Bill O’Brien had a doghouse.
Always a my-way or the highway guy, O’Brien’s treatment of young players who didn’t quickly fall in line in Houston was apparent after just a few seasons as a head coach. D’Onta Foreman, Jaelan Strong, and Louis Nix all ended up falling from O’Brien’s good graces quickly into their first and second seasons.
Now, O’Brien’s easy to rip on—especially now, as he’s been fired from Houston after a failed experiment wearing both their head coach and general manager caps. But young players do often come into the league without their head screwed on the right way, and poor habits can lead to poor play. That doesn’t justify a head coach making his frustration with them so public as it’s easily discernible to the local media, of course. But it can take rookies time to adjust to the rigors of NFL life. Quinnen Williams’ second-year emergence is a story to that effect.
For 2018 fourth-round pick Keke Coutee, his body wasn’t ready for his rookie season. Coutee’s debut game against the Colts delivered 109 yards on 11 targets, which was the highest volume debut game for a receiver since the merger. But a hamstring injury kept Coutee sidelined for almost three quarters of the season, with a return to health in the wild-card round seeing another promising 11-catch performance—again against the Colts.
O’Brien said in the offseason of Coutee’s sophomore campaign: “He knows now what to expect from a running standpoint and how to get his body ready for practice, get his body ready for the weight room sessions. He’s learned a lot about it, we’re going to be better with it and I think it’s going to produce better results, obviously. That can’t really happen again where you’ve got a guy that’s an excellent player and he missed three quarters of the season with a hamstring. That’s us and the player trying to get better."
But after contributing for the first half of the 2019 season, Coutee was suddenly erased from the offense. A game-sealing interception against the Colts on a tough, but catchable drop from Coutee was the last play he saw before suddenly, backup slot receiver DeAndre Carter took all his snaps for the next two weeks.
Quickly, there was speculation that Coutee had found himself in the doghouse, with his time rehabbing from both the hamstring and the ankle injury phasing him out of O’Brien’s gameplanning. The Texans had just added Kenny Stills in trade with the Miami Dolphins, and at this time, still had DeAndre Hopkins to run with Stills and Will Fuller. O’Brien just didn’t seem interested in getting Coutee involved in the gameplan anymore.
Coutee was inactive for four of the last six games of the 2019 season despite not being listed on the injury report. This season, he hasn’t seen the injury report at all but saw only five total snaps in the first nine games of the year.
Then Fuller got suspended, Randall Cobb got injured, and Kenny Stills was granted his release from the team. All of a sudden, the only starting receiver left on the Texans was Brandin Cooks, acquired with Cobb in the offseason to help account for the loss of Hopkins.
The acquisitions of Stills, Cobb, and Cooks had seemed a death knell to Coutee’s chance of breaking through the roster in 2020, but all of a sudden, those barriers were lifted. Coutee entered last Sunday’s game as the second wide receiver on the depth chart. It was against, of all teams, the Indianapolis Colts. The same team he dominated twice in 2018. The same team who seemingly shoved him into the doghouse in 2019.
Coutee was awesome against the Colts in 2020. He caught eight out of nine targets for 141 yards, with the one miss coming on an inaccurate Deshaun Watson pass. Operating almost exclusively out of the slot, Coutee showed exactly that which made him an intriguing prospect out of Texas Tech: the quickness and burst to run away from coverage, a surprisingly large catch radius, and some toughness over the middle. Used as a vertical threat, intermediate crosser, and underneath option alike, Coutee was given the full book of responsibility in his sudden action in 2020 and immediately delivered.
It wasn’t simply the expulsion of O’Brien and the removal of his doghouse that opened things back up for Coutee—he had several snapless weeks once O’Brien was fired. But once the window of opportunity cracked open, Coutee was quick to leap through—the same was true of practice-squad receiver Chad Hansen, who had five catches for 101 yards. Perhaps Watson is just so good that it doesn’t matter who his receivers are.
But without the removal of O’Brien, there’s a chance that Coutee never gets out of the doghouse, and never has another opportunity to dominate the Colts and prove his worth to the Texans. With Fuller on a contract year and Cooks left with no guaranteed money on his deal, there is room for Coutee to hold down a field-stretching, playmaking role for the Texans, if he continues to perform with high volume over the next few weeks.
It is a small chance, and even if Coutee hits, maybe it’s a small bonus, but when O’Brien’s firing came after just four weeks of the season, many wondered what the benefit was of firing a coach so early into the season. Players like Coutee are the benefit. The Texans, out of the playoff hunt but still playing solid football since O’Brien’s departure, have been free to experiment with young players as they stared down a multi-year rebuild with no immediate draft capital to help. In recent weeks, they’ve turned to Jordan Akins over Darren Fells and gotten Jonathan Greenard and Ross Blacklock on the field more.
O’Brien no longer lords over the roster, and with him went his doghouse. All of a sudden, Coutee has the health and the freedom to do what the Texans drafted him to do: make big plays.
- Sep 29, 2022
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