HOUSTON – Davis Mills was rifling passes and finding a rhythm against the Chicago Bears, connecting on intermediate throws to wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Nico Collins.
It was enough to get the Texans into the red zone in the first quarter a week ago. That’s when things unraveled as Mills forced a throw into traffic intended for Cooks, his favorite downfield target, and the deflected pass was intercepted by Bears safety Eddie Jackson in the end zone.
Within that drive and other key sequences at Soldier Field, Mills displayed a troubling tendency to commit critical mistakes as he uncorked the first of his two tipped interceptions during a 23-20 road loss. He also showed some subtle signs of improvement and boldness after playing conservatively in the first two games of the season.
Heading into the fourth game of the season Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers at NRG Stadium, Mills remains a work in progress as a young quarterback still developing and polishing his game.
He has displayed some flashes of potential, but he has also had his share of struggles for the 0-2-1 Texans as he has completed 57.9 percent of his throws, down from 66.8 percent as a rookie, for 662 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions for a pedestrian 77.7 quarterback rating.
It’s not as if Mills is the only player having issues. However, it’s the fourth quarter where the Texans have been outscored by a combined margin of 30-0 where he has really unraveled, completing just 13 of 25 passes for 124 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception for a 46.1 passer rating an average of 5.0 yards per attempt while being sacked four times with one lost fumble.
As the Texans evaluate whether Mills, a strong-armed former third-round draft pick from Stanford who had an encouraging rookie season, is their long-term answer at quarterback, he’s not consumed with the big picture. He’s focused on the next pass, the next practice, the next game. Thoughts of whether he’s doing enough to convince general manager Nick Caserio to not pursue a quarterback in free agency or a first-round draft pick on Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud or Alabama standout Bryce Young isn’t how Mills spends his time.
“There are pressures in being the starting quarterback,” Mills said. “I’m not looking that far ahead of it. I’m taking this really one practice at a time, one week at a time right now. I’m just going out there, putting my best foot forward each day for my teammates and trying to win games.”
Mills is 2-13-1 overall since his arrival in Houston, completing 64.87 percent of his career throws for 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for an 86.5 passer rating.
He’s a much different player altogether in home games than he is on the road.
In eight career games at NRG Stadium, Mills has completed 68.63 percent of his throws for 1,965 yards, 14 touchdowns, and one interception for a 108.0 passer rating.
On the road, in eight games, Mills has completed just 60.98 percent of his throws for 1,361 yards, five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions for a 64.1 passer rating.
“Not too much into that,” Texans coach Lovie Smith said when asked about the difference in Mills’ performances home and away. “For us, he’s played one home game and we as a team didn’t get the job done. There are some good things he did during that.
“I think it’s a small body of work to start writing things in ink right now. I’m anxious to see his second game at home and feed off of the energy from his home crowd. He made improvements this past week and I expect him to take another jump this week.”
The Texans decided not to draft a quarterback on the heels of Mills’ impressive finish to last season. He had a passer rating of 102.4 with 1,258 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and two interceptions in the final five games of his rookie year.
Mills wasn’t aware of the differential between home and road games.
“The biggest thing is that you’re you comfortable at home, you’ve played here before,” Mills said. “Don’t have to deal with the crowd noise on offense and that’s a big thing on the away games, just being able to communicate pre-snap and handle everything.
“You’re not surprised as much. I don’t think really the philosophy changes, obviously, we still have to protect the football. I didn’t know that stat was so lopsided, home and away, interception rate. My job stays the same, just got to execute at a high level regardless.”
That included engineering a victory over the Chargers as he completed a career-high 77.78 percent of his passes for 254 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions for a season-best 130.6 passer rating. He completed 21 of 27 passes.
“They certainly had opportunities to go in a different direction with that position,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said in a Zoom video call. “That they have really invested in their quarterback shows they have confidence in him. I think he’s definitely earning it. I think he’s an improving player in the league.
“I think he has good stature physically, he’s got poise. When I think of his game, he plays with a really good pace. He can see the game post-snap, which is something you must be able to do to be a good quarterback in this league. I think he’s accurate with the football. I think he can process the snap. He has a strong enough arm to access different parts of the field. I think he’s a guy who has command at the line of scrimmage. I think he’s an improving player and I think that’s evident on the field.”
The Chargers are 1-2, but have star quarterback Justin Herbert, wide receiver Mike Williams, safety Derwin James, cornerback J.C. Jackson and pass rusher Khalil Mack on the field for a banged-up team that lost offensive tackle Rashawn Slater and defensive end Joey Bosa this year to injuries that forced them onto injured reserve.
Mills has become a popular target for criticism, but not inside the Texans’ locker room where he has support.
“Davis knows what he has to get done,” offensive tackle Tytus Howard said. “And we know as an offensive line, as receivers, as running backs what we need to get done. It’s not all on him, it’s on all of us. So, him receiving a lot of criticism, it’s unfair, but it’s part of the business. We just have to get the job done.”
Mills ranks 30th in the league with a 27.1 total quarterback rating. On third downs, he has completed just 14 of 30 passes (46.67 percent) for 147 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception for a 47.5 passer rating.
Mills and Cooks were in sync a year ago as Cooks caught 90 passes for 1,037 yards and six touchdowns on 134 targets. This season, Cooks has 13 catches for 158 yards and no scores on 29 targets with three dropped passes.
“Personally, just from myself and with us in pass catching with Davis, we’ve got some things to clean up,” Cooks said. “We can be better, absolutely. I look in the mirror at myself and I can be better.”
“If every person can do that and bring that collectively, I think that’s going to help us really get on the same page, with all of us actually.”
Mills did a few subtle things better against the Bears, pushing the ball down the field more than he had in previous games. He had some success spreading the football around, including a long completion to wide receiver Chris Moore and throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Akins.
“Pocket presence,” Smith said. “He had a couple of interceptions on tipped balls. A lot of the time it just goes to the quarterback. It’s a lot more than that. So from us and our evaluation with every play he’s made, he’s making progress.”
The Texans are trying to establish an offensive identity as a run-first team to set up the pass.
That doesn’t require a ton from Mills. He’s not being asked to carry the team by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but he is being asked to not commit mistakes.
“I think it’s synced up pretty well for the most part,” Mills said. “I think as an offense, now we’re running it. They don’t put a ton on the quarterback, so I don’t need to go out there and confuse myself and try to see too much. I need to see what I need to see. That’s pretty much it.
“Pep always says, ‘See a little, see a lot. If you see a lot, you don’t see anything at all. Going out there and being efficient with what I need to look at. I think we’re in a good spot right now. We’ve just got to keep progressing the way it is.”
The Texans are remaining patient with Mills. As a rebuilding franchise, that’s the smart play. And Mills remains a young quarterback with a limited amount of games under his belt.
“Technically, he’s not really a sophomore,” Hamilton said. “He’s still learning on the job. You can’t teach experience. We recognize that there’s a reason that he’s our starting quarterback and that goes for every position on the offense. We feel like he can do the job. We’ll all get better at being more consistent at doing our jobs.”
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com