Blanket Coverage: Bill O’Brien is more than just another Belichick protégé

Why Texans coach Bill O’Brien is different than other former Patriots staffers who left for bigger jobs, and more thoughts ahead of Week 14.
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Four games left and things are getting tight. The AFC wild-card races are going to be a dog fight, the rival Packers and Vikings are going toe to toe for the NFC North, and the NFC East is a pillow fight that somebody has to win and host a playoff game (yuck). We’ll touch on some of that in the Wet Blanket Report as we throw water on the Patriots’ demise, call the MVP race, tell Shady to get over it already and discuss the “contending” Vikings. We’ll also take a look at the week’s big injuries and give our 10 thoughts on Week 14, which are heavy on the bout between the Steelers and Bengals. But first, let’s start with the Family Ties Sunday night game between the Texans and Patriots. This isn’t a matchup of mentor and protégé.

When the Patriots and Texans meet on Sunday Night Football, there will be a lot of talk about the various connections between the two teams.

Texans nose tackle Vince Wilfork played 11 seasons for the Patriots and won two Super Bowls. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel served in the same capacity under Bill Belichick for four seasons. Offensive coordinator George Godsey worked with the Patriots’ tight ends for two seasons. Texans linebackers coach Mike Vrabel played eight years for the Patriots and went to four Super Bowls, winning three. Quarterback Brian Hoyer was Tom Brady’s understudy for three years. Texans defensive assistant Anthony Pleasant played for Bill Belichick with the Browns, Jets and Patriots. Even Patriots depth receivers Keshawn Martin and Damaris Johnson are former Texans.

The ties do run long and deep.

But no one should make the mistake of labeling Texans coach Bill O’Brien as another Belichick protégé, which is probably why he’s been the most successful assistant to leave the Patriots. O’Brien arrived in New England as an offensive assistant in 2007 and left as offensive coordinator after the 2011 season.

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Yes, his two-year sample size in charge in Houston (plus another two at Penn State) is small, but the early returns are very promising. Not only did O’Brien lead a program still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal to records of 8–4 and 7–5, but the Texans went from 2–14 in Gary Kubiak’s last year to 9–7 in O’Brien’s first season, with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett and Tom Savage at quarterback. This season, the Texans are 6–6 and tied for first in the AFC South.

Make no mistake, O’Brien learned a ton from Belichick. 

“When I came there in 2007, I just kept my mouth shut and sat in the corner. I tried to learn and work as hard as I could,” O’Brien said this week. “That’s the key there in New England. When you first get there, as a—whatever you want to call it, the quality control coach or whatever it is—you don’t go in there having any answers whatsoever. You go in there to learn and work and be a part of a really top-notch coaching staff.

“It was a great experience. I had a really good experience there from a learning standpoint. I think every day you work there, you learn something new. Great guys to work with, Bill [Belichick] was a great head coach to work for. The thing that I always remember about Bill, being on offense there—look, he let you coach. He gave you the parameters and the guidance and then he let you go coach and be creative.”

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But O’Brien is different than other former Patriots staffers who left for bigger jobs. Eric Mangini (Jets, Browns), Romeo Crennel (Browns, Chiefs), Charlie Weis (Notre Dame, Kansas), Josh McDaniels (Broncos) and Scott Pioli (Chiefs, Falcons) either spent all or most of their early careers under Belichick and/or Bill Parcells. It’s all they ever really knew, so when they went out on their own, they tried to be Belichick in every way, including how he dominates the organization from top to bottom in personality and approach. Only they didn’t realize that there is only one Belichick, maybe in the history of pro football. Not many outside of Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh could have a hand in everything (offense, defense, special teams, salary cap, personnel, media strategy) and get it right the way Belichick does.

O’Brien, who went to Brown, learned as much being around Mark Whipple (Brown), George O’Leary (Georgia Tech), Chan Gailey (Georgia Tech) and Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), themselves all respected football minds, as he did being under Belichick. O’Brien also learned another valuable lesson that would serve him well: be your own man.

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“I think one thing that you have to do when you’re a head coach is you have to be yourself,” O’Brien said. “You can take the bits and pieces that you’ve learned that are good from all the places you worked. I worked in other places, too, in college and then obviously in New England, the pros. You can take some of the great things that you learn, but in the end, you have to do it your way.”

It took a while, but somebody finally learned the key to having success outside of Foxboro: Don’t try to be Belichick because you will fail.

Wet Blanket Report

Settle down

The Patriots will still get their bye: Get your shots in now on the Patriots, as these two-game losing streaks are rare for them, especially late in the season. They’re the third seed in the AFC at the moment (until Denver and Cincinnati play each other) and beat up, but things will work out for them like they always do.

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Gruden was right to use DeSean: So DeSean Jackson didn’t exactly run the right way and then fumbled a late punt return that nearly cost Washington a victory against the Cowboys (Dallas won with a field goal in the final seconds after Jackson tied the game with a receiving touchdown). Coach Jay Gruden was still right to use Jackson, who is one of the most explosive players in the league with the ball in his hands when he’s healthy. The risk is worth the reward in terms of field position.

Lacy will be OK: Packers running back Eddie Lacy has taken his fair share of hits off the field between his lack of production and getting benched against the Lions for missing curfew. Lacy made a mistake and paid for it. No less, no more. He posted back-to-back 100-yard games the previous two outings for the first time all season. Lacy will be fine, and he’ll be a big part of the Packers’ postseason push.

Go nuts

Cam is the MVP: I don’t love his passing stats (58.3% completions and a quarterback rating around 93), but unless the Cardinals catch the Panthers for the No. 1 seed, the award is his. Take him off the Panthers and their record is, what, 6–6, maybe? That’s the definition of MVP to me. And so are the Panthers being third in the league in points scored with those weapons.

Shady dealings: I don’t understand why LeSean McCoy has such an issue with his former coach, Chip Kelly. The Eagles got two running backs (DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews) and a linebacker (Kiko Alonso) for McCoy, and he got a new contract with the Bills. It’s show-business, not show-friends.

Vikings sliding: Yeah, they’re 8–4 and tied for the AFC North lead, but they haven’t beat a good team yet. Winning at Arizona on Thursday night will be a huge task, especially without defensive starters Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr, Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.

Domino Effect

Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 13 injuries?

LB Anthony Barr, Vikings (groin, week to week): One of the best players on the Vikings’ defense, who was coming into his own this season. Jason Trusnik took Barr’s place against the Seahawks, but it could be rookie Edmond Robinson who gets the nod Thursday night against the Cardinals.

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S Harrison Smith, Vikings (hamstring, week to week): Minnesota will be down both its starting safeties against Arizona (Andrew Sendejo is also out), but Smith is the biggest blow as one of the league’s top players at his position. The Vikings could see a steep drop off if Anthony Harris, an undrafted player signed off the practice squad, is pressed into starting duties.

DE Robert Quinn, Rams (shoulder, injured reserve): The two-time Pro Bowler, who posted double-digit sacks his previous three seasons, saw this injury-plagued season end with five sacks. Ethan Westbrooks, the player the Rams kept over Michael Sam two years ago, is expected to get the start in Quinn’s place.

Humanitarian of the Week

Broncos safety David Bruton, Jr.

Bruton, the Broncos’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, turned his passion for reading into a community endeavor when his foundation started the Bruton’s Books program to help improve reading proficiency for low-income children in grades K-3 in conjunction with the Mile High United Way Colorado Reading Corps program.

To this point, they’ve donated and collected over 2,000 books to four schools, and Bruton has personally donated $26,000 to the United Way to help build literacy programs and dedicated reading centers as the four schools.

The program aims to provide the schools with a Reading Corps tutor who will work with 25 to 30 children that are reading below grade level. Through one-on-one daily tutoring sessions, 82% of the children who complete the program will read at grade level or above.

10 thoughts heading into Week 14

1. This is a huge game between the Bengals and Steelers, although it’s much more important for Pittsburgh, which will need every victory it can secure just to get into the playoffs. The first meeting between the two teams (a 16–10 Bengals win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 1) doesn’t apply much, because it was Ben Roethlisberger’s first game back from injury and he was very rusty.

2. Keep an eye on Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, who took a big shot at Bengals receiver Marvin Jones in the first matchup and then got into it with several Bengals for the rest of the game.

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3. Not sure what took so long for the Steelers to use CB Brandon Boykin (you know, the guy they traded Philadelphia a fourth-round pick for before the season), but he had an interception and two pass breakups in his first extended playing time of the season last weekend. He was one of the NFL’s better slot corners with the Eagles.

4. If Rams coach Jeff Fisher is going to save his job with a flurry of wins down the stretch, it’s going to be very difficult without Quinn and safety T.J. McDonald, who were placed on injured reserve. At 4–8, Fisher is assured of his sixth straight season without a winning record. He’s 166-155-1 (.517) in 21 years as a head coach and hasn’t won a postseason game since 2003.

5. The Texans had only given up 70 yards per game on the ground since the Dolphins’ debacle before the Bills rushed for 187, but the Patriots have to make more of an effort to run the ball without Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski. Tom Brady can’t pick apart one-on-one matchups quickly without, so he’s going to take a pounding unless the Patriots slow defenses with their running and playaction games.

6. How does Antonio Brown get flagged and fined for using the goalpost as a prop on his touchdown celebration, yet Packers players are allowed to do the Lambeau Leap (which takes much more time)? Are they using the stadium as a prop? Of course it’s nonsense, both should be legal, but this is the No Fun League after all.

7. Amazing all the hubbub about Eagles RB DeMarco Murray (some, perhaps, generated by his own displeasure) after a game the Eagles won against the Patriots in Gillette Stadium. If Murray or his camp is the source of some of the public reports about his role in the Eagles’ offense, he has very poor timing at best. At worst, it’s a terrible look for him.

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8. Expect the Bills to load up on the ground against the Eagles, and not just to help LeSean McCoy show up his former coach Chip Kelly. The Eagles are poor against the run because of their inside linebackers. The Patriots failed to exploit that, but the Bills will.

9. Defensive end Fletcher Cox and safety Malcolm Jenkins were outstanding for the Eagles on defense against the Patriots. Good matchup this weekend between Cox and Bills left guard Richie Incognito. Jenkins could see a lot of Bills tight end Charles Clay, who has had an underwhelming season but does lead the team with 50 receptions.

10. A strength of remaining schedule update for the teams still in playoff contention (ranked from hardest to easiest by Football Outsiders): Raiders, Broncos, Cardinals, Vikings, Eagles, Steelers, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers, Bengals, Giants, Jets, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Texans, Bills, Washington, Patriots, Panthers, Chiefs, Jaguars, Colts.