HOUSTON -- When Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien has been asked about free-agency moves during the season, he has often said that he coaches the 53-man roster and doesn't make those decisions.
That may change a bit heading into the offseason. The Texans announced after Sunday's 22-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that general manager Rick Smith will take a leave of absence from the team to be with his wife as she battles breast cancer. The expectation is that O'Brien will remain Houston's coach and may gain a bit more say in the personnel department. The Texans probably will hire someone to take over Smith's responsibilities, but O'Brien's future in Houston becomes more clear if he can turn this 4-12 team around next year, regardless of who is the team's general manager.
The Texans went 9-7 in O'Brien's first three seasons as head coach thanks to one of the league's best defenses. Two key players from those teams, defensive end J.J. Watt and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, were injured for most of the 2017 season, which will be remembered in Houston for the abnormal number of injuries suffered by the Texans.
Unlike in O'Brien's first three seasons in charge, the Texans finally have their quarterback, and with a healthy defense and holes filled on the offensive line and in the secondary, they may be positioned to finally compete with the best teams in the AFC. Of course, the biggest "acquisition" will be getting quarterback Deshaun Watson back on the field in 2018.
Watson has voiced his support for O’Brien, saying earlier in the month that he “of course” wanted O’Brien to return to coach him in 2018 and that the two have “a great relationship.” The former Clemson star was setting rookie records through his first six NFL starts, which included eye-opening performances in New England and Seattle.
In seven games this season, Watson threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also completed 43 percent of passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield with six touchdowns. All other Texans passers went 15-of-47 (32 percent) with four passing touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Texans' offensive playbook opened up this season with the mobile Watson, showing how creative O'Brien could be calling plays and working with an excellent quarterback, which he didn't have for three seasons in Houston. The head coach chose not to hire an offensive coordinator and instead called plays after the team parted ways with George Godsey at the beginning of the 2017 offseason.
Watson is expected to return to the field before training camp, but that is just one piece to the puzzle. Outside of DeAndre Hopkins and the oft-injured Will Fuller V, Houston is short of reliable pass-catchers. In the running game, running back Lamar Miller is one of the team's highest-paid players, and the team has a decision to make in the offseason regarding his salary. Rookie running back D'Onta Foreman tore his left Achilles in November and Alfred Blue Jr. is a free agent.
The offensive line undoubtedly will be overhauled and will be whoever is running the Texans' personnel department's top priority to improve in the offseason. Watson now has torn both of his ACLs, and the franchise's ability to compete for titles rests on his health. With him on the field, Houston's offense was one of the best in the NFL. Without him, the Texans were 1-8 in 2017.
Now, entering the 2018 offseason, O'Brien has the opportunity and the tools to have a team that can compete not just for the AFC South, but which also could be one of the AFC's elite.