Bill O'Brien now has pieces in place to take Texans to next level

HOUSTON -- Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien was clear about one thing in his end-of-season news conference: Whoever replaces Rick Smith as general manager needed to be "aligned philosophically on what type of team" he and owner Bob McNair are trying to build.

With a five-year contract extension for himself and a new general manager in Brian Gaine, O'Brien now has the pieces in place to get Houston to take a step further than three 9-7 seasons: a quarterback in Deshaun Watson, a general manager who presumably shares his vision for the future and, now, job security. While there are still holes on the team, O'Brien has the tools around him that he thinks he needs to succeed. And the team's ownership is banking on that.

There were many reports of tension between O'Brien and Smith, and while both downplayed the toxicity of their relationship, the two had their share of disagreements over the past three seasons.

O'Brien was part of a search team for Houston's next general manager, along with McNair, vice chairman Cal McNair and team president Jamey Rootes. Head coaches do not often get a huge say in choosing a general manager, so the McNairs clearly value O'Brien's opinion and saw him as part of the team's future.

By hiring Gaine, the Texans added a man familiar with the organization and O'Brien. In his end-of-season news conference, O'Brien said he holds Gaine "in high regard." Gaine spent three seasons in Houston after Smith hired him in 2014, before leaving to become the Buffalo Bills' vice president of player personnel in May 2017.

O'Brien led the Texans to 9-7 records in each of his first three seasons, including division titles in 2015 and 2016, before the team fell to 4-12 in 2017. O'Brien and the Texans had that success from 2014-16 despite not having a true franchise quarterback.

Despite the fact that O'Brien is coming off a disappointing season in 2017, McNair signed him to an extension in part because of the success he and Watson had in the seven games before the rookie tore the ACL in his right leg. Watson was having a historic season and was on pace to shatter the record for most passing touchdowns by a quarterback in his first season. At the time of his injury, Watson was tied with Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz with 19 passing touchdowns.

If O'Brien and the Texans had not shown improvement in the passing game, he might not have been given the chance to stick around in Houston. But he got his quarterback, finally, and showed what his offense is capable of with a good one.

The Texans are built to win now but have holes, and now Gaine, with input from O'Brien and McNair, is tasked with finding how to address those needs this offseason. Right now, the Texans do not have a first- or second-round pick, so the team likely will focus on free agency to improve for 2018. The Texans have plenty of cap space available, so they can be aggressive in free agency, unlike last offseason.

Gaine's first challenge: Use that cap space well. Along with filling holes on the offensive line and in the secondary, the Texans likely will have to find a way to pay defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. Gaine will need to balance Clowney's contract with J.J. Watt's while still addressing those holes on both sides of the ball.

The Texans went 9-7 for three years without a quarterback and took a step back when their franchise quarterback got hurt midway through the season. The team is close, but it's up to Gaine and O'Brien to repay the McNairs' faith in them and put the finishing touches on a team that, when healthy, can be among the best in the AFC.