• Five years ago, Brian Gaine was envisioning a chance to work with Bill O’Brien one day. Now, it’s reality for the Texans’ first-year GM. So far, the duo is in sync, with a talented roster and high expectations in Houston. Plus, Jalen Ramsey and Doug Marrone’s culture in Jacksonville, Frank Reich’s designs for Andrew Luck, Darnold vs. Mayfield after one preseason game, and Lamar Jackson in 2018?
By Albert Breer
August 16, 2018

HOUSTON — Back in 2013, I ran into then-Dolphins assistant GM Brian Gaine on the Gillette Stadium field a few hours before Miami played New England. Gaine asked me, “What do you think of Bill O’Brien?”

It wasn’t a haphazard question. Gaine had been on a couple GM interviews, and was working to prepare himself for more. That meant researching potential head-coaching candidates he felt he’d pair well with. And that background work led right him to the former Patriots offensive coordinator, who was at Penn State at the time.

“What I appreciated about him was his leadership skills, his ability to communicate clearly with players. He won, he knew what success looked like … It was his feel and understanding of how to build a program,” Gaine says now. “You’d seen him create great game plans in the [AFC East] and at Penn State. He was well-respected amongst his peers but also a great person who had a great passion for the game.

“What he did at Penn State was phenomenal under the circumstances. And it was [because of] a global viewpoint he had on what a winning program should look like.”

It hasn’t exactly been a straight line from then to now. But here they are, a half-decade later, Gaine as a first-year GM with the coach he was most curious about—but didn’t even know—all those years ago.

We’ll get to your mail in a minute, but I thought a good place to start this week was with the Texans’ re-start after a tumultuous 2017 that saw Deshaun Watson flash enormous potential, then go down for the year (with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus joining him on IR), franchise fixture Duane Brown traded, the locker room tested during the anthem controversy and the team’s football operation reconfigured. What’s left in the aftermath is one of the NFL’s most intriguing outfits going into ’18.

With the caveat that everyone’s undefeated on Aug. 13, the Texans are humming now. There’s a new weight room (or sports performance center, as they’re calling it), a new cafeteria (that’s the sports performance café), a new strength chief, a new nutritionist, a new team meeting room, redecorated walls reflecting players’ investment in the organization, and a reconfigured scouting system and staff.

But what’s really interesting here is how the existing foundation will fit into all that. Watson, Watt, Mercilus, DeAndre Hopkins, et al are mainstays, and O’Brien is now five years in. Gaine worked in the team’s personnel department from 2014-16, a three-year span during which Houston won a pair of division titles. That is to say, this one isn’t coming from the ground up.

Along with the talent in-house, O’Brien and Gaine knew there’d be a common belief system to build off of.

“Alignment’s big,” O’Brien says. “Brian having worked for coach [Bill] Parcells, and myself having worked for Coach [Bill] Belichick, there are a lot of differences obviously, but there’s also some things that we both believe in—the draft, what type of players we want, what type of culture we want. We’re both from the Northeast, we grew up in the business in a similar way.”

So what are they looking for? It’s straight out of the Belichick/Parcells playbook. Gaine worked to tighten height/weight/speed parameters for each position—Parcells used to say, “If you keep making exceptions, you’ll wind up with a team full of them”—and the two emphasized a personality profile they wanted in players. That applied, as O’Brien explained it to me, in the reworking of the offensive line. Gaine knew Seantrel Henderson from his year in Bufffalo, and his assessment matched what former Bills coach/O’Brien buddy Doug Marrone had said to O’Brien in the past. Both guys liked the center/guard versatility of Chiefs free agent Zach Fulton. And they were in agreement too, watching ex-Saint Senio Kelemete.

“We have our disagreements, which is healthy, “ O’Brien says. “But then we go and watch the film together and come to a conclusion, and I think that’s important. … Part of it’s our friendship—we’re very good friends, our families know each other, it’s easy. It’s very comfortable for me to go to his office, knock on the door and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about this.’ And the same goes for him.”

The results are already apparent to the players, especially when it comes to the most obvious intangible trait that O’Brien and Gaine are looking for.

“You bring in a guy like Tyrann [Mathieu], that’s obviously a big move for us. You have a guy like Deshaun. I don’t think we’ve seen the extent of what it’s going to be, but you can start to see it,” Watt told me. “I think the No. 1 thing they want is guys who love football. That’s probably the biggest thing you can see, they want guys who want to be on the field, want to play the game, want to work in practice and get better. That’s how you’re going to win.”

Whether this will take the Texans to another level of success is yet to be seen. What’s already clear, though, is how the organization is moving forward in lockstep with a pretty defined model in mind. Gaine points to watching ex-Jets personnel chief Dick Haley and Parcells work in tandem as a young scout in the ’90s, and believes that is his ideal for the relationship: The personnel people getting players specifically for the coaches, rather than just throwing talent at them. And O’Brien saw Scott Pioli and Nick Caserio carrying out their roster building similarly for Belichick from 2007-11.

Their early moves have produced a team that’s bigger, longer and stronger based on, as Gaine puts it, “how we wanted our team to physically look,” with more athleticism at the skill spots. And again, while it’s hard to say where all of this goes, it’s easy to see how healthy this place has become. It’s not hard to see why, either.

“There are a lot of commonalities in things that we believed in,” Gaine says. “On a personal level, there’s a lot of similarities in where we came from, where we were raised, our personal lives. Two Irish-Catholic kids from Boston and New York, there’s a lot of common ground. It makes for a seamless relationship.”

One that’s as good as Gaine once hoped for on that fall morning at Gillette Stadium. On to your mail …

The Ugliest Divorce

From FA in HFX (@AkulFred): Why is Jalen Ramsey such an arsehole?

This, presumably, is a reference to Ramsey’s foray into quarterback scouting in a Q&A with GQ. Missed it? Ramsey said Ravens QB Joe Flacco “sucks,” called Bills QB Josh Allen “trash,” and assessed Falcons QB Matt Ryan as “overrated.” And I, for one, won’t be the one to tell anyone not to say these sorts of things—Ramsey is interesting, and his quotes are good for business.

How do the Jags feel about it? Well, I’m sure they’d rather not be answering for it, particularly while Ramsey is suspended. That said, Marrone has been resolute in letting players be themselves, and show personality, so long as they do the work and perform, and Ramsey has certainly done that. And I would say that the staff there is be careful to make sure the team remembers what it got it to a division title last year.

The natural concern, of course, is Ramsey and a colorful group down there would start to buy into the hype. Which is why Jacksonville has repeated so much of what it did last summer in staging an unrelenting camp, establishing Marrone’s standard.

From Timmay (@timothylong3): How similar will the Colts’ offense look like the Eagles’ offense last year?

I think we’ll see more option/run-pass option looks from the Colts, which was part of what the Eagles did with Frank Reich as coordinator. Andrew Luck is plenty athletic enough to provide a run threat, and he has the quick-processing ability and a quick enough release to be proficient with RPOs.

But I think the overarching key is that Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni will fit the offense to Luck, rather than make Luck fit what Reich’s done in the past. Perhaps the most impressive thing the Eagles staff pulled off last year was retrofitting the scheme on the fly to make it work for Nick Foles, after it was built to deploy Carson Wentz’s raw athletic ability.

And if the Colts are trying to get the most out of Luck, you’re going to see a lot of more traditional pro-style looks, in addition to the new-age stuff.

From Tyler Schmidt (@tschmidt_31): Which quarterback has been more impressive so far: Mayfield or Darnold?

First, this qualifier: These two certainly looked the best (and I’m going to give Josh Rosen a pass, because he was running for his life) over the first full weekend of preseason games, and both fan bases should be excited with what they saw. We saw natural traits—both have tremendous feel for the game—out there that you can’t teach.

That said, I’ll take Darnold. One thing the Jets loved about him coming out was his play speed, and it was easy for anyone with a cable subscription carrying NFL Network to see how fast Darnold was playing out there, most notably on his touchdown pass to Charles Johnson. Second, you can see if you look closely, in watching his head move, how quickly he’s processing.

Mayfield was really good, too, with a couple caveats. One, there were a few throws that would’ve been picked if the Giants had their first group of defensive backs out there. And two, he took a bad snap, as the Browns coaches saw. That aside, Mayfield did show great pocket awareness and accuracy in his first appearance in an NFL game setting.

The Jets’ Long Road to Sam Darnold

From Uncle Al (@AlPoppie25): Breakout year for Tannehill or not?!!

It’s an important question. By passing on the idea of dealing up for a QB in April, the football side of the Dolphins’ organization tethered its future to Tannehill, and my sense is there is confidence in No.17 there. Coach Adam Gase was convinced that Tannehill was poised for a big year last summer, before he blew out his ACL.

Whether or not Tannehill can get there this year remains to be seen. But after talking to him earlier in the week, I got the sense he’s all the way past the knee injury now, and the cultural changes that Gase, EVP Mike Tannenbaum and GM Chris Grier made to the roster have empowered him to have a more vocal and forceful presence in the locker room.

Gase told me that was coming last year anyway. “He was very direct in how he wanted things done, and he wasn’t afraid to say anything to anybody. When we lost him, we kind of lost a lot of that. That was really trending in the right direction for us.” The difference now, I think, is that the makeup of the team is such where his teammates will be lined up with how he’s thinking. Which should help.

From Michael Anthony Stokes (@ShitStokesSays): Why is Doug Pederson not mentioned ahead of McVay in conversations about best offensive minds?

From a public perception standpoint, I think part of it may have to do with age—a younger guy on rise is always going to be easy to tag with the “genius” label—and some of it has to do with McVay’s production in multiple places (remember how much he meant to Kirk Cousins?). And there’s no question that McVay is dynamic. Going from last to first in scoring is a monumental achievement.

The flip side? NFL teams themselves are telling you what they think of Pederson. The Bears hired Matt Nagy, who was Pederson’s quarterbacks coach when he was Chiefs OC. The Colts hired his OC in Philly, Frank Reich. And Vikings coach Mike Zimmer tabbed Eagles QBs coach John DeFilippo to be his new offensive coordinator.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Pederson hasn’t been lacking for affection where it really counts this year.

From Tom (@NewnhamTom): The Cardinals went 8-8 with Blaine Gabbert at QB. Why aren't they getting more hype?

There’s more than one reason, of course. There’s the coaching change, going from a known (Bruce Arians) to a relative unknown (Steve Wilks). There’s the quarterback situation—whether it’s Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen, you’re either going to have a guy with extensive injury history or a rookie in there. There’s question about talent across the board on offense, and serious scheme changes on defense.

Now, contrast that against the rest of the NFC West. The Rams won the division and added Ndamukong Suh, Aqib Talib, Brandin Cooks and Marcus Peters. The 49ers may have been the hottest team in football with the hottest quarterback in football in December. The Seahawks, for all the unknown, haven’t been worse than 7-9 this decade. And those three teams are coached by a Super Bowl champion (Pete Carroll) and the two most respected young offensive minds (McVay, Kyle Shanahan) in the NFL.

I wouldn’t rule the Cardinals out. A lot of guys remain from what’s been a consistent winner. But it’s easy to see why some see their ’18 climb as one going uphill.

From Brandon Jenkins (@bjenkins52): Do you think Lamar Jackson overtakes Flacco this season? Or will Flacco have a good year?

Let’s wrap it up here – I think the preseason has told us that Jackson has dynamic natural ability, and a long way to go. And to me, whether or not he gets starts at quarterback this year boils down to team success, almost as much as it does to how Flacco plays.

I’ve cited this before, and I’ll do it again. Over the last 10 draft classes (2008-17), 27 quarterbacks have gone in the first round, and only two have been true redshirts. One was Tennessee’s Jake Locker in 2011. The other was Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes last year. What did the two have in common? Both played on teams that contended all the way to the end, which made the call to sit the rookies academic.

If the Ravens are competing to get into the playoffs into December, that probably means Flacco is playing well, which would mean there wouldn’t be a reason to turn to Jackson full-time. Conversely, if they’re not contending in December, even if he is playing well, there will be calls to get Jackson on the field to see where he’s at, and prepare for 2019.

So if the Ravens win, Jackson’s used strictly as a gadget player. If they don’t, the smart money says you will see him some as the regular quarterback.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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