Bill O’Brien became the first head-coaching casualty of the 2020 NFL season, as the Houston Texans – mired in an 0-4 start – relieved O’Brien of his coaching and general manager duties on Tuesday morning (Australian time).
The forced departure of O’Brien, 50, the Texans’ coach since 2014 and its general manager since January, is understandable beyond the team’s current winless record. On the field, Houston ranks well down the bottom half of the list in virtually all of the key statistical indicators -- 27th out of the NFL’s 32 teams in points scored, 22nd in total yards from scrimmage, last in rushing yards, 29th in third down conversions, and worst in sacks allowed.
Those statistical rankings do not reflect well on the Texans, their strong-armed mobile quarterback Deshaun Watson, nor on O’Brien’s reputation as an offensive guru who was once Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots for the 2011 season.
But perhaps the moves that O’Brien made in his brief tenure as the Texans’ general manager aided in hastening his departure. Most significantly, the draft-day dealing of star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins – viewed without doubt as Watson’s favourite target – to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in that 2020 draft was widely panned by fans and NFL observers alike for failing to get a first-round selection from the Cardinals for the talented Hopkins.
Between the Hopkins trade and O’Brien’s dealing of defensive edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney to the Seattle Seahawks for linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Jacob Martin and a third-round 2020 draft pick, the failure to acquire higher draft picks for two of the team’s most talented players has left the Texans’ fortunes poorer for the future. As a result, Houston does not have a first- or second-round draft pick for 2021 – leaving the writing on the wall for any long-term improvement prospects should Houston, as expected, finish the 2020 season with a losing record.
As O’Brien finishes his six-plus seasons in Houston with a 52-48 record and the much-travelled Romeo Crennel taking over as the caretaker head coach, the speculations now run to which other coaches may be on the hot seat and set to be fired.
The NFL, rightly or wrongly, has a reputation of being a circuit governed by copy-cat decisions amongst its teams. And coaching moves are often no exception to this observation – especially when the first move has come just four weeks into the new season.
So who would be next to face the chop? Oftentimes, these moves are met with some fact, some fiction, and some over- or under-reaction…
Adam Gase, New York Jets
The Jets, as the NFL’s perennial under-achievers, are often looked at whenever the topic of head-coaching rumours rears its ugly head, especially as the Jets are currently 0-4. But when put into context, is it fair on Adam Gase? Granted, the Jets rank even lower in a lot of key categories than the Texans do – a lot of 31’s do crop up, especially in areas of overall scoring, passing yardage for Sam Darnold, and overall red-zone conversion – but Gase deserves benefit of the doubt, for being in just his second season as the Jets’ coach and not having had much talent at his disposal when he took over. All of that makes last year’s 7-9 record look downright spectacular.
Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons
Looking back at the Falcons’ appearance in Super Bowl LI, and specifically when they blew a 28-3 lead to New England, that can be argued as the turning point in Dan Quinn’s five-plus seasons as the Falcons’ coach, and one that the franchise has yet to recover from. Since that unimaginable Super Bowl loss, Quinn has seen his team compile back-to-back 7-9 seasons after rebounding from the Super Bowl defeat with a playoff appearance after a 10-6 regular-season mark in 2017. Now with a 0-4 2020 record, despite having a bevy of talented offensive players like quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Julio Jones, strong suggestions exist that Quinn may be on borrowed time as the Falcons’ head coach.
Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions
The old term “pro’s and con’s” certainly applies in the case of Patricia, the easily recognised and heavily-bearded Lions coach now in his third season in the Motor City after having served on Belichick’s staff for six seasons as defensive coordinator. Arguments in favour of the Lions letting Patricia go range from compiling a 10-25-1 record in two-plus seasons so far, to back-to-back last-place finishes in the NFC North. However, last season’s 3-12-1 mark came with starting quarterback Matthew Stafford missing nine games with a back injury, and the Lions lost all nine of those games. Yet Patricia’s cryptic comments following this weekend’s 35-29 loss to the New Orleans Saints suggest that he may be feeling the pressure.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
Tough call, since Zimmer currently has a better record than O’Brien had, although having taken the Vikings to fewer playoff appearances (three) than O’Brien did with the Texans (four), and making the postseason as recently as last season. The Vikings’ lone win of the 2020 season came this past weekend against the Texans, in a 31-23 win, so the “what have you done lately?” argument can work in Zimmer’s favour. Nonetheless, statistically, low defensive ratings in a lot of categories combined with a general inability of an offensive line to protect quarterback Kirk Cousins cannot cover for the Vikings’ stellar running game, and Zimmer’s future may come down to whether he can shore up those deficiencies effectively.
Whether O’Brien’s ouster in Houston marks a domino effect in turnovers within the NFL’s coaching ranks remains to be seen.