Updated August 19, 2015
HOUSTON — Given how obsessed coaches are with avoiding distraction, I’m surprised any of them would turn their training camp into reality TV. There’s no way Bill Belichick would put his New England Patriots on HBO’s Hard Knocks. So I was amazed that his protégé and proud copycat, Bill O’Brien, beginning his second season as head coach of the Houston Texans, would participate.
We learned the reason in the opening seconds of the 2015 Hard Knocks. O’Brien speaking to his staff: “This organization is 96-126. Thirty games below five-hundred. Turn your TV on. Nobody talks about the Houston Texans because nobody thinks we’re going to win.”
The Texans are a team in need of publicity, so that’s why they consented to give America a peek at what goes on behind lots of closed doors.
So we see and hear a few things the coaches would rather not have revealed. O’Brien, we find, may be the most profane coach this side of Rex Ryan. He doesn’t think you can have a complete sentence without at least one F-bomb.
Even so, he comes off as more engaging than some of his Hard Knocks predecessors. Last year Atlanta’s Mike Smith was dour and boring, as if just going through the motions of being a head coach.
It was no surprise to those who watched Hard Knocks that Smith was knocked out of a job in January.
A couple of preseasons prior to that one, Miami’s Joe Philbin also was revealed as utterly boring, except when committing one of the costliest blunders of the year, giving up on 24-year-old cornerback Vontae Davis, a first-round draft pick from 2009. Philbin was filmed all but shoving Davis out the door with a quick and callous brush-off.
With a coaching staff that showed some encouragement in Indy, Davis rapidly developed into one of the best cover corners in the NFL. The Dolphins got a second-round draft pick for him. Philbin, who oversaw – we should say failed to see – the infamous bullying by Richie Incognito of Jonathan Martin — has been on the hot seat so long, his butt is charred.
O’Brien, by contrast, is thorough and critical in a constructive way. He holds everyone’s attention with his passion and his brisk and varied delivery. Though he’s a bit grumpy, constantly complaining about Houston media not being properly respectful of “our quarterbacks.”
In the second episode of the show (Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern, when the kiddies should be in bed and shielded from the cursing), OB or Obie, as he’s known to the players, tells them to respect reporters as “a conduit to the fans,” but don’t give them anything that could be a story.
He actually instructs them to say “one game at a time” whenever possible and to “say nothing about any of your teammates.” Their standard response is supposed to be “I just want to make myself a better player.”
While this approach will keep the all-important Distraction to a minimum, it won’t do much to raise a player’s public profile, a critical factor in endorsement potential. Which as far as the coach is concerned, would be distracting. He’s all about team winning, not individuals getting trophies or money.
Further, Obie fails to see he’s the main reason we’re not respectful of his quarterbacks. He doesn’t list either Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallet as No. 1. Not until shortly before game time of last Saturday’s preseason opener was Hoyer revealed as the starter. In the first episode of Hard Knocks, O’Brien did not have much good to say about either Hoyer or Mallett.
After Mallett tosses an interception, O’Brien blurts: “What a stupid throw!”
In Episode 2, the coach is much happier with his quarterbacks, as the Texans beat San Francisco 23-10 in the preseason opener. Hoyer, Mallett and even the No. 3, Tom Savage, all posted passer ratings above 100. But O’Brien kept the quarterback controversy going by announcing he would start Mallett in the second preseason game, Saturday at Denver.
Of course, since preseason doesn’t count, the main significance of it is injuries. Texan coaches are shown raving about 6th-round draft pick Reshard Cliett, linebacker from South Dakota. But a few frames later we see Cliett succumb to a torn ACL, his season ending before it could begin.
It’s strange that much more attention is devoted to Cliett than to the shelving of the team’s No. 1 offensive star, Arian Foster. The Pro Bowl running back will be lost for a major chunk of the season after groin surgery (perhaps best they did not provide details on that). But we get no reaction from the player and very little from anyone else in the organization. Not much news judgment there.
Foster’s replacement, Alfred Blue, is quick in the open field but constantly gets stacked up at the goal line. In pass-rush drills, Brian Cushing tosses him like he’s a bowl of lettuce. Whoever ends up quarterbacking the Texans will miss the solid pass-blocking of Foster.
Cushing, by the way, looks like Comeback Player of the Year. Slowed almost to a crawl last season after knee surgery, he’s back, not just Cushing but crashing. Episode 2 had a charming segment of him cuddling at home with his young family, but on the field he’s a kamikaze pilot, even in practice. An injury waiting to happen. To him or whomever he hits.
As fun as it is to watch Cushing — however long he survives his hellbent mission — the most compelling actor in Hard Knocks is J.J. Watt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
I would have voted for him as MVP, not just for his constant disruption on the field but because he’s more of a leader than Aaron Rodgers would ever try to be.
After coaches rip into the defense (“We’re the nicest F-ing team I’ve ever seen,” says Mike Vrabel), Watt huddles with his cohorts and issues a stern demand. “I don’t like getting talked to like that. Let’s get this corrected.”
He was not satisfied with his own performance, jumping offsides for, he said, the first time ever during a Texans practice. He had to run a lap in penance.
Watt is determined to let no one outplay him or outwork him. He easily flips a thousand-pound tire. He claims he’s lifted it 65 times in a day. We see Watt shine in various football drills well into the night. He’s last to leave the building, at 10, signing a batch of autographs on the way out.
There’s also considerable time on the show devoted to good-natured nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was left unsigned by the Patriots after they won the Super Bowl. He lobs a football to an elephant, who snatches it with his curling trunk. As they stand side by side, I can’t help pondering who’s more overweight, Wilfork or the elephant.
I never hold out much hope for ex-Patriots. Belichick got the best years out of Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins and other Pro Bowlers before letting them walk. My guess is that unless Willfork can give the fork an occasional rest, injuries and age (he’s 33) soon will take him down.
From Hard Knocks and other reports out of Texan camp, we learn that Obie is a masterful motivator in his Marine Sergeant-Light style. He’s sparing with compliments, but he gives them — just often enough so they have meaning. He conveys a sense that practice is truly important. His team is disciplined and ready to play no matter the opponent.
O’Brien still needs to prove himself as a game coach. We haven’t seen much razzle dazzle from his offense, though defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel can scheme with anybody. O’Brien can’t ignore the tight ends like he did last year. Perhaps, by the end of the season – the TV season – we will think we know if Obie has a good enough quarterback and if he knows what to do with one if he has one.