HOUSTON – Bill O’Brien got a bit antsy as his introductory press conference with the Houston Texans started to drag on and a question was posed about how much he knows about his new team.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do on this team and the sooner that I can get back to my office and start that work, it’ll be better,” he said straight-faced as the rest of the room erupted in laughter.
Less than two years after replacing Joe Paterno as coach at Penn State, the 44-year-old O’Brien has returned to the NFL as coach of the Houston Texans. He was an offensive assistant under Bill Belichick at New England from 2007-12, but the Penn State job was his first as a head coach.
Now he gets the Texans, who spiraled to an NFL-worst 2-14 record last season.
“He showed that he has the ability to step into difficult situations and turn them around,” Houston owner Bob McNair said. “He did that at Penn State under very difficult circumstances and did an outstanding job there. We expect to see good things happen immediately.”
O’Brien was 15-9 at Penn State, hit hard by NCAA sanctions levied for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that cost the late Paterno his job.
He takes over for Gary Kubiak, who was fired with three games left in the Texans’ dismal season. Despite Houston’s collapse, many believe it is a plum position because the Texans have many talented pieces in place and could make a quick turnaround. Houston won consecutive AFC South titles before this year’s disaster.
O’Brien said he planned to meet with Houston’s assistant coaches on Friday and begin making decisions on who will make up his staff.
After his first season at Penn State, O’Brien interviewed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, among others, only to stay in State College. This time the lure of the NFL was too strong to resist.
“I do regret not being able to continue with the great kids on that team,” O’Brien said. “While I tried never to mislead anyone, I understand that some people feel let down. But again, it was a decision that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.”
He said an attractive aspect of this job was Houston’s world-class medical center. O’Brien’s 11-year-old son Jack can’t walk or talk because of a rare neurological disorder that also causes seizures.
Almost exactly two years ago, O’Brien fidgeted with a water bottle while taking questions from reporters at his introductory news conference at Penn State. He said then that he couldn’t wait to get going, and he feels that way in Houston, too.
The first-time NFL head coach was relaxed and confident throughout most of his first press conference in Houston. He did squirm a little when asked about his lack of ties to Texas in following Houston native Kubiak, and stammered some when asked about his infamous sideline blowout with Tom Brady in New England.
He escaped the first question by saying he was going to buy his first pair of cowboy boots after the press conference. As for the second issue – he downplayed the screaming match that ended with other coaches pulling O’Brien away.
“These things happen,” he said. “There was a camera on it which I feel bad about, but what people don’t understand about that was 30 seconds after that was over, we were sitting together looking at the pictures ... that quickly passed.”
O’Brien follows Dom Capers, who led the team from its expansion season in 2002, and Kubiak as the only coaches in Texans history.
Like Kubiak, O’Brien is known as a quarterback guru, which will be important for a team searching for a solution after veteran Matt Schaub had a terrible season and lost his job to Case Keenum, who also struggled.
O’Brien has almost exclusively coached offense with a focus on quarterbacks, though he was a defensive end and linebacker while at Brown.
“It’s a job that’s never-ending,” he said of coaching quarterbacks. “It’s a job that you can always improve if you like coaching quarterbacks and it’s a lot of fun to do.”
Houston has the top overall draft pick and could use it on a one of a trio of talented signal-callers who could be available. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Fresno State’s Derek Carr, younger brother of Houston’s first-ever draft pick, David Carr, are the top-rated quarterbacks expected to be in the draft.
“If we wound up with a young quarterback, we’d probably bring in a veteran so we don’t have to depend on that rookie,” McNair said. “That’s tough putting a rookie in there and expecting them to be able play right off the bat. There’ve been a couple of them that have done it but a number of them didn’t do so well. I think having that veteran presence is important.”
Houston has had the first pick in the draft two other times, choosing Carr in 2002 and defensive end Mario Williams in 2006.
“The defensive player worked out better than the offensive player,” McNair said with a laugh. “But that won’t lock us into anything. There’s always a possibility. (General manager) Rick (Smith) and the coaches will trade around. Maybe we’ll trade down and still get a quarterback that can do the job and get an outstanding defensive player.”