In today’s National Football League, by and large, your team is only as good, and most certainly as bad, as its quarterback play. So after enduring a three-year quarterback hell that began with a mountain of Matt Schaub pick-sixes in 2013, continued with a coaching change that begat seven — seven! — different quarterbacks over the next two seasons, and ended buried beneath four Brian Hoyer interceptions in a 30-0 playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in January, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair had seen enough.
He’d seen enough of his head coach and general manager shying away from a bold move for a quarterback, enough of the cobbling together of the most important position in team sports with retread after retread, enough Brian Hoyer and the like. It was time for the Texans to swing for the fences and identify a real future at quarterback, and to that end, General Manager Rick Smith promised his boss he would hit a home run.
“We said we were going to get a quarterback and Rick said, ‘I’m going to get you a quarterback. Regardless as to where he might come from, we’re going to get you a quarterback,’” McNair recalled.
And so it came to pass that on March 9, the Houston Texans put on their big-boy pants and made the Bayou City the epicenter of the football world, something that previously had happened only the three times that the Texans were picking first in the draft (or when J.J. Watt is miked up), by plucking quarterback Brock Osweiler away from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos and, ironically, former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak. Osweiler’s contract with the Texans is a four-year deal worth $72 million, $37 million of which is guaranteed, the going rate for competence at the game’s most important position.
While most experts saw the Texans as one of the prime shoppers for a rookie quarterback in the upcoming NFL draft, Smith and Texans head coach Bill O’Brien were busy doing their private due diligence on Osweiler, watching every single one of his throws from all seven of his career starts, a relatively small sample space in which the fourth-year signal caller went a respectable 5-2, including a win over the Patriots, an accomplishment that’s evaded the Texans in recent years.
“You know we watched all [of Brock’s] snaps, from the time he’s been in the league to where we are today,” said O’Brien. “I wouldn’t say that there was one game that stood out; it was just some things that you’ve been doing for a while — you’ve been coaching that position for a while, you see some things on tape that stand out to you that you’ve seen before that are good.”
However, unlike the scouting of rookie quarterbacks, a process in which teams get multiple interviews and hours of face time with prospects, the recruiting of free agents is more of a leap of faith when it comes to intangibles and personalities. Tampering rules prevent most interaction, so teams rely on previous encounters, past intelligence and scuttlebutt from around the league. Osweiler graded high in all of those areas.
“Brock is so hungry,” recalls former Texans and Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen, a former teammate of Osweiler’s. “Brock was one of those guys; as a rookie, if he sat and had lunch with a veteran guy, he was asking a thousand questions. He wants to win, do the right thing, and he works at it. He has all the intangibles.”
Osweiler will enter training camp as the Texans’ unquestioned starter at quarterback, as he should. The last time that the Texans had a capable, established starter was in 2012, back when Schaub was still under center and his quarterbacking soul had not yet become possessed by interception demons. Back then, the team’s modus operandi at the position was to invest very little draft equity in backups or developmental quarterbacks, seemingly as a way for Schaub to operate pressure-free with no need to look over his shoulder. Ultimately, putting virtually every QB chip in the “Schaub basket” doomed the Texans, doomed them straight to hell with a 2-14 record in 2013.
So while the Texans felt like big winners a couple of weeks ago in signing Osweiler, success with him is far from a guarantee. Good quarterbacks rarely change teams in free agency, which is why the overpriced free agent QB graveyard is full of Neil O’Donnells and Scott Mitchells, proof that the blueprint off of which the Texans are now working oftentimes looks great on paper but ends horrifically.
Osweiler’s failing is an absolute possibility, which is why the Texans should continue to treat the quarterback position as a need in the upcoming draft, maybe not in the first few rounds, but in the middle and late rounds, for sure. They cannot create the same cushy lair for Osweiler that Kubiak did for Schaub a few years ago. Instead, if their draft board says the best player available is a quarterback from, say, the third round on, then take him.
This type of vigilance and steadfastness in drafting is how the Seahawks wound up with Russell Wilson in 2012. After signing free agent quarterback Matt Flynn to a $9 million-per-year deal that spring, the Seahawks still used a third-round pick on Wilson that April. Four seasons later, it’s Wilson who has won a Super Bowl and evolved into one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
This draft class has a few names that could be available for the Texans in a spot similar to where the Seahawks nabbed Wilson in the draft, names that could provide competition for projected backup Tim Savage and develop into valuable assets, much the way Osweiler did behind Peyton Manning in Denver.
If you’re looking for a few names for each round, here they are (with height, weight, projected round taken courtesy of NFLDraft-Scout.com, and brief scouting reports from Texans draft analyst John Harris in quotes):
• Christian Hackenberg, Penn State (6-4, 223, 2nd-3rd round): “Perhaps the most polarizing prospect in this quarterback class as he struggled often in his last two years at Penn State. His mechanics, footwork and timing seemed to be well off from what it was as a freshman in his one season under Bill O’Brien. That said, he has more ‘next level’ gifts than any player in this draft-eligible class. Tough kid who took a ton of shots the past two seasons.”
• Dak Prescott, Mississippi State (6-2, 226, 3rd-4th round): “His DUI is too painful to discuss, and I have no clue as to what this means to his draft stock. He’d been my guy up until he was arrested. I would tell you about his decision making and toughness, but the arrest unfortunately contradicts all that I’d say.” [NOTE: Prescott was arrested for DUI in Starkville, Mississippi, on March 12, which likely takes him off the Texans’ board, but if there’s a quarterback with Wilson-like on-field qualities, it’s Prescott.]
• Jacoby Brissett, North Carolina State (6-4, 231, 5th round): “Big dude with a big arm who had to create much of the offense at State. He didn’t get a ton of protection, and I saw games where he ran for [his] ever-loving life. Without question, he has physical tools and a plus arm, but he’ll take some time to grow, similar to most rookie quarterbacks selected beyond the top quarterbacks.”
• Kevin Hogan, Stanford (6-3, 218, 6th round): “I’m on an upswing with Hogan now; I’d draft him on Day Three. His arm motion is excruciatingly elongated but he knows the game. He knows where to throw it and it gets there. He’s tough and he’s a quality leader. He may not ever be a Pro Bowler, but I could see him starting a few years down the road.”
• Jeff Driskel, Louisiana Tech (6-4, 234, 7th round): “At Florida, he was handcuffed by an offense that was supposed to just stay out of the way. At Louisiana Tech, he was able to grow as a passer, and as the game slowed down, he consistently threw it better and better. He’s not without flaws, but he’s been through adversity and learned what it takes to get through it and thrive. Love the size, arm and physical tools, and the fact that he had to fight through his college football life was hugely valuable.”
Smith, for his part, claims the Texans will still go with the “best player available” approach in the draft. “Having [Brock], having the running back position solidified [by signing Lamar Miller away from the Dolphins], having those places on the offensive line solidified really gives us an opportunity to stick to our guns in terms of how we philosophically approach the draft, and we will take the best player at the time that we’re on the clock,” Smith said. Presumably, Smith is considering quarterbacks as football players.
Over his best four seasons, 2009 through 2012, Schaub averaged nearly 4,000 yards passing, completed 65 percent of his passes and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of exactly 2-to-1. With the Texans’ defensive personnel, if Osweiler duplicates Schaub’s numbers, the Texans should win a lot of football games. Osweiler’s actually duplicating those numbers, though, is a gargantuan “if.”
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One thing is certain — Osweiler is being paid a salary that puts him in a territory that transcends mere “game manager” status. He will be asked, at some point, likely several points, to make plays to win games.
“My biggest thing is just coming in and doing my job to the best of my abilities, to put the football team in a position to be successful. Just don’t hurt the football team. I don’t think I need to come in and do anything special,” Osweiler said.
All due respect, Brock, the championship-starved city of Houston would beg to differ. Bob McNair is paying for special.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.