On a sweltering June afternoon, Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien entered the tent of the makeshift interview area following another minicamp session readying himself for the only thing more standard, more positively Houston in June than the Texas heat — questions about his team’s quarterback position.
Dutifully, O’Brien laid out the state of the Texans’ quarterback union, as he has in nearly every discussion with the media since Brock Osweiler, last season’s failed $37 million experiment, was jettisoned to Cleveland back in March.
“I think it’s a very competitive roster,” O’Brien said. “I think that Tom [Savage] is the No. 1 quarterback, and I think that [Brandon] Weeden and Deshaun [Watson] have made Tom better, and vice-versa. I think the quarterback play this spring has been very, very good with all of the things that have been thrown at us, and I think it’s been good relative to the stages of their careers that they’re at.”
Since arriving in 2014, O’Brien has entered seasons with open quarterback competitions and with anointed starters. The football gods have thrown every QB curveball imaginable at the fourth-year head coach. However, as well ordered as he tries to portray this season’s depth chart — Savage, the clear No. 1, followed by some permutation of the veteran Weeden and the rookie Watson — 2017 may carry the most intrigue of any quarterback competition O’Brien has overseen so far. Yes, Savage is listed as the starter. However, the drumbeat from restless Texans fans clamoring to promote Watson, the most exciting draft choice in team history, will thump louder and louder with each Savage mistake in August and September.
And for good reason. After all, just who is Tom Savage, anyway? Three seasons, two starts, zero career touchdown passes — the forensics on Savage’s career statistics tell the story of a third-day draft choice who’s largely been an NFL afterthought, which is logical since that’s exactly what Tom Savage has been since arriving in Houston with his other draft classmates in 2014. That season, Savage was a rookie just trying to survive in the league. In 2015 he was the third wheel in the Brian Hoyer-Ryan Mallett QB derby. Most recently, in 2016, he had the best seat in the house for the abomination that was the Brock Osweiler era.
In most NFL cities, chops like these would relegate the player to reps with the second and third stringers throughout training camp. However, in Houston, where the quarterback position has been a black hole of football death since 2013, Savage’s status as last man standing in a three-year battle royal of ineptitude in which the participants have been tossing themselves over the top rope has been enough for him to attain “unquestioned starter” status for the Texans heading into 2017.
When we last saw Savage on an NFL field, he was in familiar territory — he was getting examined by team physicians for an injury sustained while executing a garden-variety quarterback sneak. He would be diagnosed with a concussion and put into the concussion protocol program, his 2016 season essentially over after two starts. Indeed, as troublesome as any nuance that comes with Savage, he has as many season-ending injuries in his NFL career as he has seasons, and as many concussions as he has wins as a starter.
When you ask Texans head coach Bill O’Brien about Savage as the starter, almost as if he’s trying to convince himself this is real, he actually cites completion percentages from unpadded practices: “[Savage] has thrown for I think 66 percent in the spring here — which I know it’s OTAs, no pads. I know relative to OTAs that’s a pretty good percentage with the team and the seven-on-sevens.”
When you ask wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins about Savage, he actually says that Savage has “earned” the starting role, despite his starting just two very pedestrian games in three years: “Now that [Savage is] in that role, it’s no surprise to anybody on this field that he deserves that role. He has earned it, not just from playing but from the chemistry he has built in the locker room with everybody.”
Not just from playing, DeAndre? How about not so much from playing?
You see, for all the inconceivably horrific acts that Brock Osweiler committed on an NFL field last season, perhaps the most remarkable byproduct of his football atrocities is that he set the QB bar so low here that otherwise intelligent human beings — like Bill O’Brien and DeAndre Hopkins — are blindly acting as if Tom Savage has been an NFL starter for two seasons, not just two games.
The good news for Texans fans is that amid all the self-convincing Savage’s coaches and teammates seem to be doing that he can capably steer the ship in 2017, in spite of what history says about a quarterback with Savage’s career profile, there is a realization that he isn’t the long-term solution. Enter Watson, the former Clemson signal caller, a national champion in college, and the first quarterback in whom the Texans have invested significant draft capital — two first-round picks, the 12th overall pick in 2017 and their 2018 first-round pick to move up to the 12th spot — since David Carr.
The Texans’ love affair with Watson reportedly began the night he stole the national championship from Alabama, marching the Clemson Tigers down the field in the final two minutes of the title game, down the throat of the best defense college football had seen in two decades. It culminated in April, with Texans general manager Rick Smith gutting next season’s draft to move up and take Watson on draft night.
Since arriving, Watson has predictably done and said all the right things. When asked about being the backup, Watson shrugs it off as part of the process. “I always have that mentality that I have to prove myself each and every day, he said. “So, regardless of where I’m at or what position or what’s going to happen, I’m always going to try to improve and get better.”
O’Brien, as he often does with rookies, buries most of the praise for Watson in a stew of collective praise for the entire position group. “They’re all my guys. Now, some of them may not agree with that. ‘I don’t know if I’m his guy,’ or whatever,” O’Brien declared. “With Brandon being the oldest guy and Tom being in his fourth year now. Deshaun’s been very impressive relative to being a rookie, so it’s a competitive position. Tom’s No. 1. He knows, like I said from day one, he’s got to earn it every day. That’s the type of roster that we have.”
“He’s a rookie. He hasn’t put on any pads yet. How I define a quarterback isn’t necessarily what you guys would. What you go out there and do on that field, you got to prove it to me,” Hopkins said, somewhat ironically, given his declaration that Savage had “earned” the starting job, with hardly any game-day experience.
Outside of the coach-speak and brake-pumping of Texans training camp, the most educated, poignant opinion on Watson can be obtained in talking to his college head coach, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, who’s compared Watson to none other than Michael Jordan. Swinney thinks Watson and the Texans are perfect for one another.
“This is just ideal. It’s just ideal. It’s so rare that a quarterback gets the chance to go to a playoff team where there is no established starter,” said Swinney, who obviously hasn’t gotten the memo that this is Savage’s team. “It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s got a strong structure. There is a good culture and a good organization in place there in Houston. I think O’Brien is a heck of a coach. I think it is the perfect fit and the perfect situation for him.”
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Then came the money shot from Swinney — “I think Houston just won a Super Bowl. I don’t know if it’s this year, next year or the next, but it’s coming. You can’t measure what he has.”
Barring some miraculous leap forward from Savage in 2017, the obvious assumption is that this is Watson’s team eventually, if not in 2017, then certainly next season. However, NFL fans don’t do “eventually” very well, especially when “previously” includes names like Fitzpatrick, Mallett, Hoyer and Osweiler. Last season, from a public perception standpoint, Savage benefitted from, above all else, being Brock Osweiler. As alarmingly inept as Osweiler was, his backup, whoever it was, was going to get a hero’s welcome when he entered the game. It just so happened that lucky individual was Tom Savage.
For Savage, though, those days are over. For Texans fans wanting the future to be now, wanting to see if Swinney’s prophecy is true, Deshaun Watson is now in Savage’s role from last season. Texans fans are probably not rooting for Savage to fail, but if he does, O’Brien will hear it, in the crowd, from the media, on talk radio. When it comes to quarterback upheaval, the murmur becomes a roar quickly.
Training camp begins July 26, and with each throw in practice and in preseason games, it will become more and more evident whether the number one next to Tom Savage’s name on the depth chart is etched in pencil or ink. Deshaun Watson’s coming, and the first NFL player who’s gonna try to stop him is his teammate — Tom Savage.