The quarterback guru, the quarterback prodigy: What could go wrong?
By reputation, Bill O’Brien and Deshaun Watson should form a scintillating partnership for the Houston Texans, one that pushes the team from perennial “quarterback away” status into a fully-fledged championship contender. If not during Watson’s rookie year, at least through his first contract — Russell Wilson style.
But how well will Watson and O’Brien mesh? It’s a difficult question.
For all the posturing about O’Brien’s teaching abilities — often coming from his own mouth — he’s now cycled through a bunch of pro arms. And while the team has had a pair of impressive runs to back-to-back division crowns, it’s mostly been on the backs of an innovative and loaded defense.
O’Brien has been, fairly in my opinion, criticized for his inability to adapt his system to whichever quarterback he’s stewarding. Instead, he’s stayed steadfast to his complex scheme, slinging quarterbacks out of the door at a Cleveland-like rate.
What is it about O’Brien’s system that makes it more complex than any of the other intricate ones across the league? Everything. As in, the quarterback must do everything.
A quarterback cannot hide behind a bevy of athletic skills that allow him to play see-it, throw-it football. The job demands excellence from the neck up. Anything less, and it bogs down into a stuck-in-the-mud mess rather than the masterpiece O’Brien painted with Tom Brady back in his New England days.
Quarterbacks must set protections, then reset them if needed — there’s no help from the center, here. And they’re responsible for getting to the most optimal play no matter the front or pre-snap defensive look. There’s full audible control, meaning they can shift the whole offense, rather than just switching plays within the same same formation.
Then there’s all the options. These aren’t simple run-pass option reads, either, where the quarterback picks between a run or pass based on the number of players in the box. Nor are they the basic option-routes that ask receivers and quarterbacks to be in sync reading the coverage: The ones that ask a receiver to sit down against zone coverage, or continue the route against man coverage. Even the most basic option routes can take time for quarterbacks and receivers to perfect — Chad Johnson and Brady famously struggled to get in sync.
Nope. O’Brien demands much more than that.
After setting the protections, the quarterback must read the defense pre-snap to look for any coverage ticks — check the safeties, remember the tendency chart, etc. Receivers are then given multiple options, pre-snap, based on the coverage: Are the defenders playing up, or are they in off-coverage? The quarterback’s job is to recognize the coverages, and flash a hand signal to the receivers to confirm the route.
But wait, if that seems like a jargon-filled word salad, it gets worse. The receivers are then outfitted with a bunch of post-snap options, allowing them to adjust to a change in defensive structure. Perhaps the defense was bluffing a coverage. For instance, the route flashed by the quarterback pre-snap was to be used against zone coverage, when in fact the defense was running an off-man coverage, something the quarterback and receiver would discover together after the snap. Now the receiver can adjust, not freelance, but bounce to whatever was built into the play design against that fresh look.
The idea is to have passing concepts that can morph while in progress, like the pattern-matching defensive principle.
If it sounds confusing, it’s because it’s complex. And that’s what makes it tough to defend when it’s all clicking.
It’s not just choosing and adapting the routes, though. That would be too easy for O’Brien. The post-snap reads also include the option to alter the depth of routes, based on the coverage. For instance, a route that crosses the middle of the field can either become a shallow drag route, or a deep over, depending on whether the defense is in a single-high or two-deep safety look.
It’s a ton of information for any quarterback to process on every play: initial protections, reset protections, pre-snap option routes, hand signals, post-snap option routes, and getting on the page with each receiver reading coverages. Then, at some point, they have to fling the ball accurately to a receiver. Remember, most of this is done under three seconds with snarling pass rushers out there hunting for blood.
Here, you can see Brock Osweiler run through the entire checklist:
O’Brien demands it all. Oh, and he also modulates the tempo, consistently jumping into the no-huddle to make reads easier. So every now and then, decisions are made at a breakneck pace, two-minute drill or not.
While Brady relished the control, and was a savant at making the perfect pre- and post-snap adjustments, it’s a system that has paralyzed a raft of quarterbacks, and receivers too. It’s not so easy without a future Hall of Fame player at the height of his powers.
Osweiler became so discombobulated in 2016 that he missed simple throws, often burying the ball in the turf on easy outlet passes.
Osweiler developed a pronounced hitch in his delivery, as though he was constantly second-guessing himself or waiting for another option or on-the-fly adjustment to take place. It led to baffling decisions and scattershot accuracy that tanked his numbers and ultimately could end up burying his career. It was all too much for the former Broncos quarterback, who had arrived from a relatively simple system by comparison.
O’Brien saw enough in one year with Osweiler to know the quarterback could never run the offense. The Texans dumped Osweiler’s mega-money deal, paying the Browns a second-round pick to take his contract.
Osweiler was an excellent film and classroom student, team sources told All22.com. He just couldn’t cope with all the demands placed on him in games. Everything happened too fast and he couldn’t keep up. That, and he couldn’t hit a seam throw.
In steps Watson, the Texans’ first round pick and an all-time college football great. He walks into Houston full of talent and enthusiasm and expectations and a whole lot to learn, without much time. Watson will have just a rookie install period and training camp to learn all the complexities if he is to begin the season as the starter.
Perhaps he won’t. Perhaps Tom Savage, heading into his fourth year with O’Brien and the team, will be the guy. But at some point, Watson will assume control. He’s infinitely more talented than Savage. Houston drafted him to get the team further than the divisional playoff round. It won’t sit and wait too long.
O’Brien has been bullish on Watson. “He had to learn a pretty sophisticated offense at Clemson,” O’Brien told the Houston Chronicle. “He had to do a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. I think he was trained really well. That’s a credit to the Clemson staff. He’d already been in some big games when he got here. When he came here, he put his head down and came to work every day.”
It’s true. Clemson’s offense ran more pro concepts that it was given credit for. Watson, essentially, acted as the school’s third offensive coordinator. He would flip to preferable plays at the line of scrimmage based on different defensive fronts. And the team ran so many options and RPOs that regardless of what the coordinators called, Watson was making real-time play-calls as he snapped the ball.
But even the demands of the most pro-style college offense are a million miles from what O’Brien asks.
Watson has an awful lot to ingest. Sure, many of the passing concepts at Clemson were West Coast in nature. But even where the concepts are similar, the level of intricacy, language and decisions before and after the snap are much higher.
It’s up to O’Brien to adjust. This isn’t a veteran. He’s been down that path before, and none of the hoard of guys he brought in have succeeded running his advanced stuff. Tom Bradys don’t grow on trees. Even ex-Patriots QBs Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett ultimately were swamped by a system they had trained in before (with some adjustments).
Adapting to Watson will be key. O’Brien cannot be stubborn now. Perhaps the coach will empower Nick Martin and Greg Mancz, the team’s centers, to call protections. Or, better still, O’Brien could deliver the pre-snap options himself from the sideline, the way Watson was accustomed to in college. Those tweaks would allow the rookie to focus on the complexities he has to learn post-snap, while working on the other things during the week. In short, O’Brien would bring the quarterback along slowly rather than overload him with everything that has bamboozled many multiyear veterans.
There’s another question hanging over this new relationship: How much of Clemson’s system will O’Brien build into his own? To help Watson’s learning curve, and to take advantage of his skill set, it would be wise to build in some of the Tigers’ unique option elements or at least create designs that take advantage Watson’s mobility.
It sounds like a simple decision. But O’Brien balked at adapting to help Osweiler. Houston had a limited boot-action game throughout the 2016 season. It was a staple of the Denver inside/outside-zone system Osweiler had developed in. It was the height of O’Brien’s arrogance, particularly with Lamar Miller lining up in Houston the backfield, an explosive one-cut-and-go runner perfectly built for an outside-zone run scheme.
Osweiler showed in short stints with the Broncos that he was at his best rolling out on boot-actions, when the field is cut in half and he could run when necessary. He may not be the prettiest runner, but he’s mobile enough to force the backside defender to stay in his lane — the key to opening up the foundational running play of the Broncos’ attack.
O’Brien didn’t budge. He ran his stuff. Osweiler was ineffective and the ground game languished at 27th in rushing DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average). Osweiler’s 131 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, came almost exclusively on scrambles. The rest were QB sneaks.
Watson can change all of that if O’Brien is open to change.
Clemson ran the most varied and creative option attack in the country with Watson (not including triple-option teams). The most imaginative of which was a quarterback-power package: a direct snap to the quarterback with a lead blocker pulling from the backside to carve open holes in front of Watson. It’s a play originally run by Auburn with Cam Newton.
In the 2016 semifinal against Ohio State, the Tigers gashed the Buckeyes using the same concept in five different ways:
A defense run by a former NFL coach — Greg Schiano — running an NFL scheme, with a whole bunch of future NFL players, was torched.
It was the “veer fake-toss option” play that Watson and Clemson were most infamous for, though. A play that has now spread throughout the college game and should be brought to the pros. The Tigers ran the concept from all kinds of different looks and with different blocking combinations. The design looks like a delayed “lead split-zone” with a tight end pulling across the formation to seal one side of the offensive line, while the quarterback fakes a toss play the other way. The quarterback then reads a designated defender, has the option to pitch the ball to the running back or follow the tight end and a pulling lineman, carrying the ball himself.
Here’s an example from the same Ohio State game: Clemson’s left guard and tight end pull across the formation. At the snap, Watson delays, faking as though he’s running a toss play to his left. Faking the pitch gives time for the blockers to pull and clear room.
One of the smartest things about the design is that it continues to challenge the eye discipline of the linebackers (the key to option plays) without putting the ball in jeopardy. Rather than Watson sticking his hand into the running back’s gut and reading the defense, he keeps the ball, eliminating the possibility of a botched exchange.
Sure, to some ardent NFL evaluators, they may come across as spread-option gimmicks. But they were foundational plays for Watson at Clemson and would help him settle in to life in Houston, and they’d help kick-start the team’s fledgling run game.
It’s not just the option plays that the Texans’ staff should be picking out, though. The veer option was born out of the Tigers’ buck sweep — the modern equivalent to the Lombardi namesake. Watson mastered the many variants in college. The Texans should harness that, not dismiss it.
It’s not. The buck sweep, jet buck sweep, and quarterback buck sweep are all based around out-leveraging one side of the defense through deception or brute force. They’re the kind of plays O’Brien likes.
Here’s the basic sweep: Two guards pull to the same side of the field, while a tight end and tackle wash out the defensive line, cracking them toward the middle of the field.
Watson’s legs make the play sing. His mere presence forces the backside defender (No. 51 on the play above) to sit down rather than fly to the line. That creates a favorable matchup on the opposite side of the field, with Clemson getting two guards matched up against an edge defender and safety.
And yeah, you guessed it, if the backside defender clamors towards the line of scrimmage, Watson would pull the ball out and take off.
Adding in a motion man is a cute wrinkle. It distracts the linebackers and forces them to play with perfect eye discipline. The motion goes one way, the sweep the other. It effectively becomes a triple-option. The quarterback can hand the ball off to the jet player, the running back, or keep it himself.
It could be a distinctly Watson-Texans play. Watson brings the QB-run threat. Miller is the explosive running back. And it may harness the unique abilities of Braxton Miller, who would make the perfect motion man.
Remember when we were excited for all the innovative ways the Texans would integrate Miller (a former option-quarterback turned receiver) into a series of pseudo-college style sweep/wildcat plays? Well, he carried the ball just 3 times in 2016 for exactly zero yards.
O’Brien used Miller as a receiver rather than what he should be: an offensive weapon. Line him up anywhere and everywhere. Get the ball in his hands, and let him do damage in space. He’s unlikely to become a refined route runner who can deal with all the options the Texans’ scheme. But he can be an excellent decoy who creates explosive plays on and off the ball.
Everything should be considered to make life easier for Watson. That includes him carrying the ball, not just on options, but on designed plays. Given he’s now in the pros, with big money and big stakes, unlike college where there is big money and big stakes, but no contracts or salary cap, O’Brien likely will limit Watson to designed runs in the red zone.
They would be foolish not to use his legs, though. He can and will shred teams from the pocket, but his legs make the game decidedly easier when the field gets tighter. He’s not a supremely agile athlete like Russell Wilson or Marcus Mariota, but give him a north-to-south location and he gets there in a hurry.
Clemson tagged the buck sweep with a quarterback variant, a play the Carolina Panthers have adapted with Newton. It’s a killer in the red zone. There just aren’t enough defenders to compensate for everyone, even if it’s defended decently.
Not moving Osweiler enough was an oversight. Moving Watson, at least in his rookie campaign, is a must.
All roads lead back to O’Brien: Is he a my-way-or-the-highway coach? Or, as the very best have shown, is he willing to adapt to his talent? It’s useless having the most creative concepts if a rookie quarterback can’t run them. And it’s just as silly to takeaway bootlegs and rolling pockets if you’ve drafted a quarterback who is frighteningly good at throwing on the move.
Watson is a supreme talent who needs plenty of time to fit what this Houston regime demands. He’s already putting in the time to figure out everything demanded of him, something that at the very least will help the team’s culture on and off the field. But O’Brien and his staff should meet the young quarterback some of the way, schematically, for both sides to coexist and succeed.
Maintain the status quo and there will be an awkward adjustment period. But maybe a metamorphosis becomes unparalleled innovation and the best of college football meets the best of the NFL, which becomes football magic.