There is a line when it comes to NFL coach-GM interactions between acceptable levels of discord and a problematic relationship. Usually, that line is crossed when any airing of grievances becomes public.
Such is the case in Houston this week, thanks to a report Monday from the Houston Chronicle that painted coach Bill O'Brien and GM Rick Smith very much at odds over how the franchise handled Ryan Mallett's slip-up prior to Week 7—Mallett, benched in Week 5, missed the team's flight to Miami and had to fly himself there via commercial airline. The Texans finally did release Mallett on Tuesday, but the internal damage may already have been done.
On the surface, Smith's call can be explained. The Texans would have been without a backup QB on Sunday had Mallett been cut, the hypothetical transaction occurring too close to game time for another player to be added to the roster. There are moments that loom larger than wins and losses in a coach's tenure, though, and this was one of them for O'Brien.
Because Smith got his way initially, and more to the point because the butting of heads was out in the open, there may be no turning back for O'Brien. He is only in year two of his Houston tenure, off a somewhat surprising 9-7 finish last year. This should be the time when he really hammers home how he plans to run this team, when he finishes laying the groundwork for the Texans' future.
But if O'Brien's not calling the shots, then how much chance does he really have of righting the ship off a disappointing 2-5 start?
The answer: Not much.
"We're dealing with Ryan Mallett and that situation internally, Rick Smith and I," O'Brien said to open his Monday press conference. "I won't have any comment on that at this point."
Even though Mallett later got the boot, the problem now is that Smith already put his foot down on a roster move, in the process both undermining O'Brien's authority and calling into question exactly what it is the franchise values. Obviously, all involved wanted the best chance to win on Sunday. Was any result worth the price of letting Mallett of the hook, even temporarily? (Mallett did not play at all in the game.)
Some of this circles back on O'Brien's ability as a head coach, too. One of the reasons Mallett was on the team in the first place is that O'Brien brought with him to Houston a reputation for being a QB guru. Just give him a quarterback with noticeable physical skills and a little upside, the theory went, and O'Brien could turn him into a playoff-caliber performer.
That progress never happened with Mallett, no doubt in large part because of Mallett's obvious maturity issues. O'Brien still wrestled with a Mallett-Brian Hoyer decision all off-season. He eventually chose Hoyer, only to backtrack after a Week 1 loss and toss Mallett into the starting lineup.
Neither quarterback grabbed hold of the job. Neither quarterback showed any signs of improvement.
The Texans will head into the upcoming free-agent period and the draft still looking for their No. 1 QB. We have to wonder now who will make the call on which player they tab. Will O'Brien even be around when the time comes?
Maybe Smith and O'Brien find some way to mend the fences here, and owner Bob McNair in turn decides to give them each another shot at it in 2016. However, NFL history has shown that these coach-GM rifts are not often or easily fixable.
Once everyone gets a glimpse behind the curtain, it is awfully hard to pull it shut again and pretend that all is well.