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On Saturday afternoon, the worst kept secret in the history of the Houston Texans’ franchise became a press release, and soon it will become a press conference — Brian Gaine is the new general manager of the Houston Texans, and Bill O’Brien has received a contract extension as the head coach.
In said press release, the team revealed that Gaine, who was with the team’s front office from 2014 through 2016 working for Rick Smith at a director level before making a lateral move to the Buffalo Bills in 2017, has signed a five year deal, and that O’Brien has signed a four year contract extension. O’Brien had one year left on his original contract that he signed in 2014, so both Gaine and O’Brien now have co-terminous deals now that run through the 2022 season.
Of course, it was just two weeks ago, following the team’s loss to the Colts in its final game of the 2017 season, when the team announced that the now former general manager Rick Smith would be taking an extended leave of absence for the next year to help care for his wife Tiffany, who is suffering from breast cancer and is receiving treatments in Arizona.
There’s a lot to unpack here, especially since the only quotes from any of the principals involved in this decision are press release style praise for both Gaine and O’Brien from Texans owner Bob McNair. Let’s dig into what we can before we undoubtedly hear from both Gaine and O’Brien later this week.
1. Why Brian Gaine?
As the search for a new general manager unfolded over the last two weeks, and as candidates removed themselves from the process (Will McClay in Dallas, being one) or were forbidden from interviewing with the Texans by their employers (Joe Douglas in Philadelphia, Nick Cesario and Monti Ossenfort in New England), the scuttlebutt around the league was that everyone knew the job was going to Gaine anyway, so why interview? Certainly, the end result of the “search” does nothing to dispel that notion.
As someone who wanted the Texans to take their time, vet as many good candidates as possible, and bring in a new set of eyes to rebuild this roster around Deshaun Watson, I was generally disappointed when I heard the Texans had hired Gaine. It’s nothing personal with Gaine, and I concede that he may very well end up being the right guy for the job (to be clear, I HOPE he is), but if ever a franchise needed an injection of “outside thought” in personnel, it’s the Texans.
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The press release on the Gaine’s and O’Brien’s contracts says the following about Gaine:
“As director of player personnel with the Texans, Gaine provided support and guidance to both the pro and college scouting departments while directing the team’s player evaluation process and pro personnel operation. He served as the club’s director of pro personnel in 2014, where he supervised all pro player evaluation, the advance scouting process, free agency and the monitoring of player transactional movement in all professional leagues.”
The Texans’ roster, as currently constructed, full of young players from the 2015 and 2016 draft classes and veteran players from the 2014 through 2016 off-seasons, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of anybody with their fingerprints on it. Like most Texans fans, I am extremely curious exactly which players and transactions Gaine was instrumental in or an advocate for. Two of the most pivotal players acquired in 2015 and 2016, when Gaine had his most expansive influence (on paper, at least) were Kevin Johnson and Brock Osweiler, one of whom is trending toward “first round bust” status and the other one was the worst free agent signing in league history. What were Gaine’s thoughts on both of those guys at the time, particularly Osweiler? If Gaine’s work as a Texan employee for those three years is a reason why he is getting this job, then asking about his role in ANY personnel move in those three years is fair.
Most of all, though, it would appear that the key attribute Gaine brings to the table is that he is a “Bill O’Brien Guy,” and we can expect strife behind the scenes to be, at least, minimized. Put it this way — the days of asking O’Brien “How is your relationship with [FILL IN NAME OF GM HERE]?” should be over. Does that mean, though, that the roster is going to be better? That’s ALL that should matter. Hurt feelings and fractured relationships behind the scenes have been stories that have distracted from the REAL issue with the Texans — they haven’t been a very good football team on O’Brien’s watch. (Cue “Two AFC South championships” audio drop.)
Hopefully, at the very least, Gaine is far more accessible and accountable for his bad moves than his predecessor was, and can actually answer some of these questions for the media and fans from a GM’s perspective. That would be something, right?
2. Exactly how bad was it between O’Brien and Smith?
To answer this question, I will point you to two quotes from the Texans’ press release. First, here is McNair on Gaine:
“Our committee was unanimous in praise for Brian Gaine and we are all aligned in our philosophy on how to continue to build our roster and win a championship,“ said Texans Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Robert C. McNair. “Brian is an incredibly smart, hardworking individual that understands the importance of good communication. We couldn’t be more excited about naming him our new general manager.”
There goes McNair mentioning the runaway winner for “Texans offseason buzz word” — ALIGNED (or “align” or “alignment” or any other form of the word). Everybody NOW should (a) get along and (b) have philosophical similarities behind the scenes. What McNair CANNOT let happen, though, is for philosophical alignment to turn into groupthink, where constructive conflict is discouraged. Arguments must take place, they just can’t linger and fester and turn into personal issues. Hopefully, the fact that O’Brien and Gaine are friends allows for more constructive arguments.
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Want more? Cool, here’s more…. here is McNair on O’Brien:
“Bill O’Brien has been a tremendous leader for us these last four years and we believe in his vision for the team moving forward,” said McNair. “Bill is a terrific teacher that the players respect. We have a lot of trust in him to build a unified, championship culture and we’re thrilled to have him as our head coach into the future.”
There is a TON in that quote to carry us for the rest of this post. First, the obvious one in response to this bullet point’s rhetorical question — “build a UNIFIED, championship culture.” Aligned… unified…. safe to say, Bob McNair didn’t have time for anymore behind the scenes slap fights between Smith and O’Brien. Next….
3. Where does the pressure of winning fall now?
For this one, I point you McNair’s saying “we believe in [O’Brien’s] vision of the team moving forward.” With the hiring of Gaine, this is now O’Brien’s show. O’Brien has a general manager that he can ostensibly work with in a productive, collaborative fashion. You rarely see press releases or hear quotes that acknowledge a head coach’s “vision” for his team. “Vision” is a big picture, STRATEGIC word, and the position of head coach, especially the way Bill “I Just Play Who Rick Gives Me” O’Brien has portrayed himself over the last year or two as the relationship with Smith worsened, is a TACTICAL position. Functionally, O’Brien has what he wants now, and as a result, the pressure of winning, and winning SOON, falls squarely on him. Hell, he even got himself a general manager who, according to reports, was about to be FIRED by Smith at one point after the 2016 season. Now, Gaine will figuratively be moving into Smith’s office.
This five year contract for O’Brien SHOULD be largely cosmetic in nature. If O’Brien’s “vision” is not clicking and generating, at minimum, a division title and/or 10 wins next season with Watson fully healthy, then McNair should eject and move on. (He won’t, but he should.)
Hey, speaking of Watson….
the players respect.” Every defense of keeping O’Brien following a 4-12 season has led with and has been built around “Hey, did you see what he did in those six games with Deshaun as the starter?!?! WELL, DID YOU?!?!?!” To me, McNair’s inclusion of that phrase is not just empty owner-speak, but instead a tacit acknowledgment that O’Brien’s work with Watson, and perhaps more importantly, Watson’s open campaigning for O’Brien to remain on as head coach, were instrumental in where we’ve arrived today. Put it this way — if Deshaun Watson were not a Texan at all, then what you saw in the ten games without him in 2017 (a 1-9 record) is probably close to what you’d have seen for sixteen games from this team. Does O’Brien going 3-13 or 4-12-with-no-Watson keep his job with one year left on his deal? No chance, even with an owner as patient as McNair.
How we arrived here and what the Gaine/O’Brien power duo mean for the Texans going forward will become clearer, we hope, after the two have spoken to the media. For now, Texan fans remain largely in “wait and see” mode….