Thirteen months ago, the quarterback conundrum for the Houston Texans was supposed to have finally been resolved. Sparing no expense, owner Bob McNair committed $37 million in guaranteed money to free agent Brock Osweiler, and with one signature, the Texans were supposed to have found their guy, the apple of general manager Rick Smith’s and head coach Bill O’Brien’s eye.
Sadly, we all know the end result of the Osweiler experiment. The Texans ejected one year into Osweiler’s four-year contract, making the unprecedented move of actually including a second-round pick with the ostracized signal caller in a deal with Cleveland just so the Browns would take him off their hands. Say what you will about Matt Schaub, Texans fans, but at least the Texans traded two second-round picks to Atlanta in exchange for him, not stapled to him just so he would go away.
So here we are again, in an annual tradition we’d all love to see disappear, discussing how the Texans fix their starting quarterback position, which according to the so-called experts is the main flaw that separates them from fringe Super Bowl contention. Indeed, having cycled through eight different starting quarterbacks in O’Brien’s three seasons as head coach, the Texans’ quarterback position is the Highway 290 of the NFL — a head-scratching, anger-inducing, borderline disaster area that is constantly under construction.
The difference between this year’s renewed attempt to build something resembling a future and years past is that O’Brien himself is at a crossroads as head coach of the football team. On the one hand, he has finished 9-7 each season and won two division titles. On the other, the purported offensive guru has trotted out offenses that have gotten progressively worse each season, with last year’s offense scoring the fewest touchdowns of any playoff team in the modern era. Patience among fans is wearing thin, especially on the heels of the Osweiler catastrophe.
So with the 2017 NFL Draft set to kick off Thursday night, April 27, let’s examine the three most important questions about the NFL’s most important position as it pertains to the Texans:
After waiting out Tony Romo into retirement and reportedly flirting a bit with Jay Cutler, the Texans will enter training camp with Tom Savage listed first on the depth chart. Certainly, the fact that Savage was one of just four players made available to the media when workouts began last week would seem to indicate that he’s their guy, for now.
Savage was a fourth-round draft pick in O’Brien’s first year as head coach in 2014. Normally, when a quarterback is entering his fourth season in the league and has ascended to the understood starting role for his team, it means his continued on-field performance has gradually put him there. For Savage, this wasn’t the case at all. Instead, he’s basically the last man standing in what’s been a three-year war of attrition at the position, with seven other quarterbacks starting at least one game in that time frame, and Savage himself starting just two and appearing in just four.
For a guy who has yet to throw an NFL touchdown pass as he enters his fourth year, Savage does elicit confidence in his teammates, though. “The kid is a go-getter,” said wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who is actually two years younger than the “kid” Savage. “He doesn’t quit. He was out there being a leader even though he hasn’t played many snaps in this league. Even on the sideline last year at games, he was out there helping the quarterbacks, helping us, helping the tight ends. Just being active throughout even though he wasn’t starting.”
It’s a bit ironic that Savage wound up a starting NFL quarterback by hanging around for three seasons while others fell by the wayside, given that his college career involved multiple transfers to find his ideal collegiate home, eventually finishing up at the University of Pittsburgh. “I bounced around quite a bit in college, and I think a lot of that journey kind of made me who I am today and just going forward,” Savage reflected. “This is a heck of an opportunity and I’m really pumped for it. Like I said, I have to go out there every day and earn it. That’s kind of the mind-set that was instilled in me throughout this whole process.”
During Rick Smith’s tenure as general manager, it’s almost as if the Texans have suffered from an allergy that prevents them from investing significant draft capital in a quarterback. Since the 2007 draft, Smith’s first as the man in charge for the Texans, only eight teams have refrained from investing a pick in the first three rounds of a draft in a quarterback. Five of them — San Diego, the New York Giants, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Chicago — have had franchise quarterbacks virtually that entire time, and the other two — Kansas City and Arizona — have been largely successful teams during that period. They have reasonable excuses.
The Texans, on the other hand, really have no excuse for their neglect of football’s most important position. Savage (2014, 4th round), T.J. Yates (2011, 5th round) and Alex Brink (2008, 7th round) are the only quarterbacks drafted by Rick Smith. That’s beyond reprehensible. Suffice it to say, that change this year, even in the face of whatever outward confidence the coaching staff professes to have in Savage.
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That said, as proud as O’Brien was to win the AFC South and win a playoff game in 2016, the downside to those accomplishments is they place the Texans in a draft slot, 25th overall, that makes selecting one of the top quarterbacks in this class nearly impossible without trading up. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes are the two biggest names to have visited the Texans at NRG Stadium over the last week or so (a key indicator that there is a “love connection”), but both are expected to be selected well before the 25th pick rolls around. Barring a trade-up, it’s more likely the Texans wait until the second or third round and take the best quarterback available from a gaggle that could include Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Pitt’s Nathan Peterman or Cal’s Davis Webb.
At this point, the only thing we know for certain about O’Brien’s future with the Texans is that he has two years remaining on his original five-year contract that he signed back in January of 2014. Beyond that, we are left with murky, unsubstantiated rumors of O’Brien’s possible discontent in working with Smith, whose contractual situation long-term is certainly more stable than O’Brien’s — Smith signed a four-year extension last offseason.
If there are any tea leaves to be read after this weekend, they would exist only in extreme situations. For example, according to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, O’Brien loves Mahomes as a prospect, so if the Texans were to make a big move to secure the former Texas Tech signal caller, that would seem to be a good sign for O’Brien. Conversely, if the Texans buck conventional wisdom and draft a late-round prospect at quarterback (or draft no quarterback at all), that might be a sign that management has decided to wait until 2018 for a possible offensive reboot, a seemingly bad indicator for O’Brien.
Coaching futures, draft conjecture, forecasting when Tom Savage will finally throw an NFL touchdown pass — it’s all speculative this time of year. For now, all Texans fans can do is hope, hope that 2017 is the end of the annual column about the Texans’ finding a quarterback, that they find their man in this year’s draft. Or at least before the city finishes up the rebuild of Highway 290.