HOUSTON – Coach Bill O’Brien kept his job despite Houston’s 4-12 finish and looks to be returning for next season.
His status beyond that is far less certain.
O’Brien, who has one season left on his contract, was asked repeatedly on Tuesday if he’ll be with the Texans next season and if he’s been offered a contract extension. He never refused comment, but avoided answering the questions directly with the skill of a veteran politician.
“These are things that are being discussed,” he said when asked if he’ll coach the team next season. “I feel like I will be here in 2018, but again, these are ongoing discussions that maybe we can clarify with you guys, maybe, at a later date. I’m sure we will, but this is where it’s at right now.”
When asked if he’d like to sign an extension, he again refused to give a direct answer, instead talking broadly about his relationship with owner Bob McNair and his son Cal McNair.
“We’re having great discussions, very productive,” O’Brien said. “They’re very easy to talk to. They really do a great job of working with us, with me, of listening, back and forth, a lot of great ideas … these are really good discussions that we’re having and we’ll move from there.”
O’Brien has a 31-33 record in four seasons in Houston and this was his first losing season after he led the team to 9-7 records in each of his first three years.
The Texans won the AFC South the past two seasons before failing to make the postseason in 2017 as they dealt with injuries to quarterback Deshaun Watson and superstar defensive end J.J. Watt.
Along with firming up O’Brien’s future with the team, the Texans also must find someone to fill in at general manager after Rick Smith announced that he’s taking a leave of absence of at least a year to care for his wife as she fights breast cancer.
O’Brien said he isn’t looking to have more personnel power in Smith’s absence, but that he has been involved in discussions with the McNairs about his replacement and that he hopes they hire someone who shares his thoughts on the team’s needs.
“The big thing for me and I think the big thing for the McNairs, and I don’t want to speak for them, but I would just say is alignment, being aligned philosophically on what type of team we want,” O’Brien said.
Some things to know about the Texans as they wrap up the season:
Watson is recovering well since having surgery on his right knee in November, and O’Brien said there’s a chance he could be healthy enough to do some things in organized team activities in May. The 12th overall pick in the 2017 draft showed that he could be the solution to Houston’s long-term quarterback woes with his work before the injury.
He appeared in seven games with six starts and threw for 1,699 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“He’s an exciting player,” O’Brien said. “He’s just a very coachable guy, eager to learn, eager to get better. He’s got great poise on the field. We’re all excited about his future.”
Watt is already looking ahead to next season after seeing a second straight season cut short by an injury. Watt has played just eight games over the past two seasons after a back injury ended his 2016 season after just three games and he broke his left leg in Houston’s fifth game this season.
The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year said he is careful not to get caught up in negative thoughts after his tough stretch and is optimistic for the future.
“That’s what gets me to work my hardest every single day is what this team is capable of and what we can do with these guys,” he said.
And although he’s on the other side of the ball, Watt is thrilled to have Watson on his team after seeing the revolving door at quarterback over the past few years.
“We have won a few division titles with like 15 different quarterbacks,” Watt said. “So if we have one quarterback who is back there who can play the way that he plays, who has the potential and has the abilities he has … we are really excited to see what he can do with a full season. I’m definitely excited to have a franchise quarterback.”
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s play was one of the few bright spots during Houston’s tough season. The top overall pick in the 2014 draft had the best season of his career to earn his second straight Pro Bowl nod.
Clowney finished second in the NFL with a career-high 21 tackles for losses and his 9½ sacks, 21 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles were also career bests. He also had a career-high 59 tackles and started all 16 games for the first time in his career after struggling with injuries in his first two NFL seasons before playing 14 games last season.
“I’m going to keep getting better,” he said. “I get excited about it because I know my potential and I just say I’m going to keep improving year-in and year-out as long as I stay healthy.”