Very bad NFL coaches in 2020: Bye-Bye Bill O’Brien!

It’s over. Bill O’Brien is gone, and this column is in mourning for what has to be considered an irreplaceable loss.

You know it’s the end of your career when Chris Myers spends an entire telecast roasting you.

Myers was the FOX television play-by-play man assigned to Sunday’s Houston Texans 31-23 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the last straw which toppled the Bill O’Brien era.

Myers doesn’t editorialize much during telecasts, but he was critical of O’Brien’s play-calling — particularly his habit of handing off up the middle on first down — from the very first play from scrimmage.

“That’s what Texans fans don’t want to see,” Myers said after a two-yard David Johnson plunge, “another handoff and a run that goes nowhere.”

Myers kept the theme up throughout the game, as the Texans fell behind 17-6 and 24-16 to the 0-3 Vikings but O’Brien insisted on sticking to a game plan which was holding Deshaun Watson and the offense back.

By the fourth quarter, Myers sounded like he had been playing the O’Brien First Down Handoff Drinking Game all afternoon. “They’re running the ball … with Duke Johnson … and no timeouts,” Myers said in halting exasperation as the Texans handed off with 2:49 to play while trailing by eight points.

Had the game gone to overtime, Myers may have snapped. Help! I’m being held hostage by a madman who is forcing me to watch two-yard handoffs until I join his cult!

The Texans fired O’Brien on Monday after what must have been a whirlwind of a day. Hours earlier, Houston Chronicle writer John McLain reported that O’Brien planned to take over play-calling duties from coordinator Ryan Day, something he probably did before the Vikings game. (Delaying the official announcement was smart for scapegoating purposes).

Peter King wrote glowingly of little-known Texans exec Jack Easterby in his Football Morning in America column, which was a clear signal that some sort of coup was in the works: O’Brien insulated himself from firing in recent years by ousting any potential replacements among the front office and coaching staff, so Easterby needed to position himself (and be heralded) as a worthy successor before O’Brien’s dismissal.

A whole book could be written about O’Brien’s many failures as a head coach and general manager. C’mon Coach has lots of terrible Wildcat plays and squib kicks to get to, so we won’t rehash 6.25 years of bad decisions and unmet expectations. And frankly, we don’t have to, because those Sunday handoffs said it all.

O’Brien the general manager traded All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins because he didn’t want to pay him. O’Brien the coach wanted to justify the trade by featuring David Johnson, but O’Brien the de facto game-planner couldn’t come up with any brighter ideas than hammering Johnson into the line on first down after first down. And O’Brien the boardroom politician planned to blame the whole debacle on a subordinate and use it as an excuse to assume even more power.

O’Brien just didn’t realize that, career-wise, he was running the ball on Sunday while trailing with no timeouts left, no remaining excuses and one else to credibly blame. Now he’s gone.

And that’s something Texans fans DO want to see.

Jason Garrett is doing Jason Garrett things

We move on to a jam-packed Week 4 of horrendous coaching action, starting in the fourth quarter at SoFi Stadium, with the New York Giants trailing the Los Angeles Rams by a 10-9 score.

The Giants, who haven’t scored a touchdown since Week 2, crossed midfield on a 26-yard Wayne Gallman scamper. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and head coach Joe Judge then dialed up this majestic four-play sequence:

  • Gallman off tackle for 4 yards: OK, coach, might as well run until they stop you.
  • Gallman up the middle for 3 yards: Eh, setting up 3rd-and-3 makes some sense.
  • This over-engineered, 5000-IQ misdirection swing pass that nearly turned Golden Tate into Jalen Ramsey’s lunch. More on that play in a moment.
  • Punt: Because punting from the opponent’s 48-yard line while trailing in the fourth quarter is just guaranteed to lead to victory.

Setting aside the fact that Ramsey has a deeply personal beef with Tate (which resulted in a postgame fight), there are two problems with the design Tate play. First, motioning a wide receiver into the backfield and making him decelerate to a full stop so he can turn and run into the opposite flat might work for Tyreek Hill, but not for a 32-year-old career slot receiver.

Tate might still have squeezed first-down yardage out of the play, except that running back Dion Lewis (the guy Ramsey suplexed so he could get to Tate) flowed out of the backfield in the same direction as Tate! Ramsey and Kenny Young both stay at home in zone coverage because they see Lewis leaking into the backfield to their side of the field, putting them in position to easily blow Tate up.

Garrett and Judge are perfect for each other, because Garrett runs the ball too much and calls plays that are designed to fail, while Judge, a former special teams coach, just loves to punt.

Everybody Hurts

Numerous injuries and two years of receiving corps assembled through want-ads in the back of Crossbow Hunter, Cannabis Lover and Slot Receiver magazine have turned Carson Wentz from an MVP candidate into someone who makes Brock Osweiler look like Steve Young.

The Eagles must have had this problem in mind when they selected Oklahoma dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round, and they have been noodling with Hurts Wildcat packages in an effort to defibrillate their offense since Week 2. And boy howdy, if you ever wanted to know what Taysom Hill would look like without experience, creativity or the element of surprise, you simply must watch what Doug Pederson is doing with Hurts.

Hurts lined up as a wide receiver against the 49ers on Sunday night. Every 49ers defender and television viewer in America spotted him and thought, “Hmm, this sure looks like a trick-play option pass.” Wouldn’t you know it: it was a trick-play option pass! Wentz tried to sneak into the left flat after a toss to Hurts sweeping right, but defender Kerry Hyder read the play and followed Wentz the whole way. (Wentz was also not an eligible receiver because he was lined up under center, but never mind). Hurts managed to squirt up the sideline for four yards, but that wasn’t what the Eagles had in mind.

Hurts lined up in shotgun a few plays later and mishandled the snap for a loss of eight. Luckily, Wentz threw his best pass of the night for a touchdown on the next play, which led to the Eagles first win of the season.

Hurts is a fine quarterback prospect. Wentz can still turn things around. But these off-the-bench Wildcat shenanigans, which went out of style with Pat White and the Dolphins in 2009, don’t fool any opponents or help either quarterback.

Taysom Hill is a Controlled Substance

Sean Payton isn’t the only NFL head coach at risk of getting dangerously hooked on Taysom Hill. Matt Patricia is the kind of guy who thinks a birthday magician pulling coins from children’s ears has actual superpowers, so of course he shares Payton’s opinion that Hill is some dangerous hybrid of Lamar Jackson and Keenan Allen.

When Hill motioned into the backfield and slipped into the flat near the goal line against the Lions, he drew double coverage from Desmond Trufant and Will Harris. That left Tre’Quan Smith, an actual wide receiver, all alone against safety Tracy Walker, who was lined up deep in the end zone. Smith easily beat the out-of-position Walker on an out-route for a touchdown. Hill is a tremendous decoy for someone who is going out of their way to be fooled.

Patricia drew criticism on the Internet for using man coverage almost exclusively in the first two Lions losses. He responded to that criticism — you just know Patricia is the kind of guy who yells at his players for being on social media but has 20 burner accounts to follow all of his detractors — by mixing more zone coverage in the Week 3 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Sunday’s 35-29 loss to the injury-plagued Saints proves that it doesn’t really matter what coverage the Lions run. They’re just bad.

One more Patricia tidbit before we send him off to the Lions bye week. He responded to a postgame question about his job security by claiming that “When I came to Detroit, there was a lot of work to do.” Um, actually coach, the Lions had three winning records in four years under Mike Caldwell before you arrived. There wasn’t much work to do at all. The next Lions coach, on the other hand, will have a real mess on his hands.

Squib City

The squib kick is football’s most underrated low-key self-outsmartment strategy. It’s well suited for lower levels of competition, where a) the squib can be aimed toward some little-used backups who are unprepared to field the ball and b) a long kickoff probably wouldn’t reach the end zone anyway. But in the NFL, it’s like an onside kick, but with less likelihood of success.

The Dallas Cowboys had just cut the Cleveland Browns lead to three points with 3:47 to play when Greg Zuerlein prepared to kickoff with the ball lying on its side instead of on a tee. Zuerlein squibbed the ball 23 yards straight to Dontrell Hilliard, who as the Browns kick and punt returner last year was one of the most qualified people on the field to retrieve it. The Browns thanked the Cowboys for the free field position by tossing an end-around to Odell Beckham which resulted in a 50-yard touchdown to put the 49-38 victory out of reach.

The Cowboys still had one timeout left, so kicking deep and trusting their defense to make its first stop in three weeks would probably have been the best decision. On the other hand, the Browns did not have their hands team on the field, so an onside kick might have worked for a team whose only win in 2020 came courtesy an onside kick. Congratulations to Mike McCarthy and his staff for selecting the worst of three options with the game on the line.

Down and Distance Debacle

A penalty and a sack left the Washington Football Team facing 2nd-and-goal from the 33-yard line while trailing the Baltimore Ravens 28-14 early in the fourth quarter. Dwayne Haskins tossed a pair of short passes underneath to JD McKassic to set up 4th-and-goal from the 13-yard line, and Ron Rivera decided to go for it.

No problem there: Riverboat Ron knew that a field goal would neither help the Team win nor endear the troops to his coaching philosophy. But Haskins threw a five-yard pass along the left sideline to undrafted rookie Isaiah Wright, who was quickly swallowed up by the Ravens defense.

Yes, the decision to check down and throw a useless pass is on Haskins, not Rivera’s staff. But: a) that’s the sort of fundamental error that is supposed to be getting coached out of Haskins, and b) a long look at the play design reveals that only two of the five eligible receivers ran routes that reached the end zone, and both were in the same part of the field, making zone coverage easy for Ravens defenders.

Call plays that are destined to fail, and failure is what you get.

Rivera’s red zone decision went unnoticed by everyone except folks who wagered Washington +14 and ended up settling for a push. Rivera doesn’t care about the spread, dear readers.

Wheel of Time

Our old pal Adam Gase made about 42 obvious coaching blunders in the 37-28 New York Jets loss to the Denver Broncos on Thursday night; C’mon, Coach hopes you took the over at 41.5.

Gase’s most comical decision was a third-down wheel route up the sideline to Frank Gore, a 37-year old running back who was never known for his blinding speed. Gore appeared to run out of gas at about the 5-yard line, and Sam Darnold’s throw sailed over his head.

The best thing about the Gore wheel is that Gase called almost the exact play in the red zone in the second quarter, with Kalen Ballage as the intended target. Ballage, who averaged 1.8 yards per rush and 4.5 yards per catch last year and was deemed expendable by the rebuilding Dolphins, is somehow less qualified than Gore to run end-zone wheel routes.

These wheel concepts appear to have been designed with the versatile Le’Veon Bell in mind. But Gase not-so-secretly wishes that Bell would retire to go live out his days in a yurt on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Designing schemes for a player you don’t like and who is not available, then running them repeatedly with fringe players and guys who should be in the broadcast booth, probably makes perfect sense if you snort pulverized espresso beans and stay awake 96 straight hours at a time the way Gase does.

Wear a Mask, Coach

When it comes to wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 in America, there are now three types of people:

  • Responsible citizens who have been wearing masks for months;
  • Not-so-responsible citizens who demanded that state governments reopen the tattoo parlors in April but are reassessing their decisions in light of recent developments.
  • NFL coaches like Jon Gruden, who have lived their lives in a bubble that protects them from consequences and cannot be penetrated by real-world news.

Gruden was still wearing his mask like a jumbo chinstrap on Sunday, despite the fact that the league fined him $100,000 in Week 2, the Raiders are facing heat from the NFL for scoffing at COVID-19 protocols, the Tennessee Titans are coping with a significant outbreak and some of the nation’s most prominent too-manly-for-masks advocates spent the weekend in the hospital.

And Gruden is not alone: it’s a common sight along NFL sidelines to see coaches wearing their masks while standing alone with their thoughts, then taking them off to shout instructions directly into the faces of a group of huddled players.

Some coaches appear to be catching on. Sean Payton has finally found a face covering that suits him. “The simple, $1.75 surgical mask just felt lighter, cleaner and also I think a little bit easier to talk through without any muffled sound than the material one,” he told reporters last week.

Welcome to mid-April, Coach, when the rest of us cycled through bandanas and contraptions Aunt Eunice made from old baby bonnets before finding something that feels almost comfy when walking around the grocery store.

Payton overcame COVID-19 in the offseason, of course, so perhaps he can be forgiven for thinking that he has swallowed an invincibility star and can now bounce around mask-free like Super Mario. As for the likes of Gruden, it seems like some hyper-privileged tough guys won’t take the pandemic seriously until each of them gets sick individually.

Unfortunately, that might be what ends up happening.

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