O'Brien's leadership shows with Johnson

May, 27, 2014
May 27
5:20
PM ET

There's a reason not every great coordinator can become a great head coach, or sometimes even a mildly successful head coach.

The skills necessary for a head coach are exponentially greater than at assistant positions. He's the man who has to organize the day to day. He's the public face of the organization. He explains the victories and defeats. He has to win the locker room and garner its respect and obedience.

It takes a man who understands people and interpersonal dynamics.

Given the way Texans coach Bill O'Brien has handled Andre Johnson's absence so far, it's clear he does.

[+] EnlargeBill O'Brien
AP Photo/Patric SchneiderBill O'Brien has not allowed the Andre Johnson situation to become combative.
Johnson said two weeks ago that he was tired of losing and, as such, wasn't sure Houston was still the right organization for him. He said he hadn't asked for a trade or spoken to anyone about his contract, but he was thinking about things. He also said he wasn't going to attend organized team activities or the Texans' mandatory minicamp -- and he didn't attend the first day of OTAs.

Every time O'Brien has been asked about Johnson, he begins with the good.

"He and I have had positive conversations," O'Brien said Tuesday. "I have a ton of respect for him."

When the face of the franchise is upset, things can get awkward very quickly. It happened back in 2012 with the Jaguars when Maurice Jones-Drew held out for a new contract. The sides didn't communicate, they all felt slighted, and the new head coach, Mike Mularkey at the time, didn't hide his disdain much. In the end, neither got what he wanted and neither is still with the team.

Back when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was with the Denver Broncos, his relationship with new head coach Josh McDaniels began rockily. There were a lot of factors involved in the McDaniels/Cutler spat, but one that made things worse was McDaniels' rigid insistence that if he wanted to trade a player, even a quarterback who had just been named to the Pro Bowl, he could do it. In the end, again, neither got what he wanted and neither is still with the team.

Johnson v. Texans has taken on a much less combative tone and it's because both the disgruntled star and the new head coach have shown respect for each other. Part of that is O'Brien's understanding of how to deal with people.

Don't misunderstand that to mean he's a coach who coddles -- that couldn't be further from the truth. He'll scream at a guy who needs or deserves the yelling. But he seems to understand that not everybody needs to be handled in exactly the same way.

He could, when asked about Johnson, divert and gruffly reply that he only coaches the players who are there. Instead he acknowledges Johnson's career and Johnson's place in this franchise's history before going into the usual refrain about focusing on those who did participate in the voluntary workout.

"We’d love to have him here now," O'Brien continued Tuesday, after expressing his respect for the best player in Texans history. "That’s up to him. We’re moving forward with the players that are here. These guys are working extremely hard. That’s where it’s at."

In the first public test of his ability to act as the leader of an NFL team, O'Brien is behaving exactly like one should.

Tania Ganguli

ESPN Houston Texans reporter

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