HOUSTON -- The quizzes began early.
Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien and offensive coordinator George Godsey sent Brock Osweiler to the front of the team meeting room to stand on stage with five linemen during the first week of the team's offseason program. The offensive players he would soon lead sat in oversized office chairs behind rows of ascending desks. Oversized game photos adorned the walls on either side.
Godsey and O'Brien called out a play, and the dress rehearsal began. Osweiler barked out cadences for the room to hear, just like he would in a game. When he got it wrong, good-natured cat calls followed. But he didn't get it wrong often.
"I remember the first time that we did it, which was at the beginning," Texans coach Bill O'Brien said. "He had it."
Most of the time, Osweiler's response showed a mastery of the four pages of cadences he had been asked to learn before he set foot in the building for offseason meetings. Most of the time, Osweiler showed his commitment to the great expectations facing him.
It has to work. The Texans are counting on him. The fates of general manager Rick Smith and O'Brien are tied to Osweiler -- to whom they paid $37 million guaranteed and $72 million over four seasons -- whether their owner admits it or not. And Osweiler is counting on himself. He brims with confidence that he'll bring the Texans exactly what they need to give their superlative defense a worthy complement.
"It's exciting. It's a new challenge," Osweiler said. "It's something to wake up for and chase after, just to learn this new offense. ... That's the playbook, that's getting to know your teammates. Understanding the ins and the outs and the operation and style of this building and how our strength staff operates.
"It's like the first day of school and going to a new school. Who's going to be my new best friend? What's our teacher like? I can't wait to see the playground, maybe our weight room and cafeteria."
To make this work, Osweiler has to know everything about the Texans' offense. He has to master the contents of a 4-inch-thick binder that is the work of generations of brilliant coaching minds. That process began as soon as he walked out of the building for the first time March 10, armed with a tablet filled with film and terminology. It continued on a field at Arizona State, where his new teammates joined him. It crystallized over weeks of study in the facility during the Texans' offseason program and in his office at his new Houston-area home.
Indoor and outdoor learning
That first day marked a rare time that Osweiler followed instead of led.
"This is where we sit," a fellow quarterback told him. Osweiler followed his backups, Tom Savage and Brandon Weeden, into their unassigned seating arrangement in the team meeting room. It ensured that the receivers, including Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, sat right behind him.
By then, Osweiler had memorized the "basic information" section of the Texans' playbook, which includes four pages of cadences, and also huddle instructions, explanations of how the play is called, personnel groupings, the names of motions and shifts, and defensive terminology. The most extensive part of the playbook's opening section explains all the Texans' formations. It's 18 pages.
"If you asked a player, that's probably one of the hardest things to learn," O'Brien said. "We probably have more formations than most any offense."
They don't expect to spend more than a week on that.
"It's like the first day of school and going to a new school. Who's going to be my new best friend? What's our teacher like? I can't wait to see the playground, maybe our weight room and cafeteria."Brock Osweiler
Since he signed March 10, Osweiler set daily goals for himself. One day, he challenged himself to learn all the Texans' cadences. Another day, he tried to learn all the "empty" formations. He would say a formation's name out loud, then draw it until he got it right.
The receivers showed up in late March on Osweiler's invitation to Arizona State, as did Savage. They ran routes, and he threw to them. Sometimes, they taught Osweiler a route signal, then surprised him later with a quiz.
What's the signal for a quick out?
What's the signal for an in-cut from the slot?
"He was like a student from the jump," receiver Cecil Shorts said. "Very professional. I can see what he learned from 18 [Peyton Manning]."
Those extra sessions continued in Houston. Even when throwing at the Texans' facility wasn't allowed, the group would get together somewhere off-site. Once the offseason program began April 20, finally Godsey and O'Brien could help.
"One thing that we've learned as coaches: We're teachers," O'Brien said. "He's the quarterback. If I'm just talking to him, eventually they'll just see my mouth moving. Blah blah blah. We want them to get up there and actually do it."
The coaches had Osweiler draw formations on a board in the Texans' quarterback room, an often dimly lit space with walls covered completely in whiteboard. They showed a cut-up of film from one of the past seven years and asked Osweiler to identify the protection and middle linebacker.
In the team meeting room, they practiced the cadences on stage. They asked Osweiler to explain what he expected from his teammates and from a defense on certain plays. Whereas last year's starting quarterback, Brian Hoyer, might have given a less robust answer, Osweiler sometimes stood up, his 6-foot-7 frame overpowering the room, and verbally diagrammed an entire play. Sometimes in team meetings, he closed his eyes to imagine the play unfolding.
"If he sees something that he knows he can help us out with, then he'll speak out," Hopkins said. "He's not the QB that's going to hold his opinion."
Sometimes he turned around to Hopkins, who sat behind him, just above his left shoulder.
"There'll be times where he'll probably say, 'Hey, Brock, I need you to do this for me,' or I'll say, 'Hey, Hop, I need you to do this for me,'" Osweiler said. "But for the most part it's, 'Hey, Hop, what'd you see there?' or 'Hey, Brock, what'd you see there?' ... We work together, and it's a partnership."
It's also a partnership between Osweiler and the coaching staff. They want to call the plays the quarterback is most comfortable with, so they'll sometimes alter details to suit him.
"I see him as a colleague, and so we talk about things to, one, help him understand where this word or what the genesis of the term or situation we're in," Godsey said. "But there's also a little bit of information I'm receiving from him that may enhance our own particular way of calling things. That I enjoy."
When the on-field work began in organized team activities, Osweiler tested himself. He could see the offense he studied so long unfold. He could make the mistakes he hoped to not repeat in games, then talk with his teammates in the field about them.
He had good days and bad days. During one practice, he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and he chased the defensive back all the way to the other end zone. What was important then -- and will still be important in training camp -- is that he's learning.
OTA days ended around 3 p.m., and Osweiler often stayed later to watch that day's practice film. Each night, he went home to study for the next day's practice. When he felt comfortable with what he learned, usually between 8 and 9 p.m., he called for his wife, Erin.
"For a rookie quarterback to come in and be able to run this offense would be extremely difficult. First of all, they're getting adjusted to pro football. The time, totally different. From 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night, it's all football." Bill O'Brien
"My wife will act as the offensive coordinator at times during the evening," Osweiler said. "I'll have her read the full play to me. I'll sit there and try to picture it, spit it back out to her, make sure I'm verbalizing it the right way so that when I step into the huddle the next day in practice, things are coming out clear."
"For a rookie quarterback to come in and be able to run this offense would be extremely difficult," O'Brien says. "First of all, they're getting adjusted to pro football. The time, totally different. From 7:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night, it's all football. They have to get adjusted to that, get adjusted to a new city.
"Then they have to learn this. Some colleges don't even have a playbook."
Sitting in the quarterbacks room, wearing Texans warm-ups, O'Brien lifts a copy of the Texans' playbook and flips through the pages to emphasize their number. This is the physical version of the digital playbook Osweiler and his teammates have.
Colorful tabs separate the pages in the binder that holds a playbook whose roots go all the way back to Ron Erhardt, the offensive coordinator who helped Bill Parcells win two Super Bowls. It passed down to Bill Belichick, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and O'Brien, among others. Now Godsey is adding to it. One personnel grouping is named "Detroit" because Belichick concocted it while coaching in Detroit. There are others created for former Patriots players. In their first season with the Texans, O'Brien and his staff added a personnel grouping that could get running back Arian Foster on the field as a receiver.
It makes for a complex system designed to maximize a team's roster. It also gives the quarterback near complete control at the line of scrimmage. That means he has to know the offense so well that, ideally -- and it's a lofty ideal -- he never runs a bad play.
Gary Kubiak, the Broncos head coach since 2015, runs a more streamlined offense, with less complication at the line of scrimmage. The quarterbacks in his system typically have less responsibility before the snap.
But the Texans' playbook is not completely foreign to Osweiler. The Broncos drafted him in 2012, a season after McDaniels was fired as their head coach, and some similarities remained with coordinator Mike McCoy and then-quarterbacks coach Adam Gase, both of whom worked under McDaniels.
It might have been too much for a rookie. That's part of the reason the Texans were delighted when that rare thing happened: A veteran quarterback they liked hit the market.
So far, Osweiler has rewarded their faith, but the quizzes aren't over yet.