is unforgiving for the Texans, as the Ravens spell danger coming off a 38-6 rout of the Browns. Baltimore humiliated Houston 41-7 last season, where Lamar Jackson’s MVP candidacy truly took off when he threw for four touchdowns. O’Brien is known to be among one of the most conservative play-callers in the NFL, a long-standing criticism. Houston ran the ball 22 times against 32 passes last week in a game where it struggled to keep pace with Kansas City by the early stages of the second quarter. It would be out of character for him to adjust his scheme now, and he has no checks and balances to keep him honest, short of Watson doing a 180 and rejecting him outright. After the Ravens, the Steelers and Vikings are up next. It’s not inconceivable to think the Texans could be 0-4 out of the gate.
By trading away the Texans’ first-round picks in consecutive seasons, the franchise’s quickest impetus to make widespread changes is now all but gone. The option isn’t even there. The only explanation for this is that O’Brien believes he has a championship roster in place that was just a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
Houston led 24-0 against Kansas City in last year’s playoffs. That must feel like a distant memory now. O’Brien’s inexplicable trades baffled many throughout the spring, but the effects of his decisions are now unfolding in real time. It’s still too early to make a swift decision, but with every passing game, O’Brien’s decisions have a compounding negative effect on the Texans.
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