He has two years to change the fates. Two years to transform himself and the Texans from the almost team – his words – to over the rainbow NFL success. Two years to be something he’s never been.
History and Don Shula tell a different story.
In fact, it tells us O’Brien’s fate already may be cast. He is, history tells us, what he is. And neither hope nor trading first-round draft picks figure to change that.
The passing of the legendary Shula on Monday gave the NFL world pause to try and adequately describe the winningest coach the NFL ever has seen. It also begged the question, when did we know just how great he would be?
While that answer may be complex, recognizing that Shula had what it took to take franchises from good to great was simple. You knew it when you saw it. And it didn’t take long.
In fact, for a startling number of coaches of every level in NFL history – good ones, great ones and of course the all-time greatest like Shula, it took about six years to realize whether or not they had it.
Six years, of course, has been O’Brien’s Texans tenure thus far.
Are the Texans living a pipe dream, then? Is the hope of anything changing over the next two years misguided?
Even if you eliminate the all-time greatest coaches in history, all of whom had great and early success in their careers, the die indeed seems to be cast within a head coach’s first six years.
Even putting Shula and the likes of George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh aside, NFL coaching trends seem almost certain after six full seasons.
The great Bill Parcells? He won 52 games and a Super Bowl in his first six seasons.
The great Sean Payton? He won 62 games and a Super Bowl his first six seasons.
Mike Tomlin? He won 64 and a Super Bowl his first six seasons. John Harbaugh won 63-games and a Super Bowl in his first six seasons.
But what about the very good? The next-level type, which is where the Texans hope O’Brien lands. What about the kind of coach who may have the occasional hiccup, but shows an organization early-on you can get there from here?
Andy Reid won 64-games and reached the Super Bowl in his first six seasons. Jon Gruden won 57-games and a Super Bowl his first six seasons. Mike McCarthy won 63-games and a Super Bowl his first six seasons. Bill Cowher won 64-games and an AFC Championship.
And then there are the teases. There are the good coaches who simply never get over the hump, no matter how much shuffling of deck chairs they try. By that measure, history says O’Brien is more Jeff Fisher, Mike Sherman and Jim Mora Sr. than Andy Reid.
Fisher had just one winning season in his first six seasons and despite winning an AFC Championship in 1999, never won a Super Bowl.
In fact, in 16-seasons after that 1999 appearance Fisher never really got close.
Sherman won 57-games and had four double-digit winning seasons, but just a 2-4 playoff record in six years.
The Packers did not win a Super Bowl until McCarthy took over. Mora Sr. won 57-games his first six years, but was 0-3 in the postseason. In the nine ensuing years as a head coach, he never won a playoff game.
You know it when you see it. Whether it is greatness or someone who has what it takes, history says it’s obvious within the first six years of a head coach’s career.
So, too, does it seem obvious when a coach is just good enough to tease. A Mora. A Fisher. A Sherman.
In his first six seasons, O’Brien has won 52-games and two playoff games, or five fewer wins than Fisher’s first six full seasons as a head coach, and one less playoff win.
In the next two years, the Texans truly hope Bill O’Brien can rewrite history.