Larry Izzo. Mike Vrabel. Romeo Crennel. Bill O’Brien. This group has more in common than just being part of the Houston Texans coaching staff.
They all cut their teeth as members of the New England Patriots organization, whether as players or assistants on the sideline.
Izzo and Vrabel both exemplified the “Patriot way” with their commitment on the field and dynamic playmaking ability. Crennel and O’Brien each used stints as a New England coordinator to rise to head coaching positions.
On Saturday, they’ll all return to the stadium that set the foundation for their coaching careers, hoping for a better result than the 27-0 starching they suffered the last time these teams met in Week 3 of the regular season.
Leading the way: Bill O’Brien
At the top of the pyramid is O’Brien, who parlayed five years in New England, including one as the team’s offensive coordinator, into the head coaching role at Penn State. His work rebuilding a program torn apart by past scandals led him to the big job in Houston, where he’s guided the team to three straight winning seasons and two AFC South championships.
But he hasn’t had much success against his former mentor. O’Brien is 0-2 against the Patriots as a head coach, and his team has yet to score a touchdown against Belichick.
Man behind the league’s top defense: Romeo Crennel
Behind him is Crennel, an effective defensive coordinator who has struggled when given free rein on the sideline. Crennel built his name over four seasons as New England’s DC and won three Super Bowls before earning a promotion with the Cleveland Browns. That kicked off a lackluster career as a top guy; he’s only gone 28-55 as a head coach. Still, he’s proved his defensive chops are up to par by guiding the league’s top defense in 2016.
Crennel reflected on his time in New England earlier in the week, praising Belichick’s work ethic and passion.
"When we were with the Giants, we used to play racquetball together," Crennel told SB Nation’s Thomas George. "You learn a lot about a guy when you actually play against him in a sport like that. You learn about his mental toughness and how he appreciates competition.
"Our relationship has always been good. We don’t talk on the phone every day. But we share football, the passion for it. I respect his career, how he started working for nothing and doing everything he could to work his way up the ladder. I respect what he has accomplished. I would guess he probably feels the same way about me.”
A rising coaching star: Mike Vrabel
The pair is flanked by two assistants who were on-field standouts for Bill Belichick. Vrabel, Houston’s linebackers coach, came to New England as one of the franchise’s low-risk veteran signings then blossomed into a first-team All-Pro in Foxborough. The dynamic linebacker wasn’t just a run-stopping playmaker, either. He also showcased Belichick’s unorthodox play calling by making 10 receptions — all for touchdowns — over his 14-year career.
Vrabel is now a rising star in the coaching world. Before the Los Angeles Rams hired Sean McVay to replace Jeff Fisher as head coach, Vrabel was set to meet with the team. He also was offered the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator role last January, but he wisely turned down the opportunity to lead a 2-14 franchise.
The special teams ace: Larry Izzo
Finally, Izzo joined forces with Vrabel in New England in 2001 and made his mark as a specialist. He was named to three All-Pro teams and currently handles special teams coordinator duties in Texas. As a 5’10 linebacker, his career has been based on technique and hustle — two things that made him a Belichick favorite and a natural fit on the Texans coaching staff.
The first time these two teams met, the Texans’ special teams miscues — two fumbled kick returns — gave the Patriots a short field to work with and led to touchdowns.
Still, the Texans unit has made strides this season.
“I think we have gotten better on special teams,” O’Brien said earlier in the week. “I don’t think it’s been perfect. I think that we need to keep continuing to improve every day especially this week.”
The links between New England and Houston don’t stop there. Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey was an assistant under O’Brien with the Patriots in 2011 and then coached tight ends the next two seasons.
On the field, the man anchoring the middle of the Texans’ defensive line is Vince Wilfork, a tackle who made five Pro Bowl appearances in an 11-year career with the Patriots.
But Houston’s quest to be the Patriots of the AFC South hasn’t paid dividends just yet. Despite having one of the league’s toughest defenses — even without J.J. Watt for most of 2016 — the Texans have yet to win more than nine games in a season under O’Brien. Part of that problem can be traced to the team’s issues behind center.
O’Brien has employed a laundry list of mediocre-to-bad quarterbacks over his tenure in Texas, a far cry from the stability Tom Brady has brought the Pats. In three years, he’s turned to Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Case Keenum as starters.
That’s prevented the franchise from being a true Patriots clone — and a potential look at what New England could be without a steady hand running the offense. The teacher can become the master Saturday if Belichick’s disciplines can find a way to defeat their old boss. However, given this weekend’s historically long odds, a win might not be in the books for Houston’s Patriots-lite staff.