In the end, the success, the structure, the identity and the culture still amounted to a Xerox copy. It was better than anything reproduced by Josh McDaniels or Eric Mangini or Matt Patricia, but still a failed knockoff of the Belichick template. And as history has shown us, the inability to mask the forgery carries a price.
That debt continues to be paid with a pink slip.
This is going to be the story of O’Brien’s end with the Houston Texans, told in chapters about power struggles, consolidation of authority, overreach, and finally, a failed bid to take a monumental step that ultimately ended in a firing. There will also be a soap opera inside the pages, detailing how O’Brien’s supposed ally, vice president of operations Jack Easterby, somehow avoided the guillotine in the process. Some of that will be white noise, merely drowning out the only thing that mattered in the end which was this:
O’Brien operated his franchise from an echelon of power that was matched by only one other coach in the NFL — the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick. When O’Brien failed to equal Belichick’s endless spring of results, the end that finally came on Monday was only a matter of time. Others can deplete oxygen delving into the role Easterby played in that outcome, but the first and most responsible culprit for O’Brien’s demise is the man himself.
As O’Brien put it, “We just didn’t do enough.”
That’s accurate. At 0-4, the Texans are off to a horrendous start, even with the first three games of the season being a scheduling buzzsaw. Perhaps this would have been a different outcome if Houston hadn’t lost to an 0-3 and somewhat hapless Minnesota Vikings team on Sunday. But they were beaten, and the winless start is the very definition of “not enough.”
Bill O’Brien accumulated staggering amount of power
It’s an emptiness that is particularly prominent considering that by almost any historical head coaching definition, O’Brien was simultaneously doing too much. So much so that by the time he was fired Monday, he was wearing the hats of head coach, general manager, offensive play-caller and even contract negotiator in some of the team’s recent landmark deals. It’s more power and responsibility than almost any other head coach in NFL history. And I’m including the small fraternity of other head coaches who had the dual-role title of general manager. A list that includes Mike Holmgren with the Seattle Seahawks, Bill Parcells with the New York Jets, Butch Davis with the Cleveland Browns, Mike Sherman with the Green Bay Packers and Mike Nolan with the San Francisco 49ers.
Take a long look at that list and read your history. There are two realities hidden inside those previous dual-role jobs. First, every single one of them ended with a measure of regret and some level of burnout admitted at a later date by the coaches who took on the “two hat” jobs. And second, none of those franchises ever repeated that mistake. Largely because ownership realized that combining a head coaching job with a general manager job invites disaster, either through an arrogance that undermines decision-making or a level of responsibility that drains a coach of the ability to do either job effectively.
That latter point sounds familiar in Houston. You can’t explain what O’Brien decided to shoulder without contemplating whether arrogance and a lack of self-awareness may have been a factor. Not that the “why” matters at this point. What’s done is done. And O’Brien did plenty enough to unravel parts of the Texans franchise. O’Brien’s handiwork is going to be felt in the franchise for years to come, whether it was trading away a boatload of draft choices for Laremy Tunsil, missing badly on some key draft picks, dealing away DeAndre Hopkins for less than market value, or loading the team’s salary cap with some monumental contract extensions.
It’s that mixed soup of decisions that helped lead Houston to the 0-4 start. And it’s that start, combined with O’Brien’s added general manager title just nine months ago, that left him at the center of the blast radius when the season detonated. You can’t have the level of aspiration that O’Brien did and fail. Particularly when you’ve taken on so many jobs, there isn’t anyone left to blame but you.
There is only one Bill Belichick
All of which leads back to Belichick and the idea of replication. To be fair to O’Brien, he was operating in a manner that he saw work in another franchise. In his mind, the recipe for success was having the power flow from the coach outward. And if other pieces of the structure failed, it was natural to consider taking on that responsibility rather than fumbling around looking for the right person to delegate to.
This is the problem with counting on coaches who are trying to replicate the Belichick experience: All the data has shown that to date, Belichick is a one-off. He’s a unicorn. You might as well be trying to replicate the genius of Mozart or Leonardo da Vinci. This is why his assistant coaches fail. While they may be able to copy some or all of the structure or plan, they can’t continue to create or adapt or grow along the way like Belichick has. Sure, they can trace or play a tune back by reading the sheet music. But how do they adjust on the fly when the piano or canvas is lit on fire?
That’s what makes Belichick special. And that’s what makes his assistant coaches so average. They can take the plan elsewhere, but they can’t ultimately build it into their own unique creation. Eventually, ownership figures that out either through wins and losses or some kind of disruptive organizational power struggle.
In the long view of history, the details of how O’Brien unraveled will get fuzzy. We’ll forget who might have undercut him inside the franchise or which personnel move or coaching mistake helped speed his demise. What we won’t forget is that he took on all the responsibility and had nobody left to blame when it all came to a crashing halt.
As O’Brien said, “We didn’t do enough.” But the truth is he had everything at his fingertips and he didn’t do enough with that power. That’s what separated him from fulfilling Houston’s hope that he’d round into something closer to Belichick. And that’s what makes him just another in a long line of copies who’ll never replicate the New England design.
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