The Houston Texans are taking a risk in hiring Penn State's Bill O'Brien as their new head coach. He's a man whose head-coaching experience comes down to two seasons at Penn State. He was an assistant in New England for four years before that, meaning he's following in a long line of failed coaches who've worked for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. But O'Brien also is something else: The right man to make people forget all the disasters that have come out of New England before him.
It has become sort of a running joke in the NFL when former Patriots assistants turn into hot head-coaching candidates. Ambitious owners saddled with tunnel vision start believing that anybody who has been employed by that long-thriving franchise can create similar success in another organization. Those owners too often ignore the reality that the two principles in New England's 13-year run of brilliance – Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady – tend to make everyone around them look better. Instead, those wealthy men assume that something positive has to result from hiring coaches who've spent so much time with future Hall of Famers.
That mindset has led to three former New England assistants becoming disappointing head coaches in the NFL (Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels); one who has become a disaster at Kansas after being exposed as an overhyped savior at Notre Dame (Charlie Weis); and a former general manager who became better known for tormenting staffers than building a winning franchise with the Kansas City Chiefs (Scott Pioli). This won't be O'Brien's legacy. As much as he might look the part of another overrated former Patriots employee, he has a different vibe to him. He appears to be a man fully aware of who he is instead of another poseur hoping to do his best Belichick impression over the next few years.
The most important thing to like about O'Brien is that he's actually not best known for the job he did with New England (where he coached receivers and quarterbacks before becoming offensive coordinator in 2011). It's the work he did at Penn State that sets him apart from his predecessors. It literally is an understatement to say that program was in chaos when he was hired in Jan. 2012. Aside from SMU -- which received the death penalty in 1987 -- no program had been in more dire straits before its next head coach arrived.
O'Brien landed at a program that would eventually be hit with a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 40 scholarships, and where any current player was permitted to transfer and play immediately in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky. Legendary Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno, had lost his job in the midst of the controversy and would die less than three weeks after O'Brien's arrival. The safe bet was that Penn State was finished for at least a decade. O'Brien led them to an 8-4 record that first season and a 7-5 mark the second.
Those numbers don't even begin to explain O'Brien's coaching ability. He proved he could handle massive pressure. He revealed that he could convince kids to buy into a vision that was probably a pipe dream at best. The door was open for any Penn State player to leave without any consequence and the image of the program was tainted for any talented recruit O'Brien hoped to sign. Hollywood lives to make movies out of such tales.
O'Brien's work at Penn State should tell us that he can help the Texans in multiple ways. The first thing he can do is improve their quarterback play, since that's another place where he made his name. It wasn't just his work with Brady that boosted his image, either. O'Brien helped turn Matt McGloin, a mediocre former Penn State starter, into a player who was serviceable enough to start seven games for the Oakland Raiders this season.
Whatever the Texans decide to do at quarterback -- whether it's sticking with Case Keenum, acquiring a more experienced veteran or drafting a signal-caller with the first overall selection -- they need a coach who can get the most out of that position quickly. O'Brien also brings instant credibility because he spent a decent amount of time in the league before this opportunity arrived. This isn't like Greg Schiano going from Rutgers to Tampa and grinding players down with a dictatorial approach. O'Brien should be smart enough to see that he's taking over a talented team just one year removed from consecutive AFC South titles. He can pick his spots to play the heavy.
More than anything, O'Brien has spent enough time away from New England to know how to be himself. This is something McDaniels couldn't do when he got the Denver Broncos gig (he was there in 2009-10) and something Mangini struggled with during his stints with the New York Jets (2006-08) and the Cleveland Browns (2009-10). Even though both men enjoyed some early success after leaving New England, they ultimately came off as Belichick clones who were too caught up in micro-managing their teams and alienating the media. O'Brien hopefully has sought advice from both men about what not to do on the job.
O'Brien also can feel good knowing that other college head coaches have stepped into the NFL in recent years and found instant success. Jim Harbaugh has taken the San Francisco 49ers to three straight playoffs since leaving Stanford. Pete Carroll has led the Seattle Seahawks to three postseason appearances in the four years since he left USC. There also was plenty of skepticism about how the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly would fare after leaving Oregon (including from yours truly). The Eagles wound up winning the NFC East in his first season with that franchise.
Now does this mean O'Brien will have a smooth ride? Obviously not. The Texans have to make the right personnel moves, and he's also competing in a division where the Indianapolis Colts have quickly established themselves as a championship contender. O'Brien also will have to say farewell to those same Penn State players he galvanized over the past two years. You can imagine that it won't be that easy for him to leave the same kids he asked to believe in his vision of a program.
In reality, O'Brien did more than enough for Penn State in those two short years. He made them relevant and gave them the hope that better days lay ahead for that program. Now it's time for him to do the same thing for the Houston Texans. Given what we've already seen, he should make his old boss in New England even prouder of where O'Brien's career is heading.