HOUSTON – Davis Mills stared down his primary read, his eyes revealing his intentions and the path of the football intended for wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
The Texans’ second-year quarterback was predictably intercepted by Washington Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller as he undercut the telegraphed pass and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown on the second offensive play of the game. The miscue, a pick-six, was the first of Mills’ two interceptions Sunday during a 23-10 loss at NRG Stadium. Although the game was sparsely attended, the Texans’ ineptitude was repeatedly met with loud boos.
And Mills’ shortcomings provided another snapshot of his season-long struggles and the problems facing an unproductive offense engineered by offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. The Texans mustered just five yards of total offense in the first half, their fewest net yards in a half in franchise history. They had eight yards in the first half of a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills last season. This marked the fewest net yards by an NFL team in a half since the Raiders’ minus-12 yards in a win over the Denver Broncos in 2015.
Following this latest setback, Texans coach Lovie Smith was asked multiple questions about whether he’ll bench Mills or move on from Hamilton after dropping to 1-8-1 this season. During an occasionally heated post-game press conference, Smith defended both Mills, who was sacked five times by a talented Commanders defensive line, and Hamilton and made no indications that he’s going to make changes. If Smith does replace Mills, it would mean turning to backup quarterback Kyle Allen.
“Are you asking me am I going to change the quarterback position right after the game?” Smith said. “We consider all different things during the course of the game, whether making a move at any position will give us a better chance. When you say it starts with the quarterback, no, it starts up front. That’s where it starts. Today with that type of pressure, I don’t know how many quarterbacks could have had success.
When asked why not make a change, Smith replied: “We don’t make that kind of decisions 30 minutes after a game and before I get a chance to talk to the coaches.”
Texans left offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, defended Mills and emphasized his resiliency after a mistake.
“That’s one thing about Davis, he gets ready for the next one,” Tunsil said. “That’s one thing we appreciate about him. I don’t think no change should happen. It’s just growing pains.”
There is no obvious candidate to replace Hamilton on the current coaching staff. He is the only assistant with extensive play-calling experience.
The Texans fell behind 20-0 at halftime.
“I’m not going to change,” Smith said of Hamilton. “Right now as a football team, there’s not a whole lot that we’re doing well right now. We’re building. We’re not quite there yet. We’re not a good football team right now, but that’s how most teams start off. You’re not a good football team. You keep working on things and eventually get a little bit better.
“We did not play this way last week (during a loss to the New York Giants). We didn’t. We were down in red zone six times and didn’t score a touchdown. We didn’t play this way last week. It hasn’t been like that always. In those games you just have to kind of take it that the other team was a lot better than us and hope that won’t be the case next week.”
Mills completed 19 of 33 passes for 169 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 46.1 passer rating. He rushed for a late touchdown, the first rushing score of his career.
Mills has 11 interceptions this season and 11 touchdown passes. He has clearly regressed since his rookie season when he had nine touchdowns and two interceptions during the final five games of last year.
The pick-six was an example of Mills’ lack of progress.
“Good play by the defender,” Mills said. “Might have left the ball a hair inside, and he had a really good jump on it and ended up getting away and making a good play. Not many emotions after the play. Got to flush it really fast and go back out there because you’re about to get the ball right back.”
There was no running game to speak of to complement Mills. Rookie running back Dameon Pierce, an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, was limited to a season-low eight rushing yards on 10 carries. The Texans rushed for just 21 yards on 16 carries, an average of 1.3 yards per run. That held back the passing game significantly, removing the threat of play-action passes.
“Not much available when it’s tough to run the ball,” Mills said. “A lot of those shots will come off play-action and different ways when they start bringing guys down into the box to help with the run game, but they were able to pretty much stop the run while still playing coverage behind it. It’s tough to find shots when you’re getting that kind of defense.”
For the season, Mills has completed 61.9 percent of his throws for 2,144 yards for a 78.1 passer rating. He’s averaging an interception on 3.4 percent of his throws.
“It was tough from the jump,” offensive guard A.J. Cann said. “They got the pick-six. When you start a game like that, it’s tough. I don’t think we were able to figure out how to turn it around.”
Between defensive linemen Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, all Commanders first-round draft picks, the Texans had no answers for the opposing defensive line as they excelled despite playing without an injured Chase Young.
“Good defensive line up front and we knew that going in,” Tunsil said. “We thought we had a good game plan. We thought we were going to execute. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
“We fought back. We’re always going to fight. As a group, we’re not going to give up. We’re going to fight no matter the circumstances.”
Smith was in a back-and-forth questioning about everything from the fans’ displeasure to his unwillingness to make changes at this time.
“Yes, and every time something is bad, fans are going to boo, and they have a right to do that,” Smith said. “What is your question?”
Why not make a change?
“Because I didn’t think I should do it today,” Smith said. “What do you expect me to say right now? We just got beat. Now, if there was something that we should have done right away, we would have done that right away. We’re working with our football team. We’re searching for answers is what we’re doing. We’ll keep working on different combinations.”
“Change for what? Just change to change? I think leave that up to us, all right? Right now, we don’t think we’re in that position.”
The Texans went 2 for 13 on third down.
“Turned the ball over for a pick-six on the second play of the game, can’t do that,” Mills said. “Sets you behind to start the game. That’s tough. After that, just couldn’t really get much going.
“Props to their D-line, their front seven. Handled it pretty well. They kind of dominated. We were having to play from behind the chains. A lot of third-and-longs that were just pretty hard to convert. We just couldn’t get much going.”
The Texans have now lost five games in a row heading into a tough road game this week against the resurgent Miami Dolphins who are successful behind quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle and first-year coach Mike McDaniel.
“Offensively, when you start off the first drive like that, that’s tough duty,” Smith said. “Their defense dominated us up front, and it’s pretty hard to get a running game going. It’s hard to pass the football when it’s that much pressure and, again, the takeaways.
“Normally those games aren’t that close when you play like that. Our fans deserve a lot more than that. We have to put a better product on the football field, and we’ll keep working towards that.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com