Bad decisions are going to haunt Bill O’Brien this offseason, and may cost him his job.
The Houston Texans leapt out to a red-hot start in Kansas City, taking a 21-0 lead in the blink of an eye. For the Kansas City Chiefs it was a different story: Andy Reid’s team was off to an Andy-Reid-Team-In-The-Playoffs sort of start. They didn’t look ready to play and had a bunch of miscues. A mistake led to a walk-in touchdown. Tyreek Hill muffed a punt. They dropped four passes in the first quarter alone, which was striking given that they had had four dropped passes in the preview six weeks combined. This would be another Andy Reid adventure: a good regular season, a brilliant offensive mind, a disappointing postseason collapse. But O’Brien wasn’t going to let Reid maintain his postseason incompetence dynasty so easily.
Up 21-0, O’Brien opted to kick a field goal on fourth-and-one from the KC 13-yard line, rather than go for the throat. That decision is fine in a vacuum; the Texans took a 24-0 lead. What came next was a mess: the Chiefs had scored their first touchdown but were still in deep trouble when O’Brien opted for – or allowed his special teams coach to call – a fake punt from his team’s own 31. KC stopped it. After the fake punt, the revitalized Chiefs rattled off five touchdowns without reply, ending the day with a 51-31 victory.
Such a commanding early lead allowed O’Brien to expose his incompetence. Weird, this football thing. The Texans were cautious when they should have risked and risked when caution called.
But this game was about more than O’Brien’s fourth-down calls. It was about Watson and Mahomes, two young quarterbacks who embody the changing nature of the most important position in sports, who seem set to forge a Manning-Brady type rivalry for the next 10 years at least. The AFC runs through them now.
The non-mobile quarterbacks who win strictly with their arm, playing with rhythm and tempo, are now dinosaurs. You cannot win with Brady (or at least the early, non-pocket mover edition rather than his current incarnation) or Manning anymore. The game is too fast, and defenders and defenses are too versatile, too complex. Nowadays you need a quarterback who can improvise, break the script every once in a while, and isn’t afraid to make risky throws. You need a Watson or Wilson or Rodgers.
Mahomes is the greatest example. He’s an off-script magic-maker who doubles as the most efficient passer in the game. Mahomes has a way of making the simple revelatory. Some passes exist only because he envisions them, and dares to throw them. He’s so loose-limbed, with such arrhythmic patterns, it sometimes looks as if different parts of his body are moving at different rates:
How do you defend that? You don’t. It’s impossible.
Sunday felt like a reminder that Mahomes is the league’s real MVP, but that shouldn’t absolve O’Brien of scrutiny. His job, as coaches love to parrot, is to put his team in the best position to succeed. He didn’t; he failed.
This was about O’Brien the personnel man as much as O’Brien the coach. This is a man who ousted former general manager Rick Smith and assumed control of the Texans 53-man roster, as well as all the ingoings and outgoings. O’Brien the coach and O’Brien the personnel man could never get on the same page. He chucked first-round picks at quick fixes, most notably Laremy Tunsil arriving to protect Deshaun Watson’s blindside to the tune of two first-round picks. He also shipped out Jadeveon Clowney after failing to agree on a contract extension.
Trading a generational player should bring back a generation of players. O’Brien landed a pair of blah energy players and a third-round pick. And it’s that kind of hubris that tells you a fake punt, in your own half, on the road, in the playoffs, against a Mahomes-led offense is a good idea. Clowney would have come in handy on Sunday. JJ Watt was the only Texans player to secure multiple quarterback pressures (two). The team as a whole finished with five total pressures, a season-low for Mahomes.
Sunday’s game was an instant classic, the dawn of a new era: Texans v Chiefs. Watson v Mahomes. Kansas City took the first round. It would be wise for Houston to move on from O’Brien before the second-round rolls around next January.
Stat of the week
Aaron Rodgers was at his absolute best on Sunday. The future Hall of Famer completed all six of his passes that travelled more than 10 yards through the air for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Rodgers had completed just 23.6% of those passes in his previous three games. The Packers outschemed a shabby Seahawks defense, but the result still could have been different but for three you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me throws from Rodgers. As usual, he delivered when it mattered.
MVP of the week
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans. The numbers and milestones from Henry’s Saturday night performance are astonishing. Take your pick from any of these:
– Henry rushed for 195 yards on 30 carries, the first time a running back has had two 180-yard games in the same postseason.
– It was the third consecutive game Henry had rushed for 180 yards: 211 v the Texans, 182 v the Patriots, and the 195 on Saturday night.
– In his past eight games, he has gained 1,273 rushing yards, the third-most in NFL history over an eight-game span.
– Henry became the heaviest player in playoff history to throw for a touchdown.
Even more impressive was the visual. Henry is a 6ft 3in, 247lbs block of cement. He is the most physically imposing back in the league, with the raw power to run through a defensive lineman, and just enough wiggle to skip away from linebackers and safeties at the second-level. We’ve had beefed-up backs before, but what separates Henry is his breakaway speed. Three-yard runs turn into 40-yard gallops in the blink of an eye.
The volume on Henry’s plate is unique in this pass-happy age. It’s become a cliché, but it’s a cliché that’s true: Henry gets stronger as the game goes on. Or, more accurately, Henry maintains his Superman levels as opponents tire. After all, this is a guy who once carried the ball 57 times in a high school game. Fifty seven!
Quote of the week
“I like that!” – Richard Sherman mimicking Kirk Cousins after intercepting the Vikings quarterback on Saturday.
Few players have done a better job of crafting the narrative that they’re disrespected in order to fuel themselves, despite being universally acknowledged as great, as Richard Sherman. Michael Jordan would be proud.
Sherman was waltzing to the Hall of Fame after his out-of-this-world production in Seattle, including backbreaking plays in big-time spots. Now, he’s just tacking on gold jacket moments. Even at 31, Sherman’s genius remains in full bloom. He shut down one-half of the field against the Vikings, conceding just one reception of nine yards on three targets. This year he is allowing just 10 receiving yards per game. The Niners pass-rush receives most of the team’s accolades, but Sherman is playing as well as ever, speed never being the most important part of his game. He now has six seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, cementing his place as the best cornerback of the post-Revis era.
Video of the week
Celebration of the year goes to Eric Fisher. The Chiefs were so rampant against the Texans that their left tackle was able to take time to douse himself in beer in the midst of a 51-7 scoring run.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Browns hired ex-Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their new head coach this weekend. Stefanski flopped in front of a national audience against the San Franisco 49ers on Saturday, up against a fellow finalist for the Browns job, Niners defensive coordinator Robert Salah. But judging him based on that one-game sample size is silly. Stefanski has done a good job with the Vikings offense in a little over a year on the job and is considered a darling among football’s analytics people. Stefanski will be the fourth Cleveland coach in three seasons.
— The sports TV moment of the year goes to Fox. During the half-time break of the Packers-Seahawks game, Jimmy Johnson was told he had made the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in front of his colleagues, and with his former quarterback Troy Aikman watching on from the booth. Johnson and his teammates were overwhelmed with emotion. Johnson will enter the Hall of Fame before he enters the Cowboys ring of honor, such is the ego of Jerry Jones.
— A trend worth noting in the playoffs: every team in the divisional round had speed, size, and versatility at linebacker – guys as comfortable lining up inside as on the edge. As formations continue to spread out, and mobile quarterbacks become the norm, the requirements for top linebackers are more specific. You’re hard-pressed to find a more complete duo right now than San Francisco’s Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander.