O’Brien’s future may be limited by Rick Smith’s drafts

Alan Truex

HOUSTON – While it’s unlikely Bill O’Brien would be interested in taking over the moribund football program at the University of Maryland, the rumor floated by Jason LaCanfora does point to a possible rift between the Houston Texans’ head coach and his general manager, Rick Smith.

I don’t know if O’Brien is unhappy with Smith.  But he should be.  Except for one very shrewd No. 11 first-round pick, Smith has accomplished little with his drafts.  And he’s made Houston a dumping ground for quarterbacks other teams don’t want.

And he failed to prepare for the often injured Arian Foster failing to provide a running game.  Smith entered this season with Foster’s backup being Alfred Blue, a sixth-round pick last year who averaged a miniscule 3.1 yards per carry as a rookie.

So O’Brien, whose coaching experience is weighted toward offense, is stuck with a team that has but one offensive threat, receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who scored the lone touchdown in the Texans’ 10-6 upset of previously perfect Cincinnati on Monday night.

The Texans, who looked hopeless at 1-4, are now 4-5 and tied with Indianapolis for first place in their junkyard of a division.  The Colts have a talented quarterback, Andrew Luck, but he’s rehabbing from a lacerated kidney and other injuries.  His football season could be over.

So the Texans may be the team to beat in the AFC South, for whatever that’s worth.  Perhaps O’Brien wonders if it’s worth very much.

That’s the hope of the Terrapins’ richest booster, Kevin Plank, Founder/CEO of UnderArmour, leader in athletic clothing.  It’s Plank who made it known that he wants O’Brien to restore his college team, which hasn’t been in the national championship discussion since the 1950s.

He should know that if O’Brien wanted to be head coach of a college team he would have stayed at Penn State instead of moving to the Texans in December 2013.

The Texans then were looking to recover from a 2-14 season.  O’Brien was hopeful because the upcoming draft was a good one for quarterbacks.

Instead, Smith chose a different direction, to pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, known for being the best ever to Combine athletic skills but also for being an injury waiting to happen.  He’s the Sam Bradford of defensive players.  

Even after spending the draft’s No. 1 pick on Clowney, who has missed most of his first two pro seasons, Smith still had a shot at a franchise quarterback.  Houston, by virtue of being the NFL’s worst team, drafted at the top of Round 2.  But Smith passed on Derek Carr, who currently ranks fifth in the league’s passing standings.  Just behind Aaron Rodgers and ahead of Drew Brees.

Instead of Derek Carr, Smith selected the imminently forgettable guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.

So O’Brien was left with a spinning wheel of low-round veteran quarterbacks: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum and Brian Hoyer, each of whom has started for him at least once.

Smith didn’t want Carr because his brother David had been a flop as the lead pick of an earlier Texans draft.  Never have the sins of a brother been so unjustly damaging.

O’Brien, who last year coaxed a 9-7 record out of his punchless team, can hardly have confidence that Smith will get the next draft right, unless there’s another J.J. Watt lurking for him to find, as, we must concede, he did in 2011.

Of course, one J.J. Watt can make up for a lot of Clowneys and Su-A-Filos.  On his most recent adventure, Watt and his cohorts on defense tore apart the Bengals to interrupt their 9-0 roll.  Watt, Christian Covington and John Simon each sacked the big redhead Andy Dalton, as the Texans won despite generating just 256 yards of their own.

They held Cincy to exactly the same yardage while winning the turnover battle, 3-1.  As O’Brien pointed out, the only Houston giveaway was a Hail Mary to end the first half.  That was his justification for distributing game balls to all his players, not just the ones on defense.

“We came out here to turn the Red Rifle into a Red Ryder BB gun,” Watt chortled afterwards.

He had it right, even if it did offend the hell out of Dalton.  Cincy played like it usually does only in the playoffs, shrinking into wimpiness.  Dalton went back to being Dalton.  The almost-great tight end Tyler Eifert went back to dropping passes – three of them.

Romeo Crenel, who’s had his ups and downs as Texans defensive coordinator, was on top of his game Monday night.  He did O’Brien a favor for whatever contract discussions he has coming up.

Crenel attacked Dalton from multiple directions and benefited from blanket coverage by 31-year-old corner Johnathan Joseph.

Dalton’s wildly erratic ace receiver A.J. Green lost a fumble in the end zone and was unable to shake the coverage of Joseph, who intercepted a pass during his mission to show the Bengals never should have let him slip away in free agency.

Even Smith could take a bow for his faith in Whitney Mercilus, the slow-blooming first-rounder of 2012 now providing the outside rush that was once Clowney’s job.  While Watt and the 290-pound rookie Covington pressed him from inside, Dalton faced a Mercilus rush from the edge.  The 6-4, 258-pound linebacker also disrupted Cincy’s ground game with three tackles for losses.

The Texans won the game with an acrobatic catch by another Smith first-rounder, Hopkins, from another retread QB, T.J. Yates, who as storylines would have it beat Cincy in one of its playoff debacles, in 2012.   Yates this time was a fill-in for Hoyer with a concussion.

The main reason 2-7 Maryland covets O’Brien is that he’s at his best when times are hardest.  He succeeded fallen icon Joe Paterno when Penn State was scandalized by a pedophiliac ex-assistant coach, Jerry Sundusky.  O’Brien sought the council of senior players and followed their advice in leading the Lions back to respectability.

If there’s one thing Hard Knocks showed us, it’s that O’Brien is a very likable fellow, if you pardon the endless stream of profanities.  He knows how to bond with his players and bond them to each other.  They consider Obie a “players coach” who convincingly acts like he cares about them beyond how they fill his depth chart.

He used a bye week to tighten the bonding even more.  Meanwhile, owner Bob McNair, who apparently conquered cancer at 77, reassured the local media that Smith and O’Brien are interacting fine with each other and with the owner.

Not that O’Brien is beyond reproach.  He admits he made a costly mistake in the season opener when he pulled Hoyer as his starting quarterback in favor of Mallett, who was as scatter-brained as he was scatter-armed.

But smart coaches learn from their mistakes.  Kevin Plank knows exactly what he’s doing in putting in his bid for Bill O’Brien.  Who has every right to use it to his advantage.

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