THE PALLILOG

Pallilo's View: Smith and O'Brien will likely get another chance at mediocrity

Texans GM Rick Smith appears to have a job for life. Why? Bob Levey/Getty Images

Texans at Titans Sunday. Who’s stoked?!?

As they play out the 2017 string the Texans are a balanced team. The offense is bad, the defense is bad, and for what feels like the 17th year in a row, the special teams are bad. But be fair: the Texans are not a garbage organization. Barring them winning four of their remaining six games this will be a losing season, just their second in the last seven years. Garbage organizations don’t produce those results. It is accurate to note that the last two years when the Texans won the AFC South the division was a dung heap, but the Texans sat atop the heap. They had their share of stink but were obviously not awful. The Jaguars and Titans were awful for years. The Colts are awful now. The Texans had the crash and burn 2-14 2013, but that’s their only fetid stink bomb season in the last decade.

Alas, the standard shouldn’t be avoiding years-long doormat status, but building sustained excellence. Rick Smith has his GM Seemingly For Life position for more than a decade. He has never come close to building a roster that set up for even three or four years of high quality football. Head Coach Bill O’Brien went 9-7, 9-7, 9-7, and will finish worse this season. Smith is mediocre. O’Brien has been mediocre, and since the saying is a fish rots from the head first (not true) let’s go to the top. Bob McNair has been a mediocre owner.

Let’s cover the list of current NFL GMs with longer tenure than Rick Smith:

Jerry Jones with the Cowboys and Mike Brown with the Bengals. They own their teams! Jerry’s two playoff wins in the last 20 years would not have him as GM anywhere else. Neither would Brown’s zero playoff wins in the last quarter century.

The Patriots’ Bill Belichick, a tad more accomplished than Smith. Likewise the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert, Saints’ Mickey Loomis, Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome, and Packers’ Ted Thompson. All have General Manager of a Super Bowl Champ on the curriculum vitae.

The Vikings’ Rick Spielman is the only GM with a similarly average resume, who got his current post before Smith got his. And Spielman’s Vikes have reached an NFC Championship game, and this season are 9-2 and playing a backup quarterback by the name of Case Keenum.

Rick Smith has not been lousy but has never been within striking distance of really good. In some job aspects he’s been woeful but we’re talking about the overall here. I frame this subject this way: if at the point of hiring Smith you could as MATTER OF FACT have told Bob McNair…11 years from now here is what your franchise will have accomplished, and here is where your franchise will be...do you still hire Smith? If Bob’s answer would have been yes, well, back to the rotting fish analogy.

Now to O’Brien. If it’s either O’Brien or Smith to me O’Brien would be the clear keep. His track record is mediocre, but it’s only about 1/3 as long. If I told you, again, as MATTER OF FACT, that either Smith or O’Brien will ascend to being widely considered one of the seven or eight best at his job in the NFL who would you go with?

There are some damning things about O’Brien’s tenure. The offense is his baby. During the three year quarterback carousel (in no small part O’Brien’s doing) the offense got worse year to year to year. The Texans’ ranking in total offense O’Brien’s first three years:  17th, 19th, 29th. So doesn’t it seem reasonable to conclude that O’Brien’s offense taking off with DeShaun Watson says a lot more about Watson’s gifts than it does O’Brien’s? Watson goes down and the Texans offense immediately reverts to wretched. Hey, that can happen when you lose a franchise QB--see the Packers without Aaron Rodgers. But O’Brien certainly can’t be credited with getting more out of less. O’Brien’s game and clock management have often left plenty to be desired, though that’s true of many head coaches, some way more accomplished. In all likelihood O’Brien only has a playoff win to his name because the Raiders’ Derek Carr was out with a broken leg and the Texans got to face Matt McGloin. The year prior, one of the most embarrassing home playoff losses in NFL history, 30-0 vs. the Chiefs. But for all that, O’Brien has some positives. His Texans play hard. And while that’s kind of the players’ job, it’s no given.

I laugh at the idea that O’Brien should get a contract extension this offseason. The notion that it would be unfair to have to deal with “lame duck” status, for four million dollars plus next season….give me a break! If players treat him like a substitute teacher because he’s in the last year of his deal, then O’Brien lacks the leadership qualities I actually think he has. The man commands a room. Can he command a really good football team? Hasn’t yet. Next year should be show us pudding with proof in it, or move along.

Presuming both O’Brien and Smith are back they have an off-season both challenging and with opportunity. The draft outlook is bad with the Browns having both the Texans first and second round picks. The Texans have two third rounders plus a compensatory pick at the end of the third round. The round in which Smith has been routinely inept. Well, maybe he’s due. But free agency is what will define the Texans’ offseason.  They are in their best salary cap position in years. With the no-brainer release of Brian Cushing they should have 50 mil+ to spend. They definitely need at least two offensive linemen and can sorely use secondary upgrades at corner and safety. How many holes can they plug during one free agency spending spree?

Of course, everything just covered isn’t worth 98 cents if DeShaun Watson isn’t fully recovered and then stays that way next season.

Can the Rick Smith/Bill O’Brien tandem turn the Texans 180 degrees positively next season? We’ll probably get to find out.

BUZZER BEATERS  1. Jimbo Fisher a fine hire for A&M, but assures nothing with regard to top 15 program stature.  2. We are going to wake up Christmas morning with the Rockets 25-6.  3. Best cookies:  Bronze-macadamia nut  Silver-pfeffernusse  Gold-Italian almond.

 

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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