The Bill O’Brien Effect

Ty Miller


In dynasty, one of the greatest advantages an owner can have is being able to find correlations between coaches, personnel and offensive schemes, and then, understanding how it all fits together. Last year, analysts predicted the rise of Browns Tight End Jordan Cameron by linking his athletic ability to the offensive scheme his head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner were installing. The track records of Chudzinski and Turner were the tell-tales that aided in forecasting the 2013 Browns offense. They both heavily used the tight end as the focal point in their respective offenses. Coaching changes are one of the fastest ways to change the value of specific players on a team. This is no different in Houston, where the Texans have hired Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien. Let’s take a look at how O’Brien’s presence should help mold the Texans offense, specifically the tight ends, into a formidable threat.

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First, some back history on Bill O’Brien. He was the New England Patriots offensive coordinator in 2010 and 2011, before taking the head coaching spot at Penn State in 2012. After Penn State’s 2013 season, O’Brien moved on to become the head coach of the Houston Texans. Like most coaches, Bill O’Brien has a specific type of offense he prefers to run. When looking over O’Brien’s tendencies as a play caller, one thing stands out – he loves to use tight ends. Not only does he love to utilize them, he enjoys making linebackers miserable by matching them up with his bigger, more athletic tight ends.

In New England, Bill Belichick and O’Brien were co-creators of the “Gronk and Hernandez Show.” The year was 2010, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were rookies. Both played the tight end position, but both were built entirely different and were headed for completely opposite, yet effective roles in the Patriots offense. Per NFL terms, the tight end position is broken into two separate labels. The “F” tight end is a player of decent build, approximately 6’3 240lbs. He would be used in the joker role, as a half back/tight end hybrid. This player is more of a receiver than a blocker and has to have good hands. The other classification is the “Y” tight end. This player needs to be bigger than the “F” tight end, preferably 6’5″, 265 lbs., and has to have good blocking and receiving skills. It’s easy to see how Gronkowski and Hernandez fit these niches perfectly and they were used accordingly. Both posted over 40 receptions and nearly 550 yards receiving, but the biggest advantage, statistically, was the touchdown totals. Gronkowski had ten touchdowns in only 11 started games, whereas Hernandez started seven games and had six touchdowns. The groundwork was laid for a monster 2011 season. That year, Gronkowski and Hernandez had 175 combined touches for 2,284 yards and 25 touchdowns. Though Bill O’Brien wasn’t the only coach involved with the play calling and scheme design, he had a heavy hand in it.


In 2010, Bill O’Brien and Bill Belichick began installing their new scheme to custom fit for Gronkowski and Hernandez. 93, or 28%, of the 331 total receptions went to tight ends. Of those 93 catches, only six were to a player not named Gronkowski or Hernandez. As with most offenses, the wide receivers dominated the catch totals, but what happened the following season is what leaves me intrigued.


In 2011, the Patriots made the decision to incorporate their tight ends into the passing game near equally to the wide receivers.  Of a possible 402 completions, 169 or 42%, went to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  The wide receiving corps led by Wes Welker barely topped the tight ends for the reception lead, but the numbers are stunning.  To put these numbers in perspective, Peyton Manning’s tight ends caught 112, or 24%, of the possible 450 receptions in 2010.  Manning and the Colts have always been labeled as having used tight ends heavily in the receiving game, but they pale in compare to what the New England Patriots offense did in 2011.  Bill O’Brien knows the scheme to install, the players to fit into that scheme, and how to call the plays to get the most efficient results out of his tight ends.


When O’Brien went onto Penn State, he still showed favoritism towards the tight end position. In 2012, the second leading receiver was 6’3 243 lbs., TE Kyle Carter. In 2013, for the second year in a row, a tight end was the number two receiver on the Penn State squad. This time, 6’7 257 lbs., TE Jesse James was the beneficiary of O’Brien’s TE-friendly scheme. For full disclosure, wide receiver stud Allen Robinson was the top receiver both of the years O’Brien was at the helm.

Now that we have all of this information in our back pocket, let’s look at what Bill O’Brien has done in his short time as the head coach in Houston. This offseason, the Texans traded away quarterback Matt Schaub to the Oakland Raiders for a sixth round pick. In late March, they signed free agent quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Many thought this was a good signing because Fitzpatrick is a solid backup, but since the Texans didn’t draft quarterback Tom Savage until the fourth round of the 2014 draft, it is assumed Fitzpatrick is the day one starter. No, it’s not sexy, but it actually aligns with Bill O’Brien’s ideology. O’Brien has gone on record saying his quarterback doesn’t have to be a big guy, nor does his system require a very mobile quarterback. The single most important attribute a Bill O’Brien quarterback must possess is intelligence. He wants a player who can pick up the various blitzes and be savvy enough to audible into an appropriate play to offset the defensive strategy. O’Brien wants someone with leadership skills and high intellect. Guess what? They don’t come much more intelligent than Harvard’s own Ryan Fitzpatrick. In fact, Fitzpatrick basically fits every one of those prerequisites.

In the draft, the Texans mainly focused on defense, taking DE Jadeveon Clowney first overall, but there was one pick in particular that stands out well above the rest. Their third round draft pick, Iowa TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, landed in the perfect spot. At first glance, it looks like a crowded depth chart at the tight end position, but after examining a little closer, it all makes sense. Fiedorowicz’s size is nearly identical to that of Gronkoswki. He is an above average receiver, a strong blocker, and is also athletic for his build. Of course, having the same frame as a superstar doesn’t necessarily mean the prospect will follow suit, but there are some eerily similar attributes between Gronkowski and Fiedorowicz.


Predicting how existing Houston tight ends Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin will be used is where the water gets a bit murky. Most analysts will agree Griffin is the more athletic of the two, but he didn’t do enough last year to supplant Graham. Another angle to look at this situation is Ryan Griffin is being inherited by the new coaching regime, while Garrett Graham was an unrestricted free agent that was re-signed by Houston this offseason. There is our quandary. If the fantasy community had our way, Griffin would be the “F” tight end in O’Brien’s system while Fiedorowicz would be the “Y”. Unfortunately, our opinion doesn’t matter to NFL coaches. Garrett Graham will do well in O’Brien’s scheme, regardless, his ceiling just may not be quite as high as Ryan Griffin’s. This offense goes through the tight ends and the running game, so there will theoretically be plenty of opportunity for Graham to do some damage. If there is a legitimate camp battle between Graham and Griffin for the “F” tight end role, my money is on Griffin.


As a whole, I like C.J. Fiedorowicz’s future the best of the three. He will be a dangerous red zone threat along with the capability to find weaknesses in the middle of the field. Linebackers and defensive backs will have their hands full with this offense and it should be fun to watch. Fiedorowicz can still fly under the sleeper tag for now, but that should change shortly. He can be had for a mid-to-late rookie pick this year, so while some of your league mates are racing up the draft board to snag one of the top three tight ends, sit back and draft Fiedorowicz much later. A system that has been proven to work will be in place in Houston this year and the Texans should excel at two tight end sets.