Everybody's after Bill O'Brien, but the perfect place for him is in Detroit
In between the NFL's regular season and postseason, we have the league's Bill O'Brien Season, and it is fascinating.
The Penn State coach is in such demand that he (and his agent) decided when Bill O'Brien Season would start. That was a few days ago, when ESPN reported that O'Brien and the Texans were deep into negotiations for him to be Houston's next coach. The leak benefited O'Brien (and his agent) far more than it did the Texans. The whole league suddenly knew he was available and interested, and if they wanted him, they had better hurry and get out their checkbooks. This is how a coach (and his agent) smoke out the best offers.
The question is: What's the best job?
Is it really with Houston? Washington? Cleveland? Minnesota? Or is it with the Nittany Lions?
For one of the rare times in NFL history, the answer is: The Detroit Lions. Really.
The Lions just fired coach Jim Schwartz. They have a roster that is ready to win now. They went 7-9 this season, but nobody in the league thinks they have 7-9 talent. Schwartz and his staff underachieved, but to be fair, they were just one break away from a significantly better year. If Ravens kicker Justin Tucker had missed a 61-yard field goal in Detroit three weeks ago, the Lions would have been 8-6 and in control of their NFC North chances, with a home game against the Giants and trip to play the Vikings remaining. Detroit probably wins one or both of those games if Tucker hadn't broken the team's collective will. (And yes, it is Schwartz's fault that the Lions' will was so easily broken.)
Mostly, Detroit has a still-young quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who could be an All-Pro if he gets some better coaching. O'Brien is the guy to do it. He is both a quarterback guru and a proven head coach, and very few men in the NFL are both.
Stafford was awful down the stretch this year, but two seasons ago, he threw 41 touchdown passes for a playoff team. His talent is undeniable, and unlike, say, Jay Cutler, there are no questions about his desire to be coached. Stafford listens. He is loyal to his teammates and his franchise. He is tough, he works hard and he can be great, especially with 100 of his passes ending up in the enormous hands of Calvin Johnson.
Stafford needs somebody to refine his mechanics and help him get his confidence back. O'Brien is as qualified to do that as anybody. O'Brien also has the credibility, demeanor and coaching skill to command the locker room.
Schwartz is a bright coach and a charismatic guy, but he could be a hothead at times. And he is so sure of himself that he refused to admit his team was undisciplined until it was too late. If he learns from this, he could become a good head coach some day. In the meantime, O'Brien makes sense. He can put a much more organized and unified team on the field.
And for O'Brien ... well, where else is he going to go? The Texans have the No. 1 pick in the draft, and O'Brien can take Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and build from there. Bridgewater is a terrific prospect, but he is not a sure thing in the mold of Andrew Luck; there is some uncertainty there. Why would you rather coach Bridgewater, who might be a really good NFL quarterback, or Stafford, who has already been one?
Washington's Robert Griffin III has had success in the NFL, too -- he led the Washingtonians to a playoff berth with an outstanding rookie year. Like Stafford, Griffin appeared to lose his mechanics and his confidence this season. He could be a star, but the roster in D.C. is not as talented as the one in Detroit, and why would O'Brien want to work for Daniel Snyder? The Ford family's ownership reign of the Lions has been abysmal, but the Fords are generally a pleasure to work for, and they are patient. (Often, too patient.)
Speaking of patience: The Browns just fired a coach, Rob Chudzinski, after one year. That would make any prospective coach wary. More importantly, Cleveland has no quarterback, and in the NFL, a coach with no quarterback becomes a coach with no job. It doesn't matter how good the coach is. The Browns might be able to find a quarterback in the upcoming draft, but again, that's a risk. Some coaches need to take that risk in order to get an NFL head-coaching job. O'Brien is not in that position.
Minnesota also does not have a quarterback, unless O'Brien believes in one of his old friends from the Patriots, Matt Cassel.
There is another option, of course: stay at Penn State. O'Brien has coached the Nittany Lions for two seasons, and he has now flirted with the NFL in two offseasons. That is Nick Saban-like, even Bobby Petrino-like, and that must bother O'Brien, because he does not want to be that guy. He is not a me-first, my-money-second kind of coach. He cares about his players, and I think it would bother him to bail after two seasons.
But Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era is a messy job, with an administration that isn't quite sure what to do with its football program, and Paterno loyalists who aren't quite sure what to make of O'Brien.
O'Brien has to understand: He can't do this NFL dance every year. That would alienate his supporters in Happy Valley, and kill the recruiting efforts that are already hampered by NCAA sanctions. If he stays at Penn State, he should stay for several years. But if he wants to leave, now is the time to go. He will probably never be as wanted as he is now, and will probably never have this many jobs available.
If O'Brien wants to leave, the best job for him is in Detroit. If the Lions are smart, they will realize they need a coach who can revive Stafford. O'Brien is that guy. There are no perfect marriages in the NFL. But this has a chance to be pretty close.