HOUSTON – The fine line between risk versus reward is one that Texans quarterback Davis Mills needs to walk more carefully.
Proof of that came in a reminder when the second-year starter was intercepted in the red zone during the fourth quarter of a loss to the New York Giants. The former Stanford quarterback was picked off by defensive back Dane Belton one play after a touchdown pass from Mills to wide receiver Brandin Cooks was nullified by a holding penalty on rookie guard Kenyon Green.
Then, Mills forced the football into traffic on a throw intended for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett. That turnover contributed to the 1-7-1 Texans’ latest loss, a 24-16 defeat at MetLife Stadium.
Despite the costly miscue and other similar performances from Mills in going 1 for 6 in the red zone, the Texans are sticking with the former third-round draft pick.
Texans coach Lovie Smith explained the reasoning, including Mills and the offense playing markedly better in the second half after an ugly first half.
“Because he gives us our best chance to win,” Smith said. “The confidence comes in that. Since he’s our starting quarterback, we’re going to have to be able to do that. We completed some balls. We didn’t punt the ball the second half. There are some good things we we’re able to do to.”
Mills’ regression from his rookie year, completing 62.4 percent of his throws, down from 66.8 percent accuracy as a rookie, passing for 1,975 yards, 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions for an 81.7 passer rating after an 88.8 rating last year with 2,664 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, raises big-picture questions that impact the entire franchise.
Should the Texans stay with Mills for the remainder of the season, that doesn’t decrease the likelihood that they draft a potential franchise quarterback such as Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Alabama’s Bryce Young.
Against an aggressive Giants defense quarterbacked by unpredictable defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, Mills passed for a season-high 319 yards, but had just 35 yards at halftime and looked hesitant on his throws during an underwhelming half.
The job doesn’t get any easier Sunday at NRG Stadium against the Washington Commanders’ talented defensive line that includes Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat.
For Mills, it’s about figuring out when to take a calculated risk and when to live to fight another day with an emphasis on ball security.
Because the Texans are run-first offense with a small margin for error, as Mills and other key figures with the offense have pointed out, any turnovers, like Mills’ interception and star rookie running back Dameon Pierce’s lost fumble, are extremely pivotal.
“I mean, there’s always a fine line between being aggressive versus protecting the football,” Mills said. “You’ve got to take the big plays when they are there, but also be ready to check it down or use my legs and run when there’s nothing there. That’s the dilemma that every quarterback across the game of football, from when I started when I was six years old all the way up to now.
“It’s really just boiling down to the decision making and going out there and making plays. You’ve got to stay aggressive, but also you can’t just force things that aren’t there. I think it goes with the week of preparation, being able to see things clearly, being able to decipher things pre-snap, what they’re going to turn into, and then how your concept matches that. A lot of things go into it, and obviously you want to dance on the line, but stay on the conservative side of it so you’re not being risky with the football.”
That’s the rub for Mills and the Texans.
Can he continue to make strides as more of a game manager? That’s how he operated in the Texans’ lone victory of the season, a road win over the Jacksonville Jaguars defined by Pierce’s epic tackle-breaking run and timely defensive plays by cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Desmond King.
Smith has been steadfast it’s not time to make a change.
“You guys keep asking me about that position, that’s all we want to talk about,” Smith said. “Davis Mills had an interception, like a lot of quarterbacks in the NFL did. Without going over, critiquing every little bit, we evaluate everything that every position does.
“We evaluate everybody. We don’t think that the play right now just Davis Mills’ play says all of our problems: ‘Let’s just get Davis out of there and everything’s OK.’ We’re going to keep working on a lot of different things.”
Despite the return of starting wide receivers Nico Collins from a groin injury and Brandin Cooks from his displeasure at not being traded, Mills was unable to capitalize on the personnel boost. He completed 22 of 37 passes with one touchdown to Collins for an 85.3 passer rating, but the offense didn’t make progress.
The Texans converted just 3 of 10 third downs Sunday and fell behind 14-3.
“The biggest thing is I think the turnover margin in the game is what caused the result of the loss,” Mills said. “When you look at our two turnovers from the game, the fumble and my interception, they were both down in the red zone and scoring opportunities. When you take those away, we finish with points on both of those drives, and it’s a completely different game. It just goes to show how any week, any team can win. We’re capable of winning each week, so we’ve just got to go out there and play a clean game for four quarters. We can beat anybody.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com