NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Brandin Cooks convincingly sold the route, establishing position in the corner of the Tennessee Titans’ end zone and elevating over former Texans starting defensive back Lonnie Johnson Jr.
Ultimately, it came down to trust. Trust from Texans coach Lovie Smith in the veteran wide receiver in the wake of an emotional trade request that didn’t get done midway through the season at the NFL deadline. And trust, and accuracy, from quarterback Davis Mills that Cooks was his most effective option at a pivotal stage of the game.
In his first game back from a calf injury. Cooks rejoined the starting offense and delivered in the clutch with a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Mills heated up after a slow start and manufactured the drive that regained the lead and, ultimately, led to a 19-14 road victory at Nissan Stadium to halt a nine-game losing streak.
“It was one of those routes, just man-to-man in a clutch situation and coach trusted me to go out there and win that route,” Cooks said. “Davis put out a great ball and we made that play.”
Following the game, Cooks posted on social media: ‘Still here,’ with a smirking emoji. It was a playful reminder of his skills and that he’s still trying to help the team win in what is likely his final few games with the AFC South franchise.
The Texans are still expected to try to work out an offeason trade for Cooks, who was nearly dealt at the NFL deadline to the Dallas Cowboys with the trade scuttled due to the team seeking a second-round draft pick and a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for him and also unwilling to pick up the tab on the majority of his $18 million fully guaranteed salary in 2023, according to league sources.
Smith heavily praised Cooks at his press conference following the game.
“Brandin Cooks was outstanding today,” Smith said. “We needed this one. I thought Davis threw smoe good balls. We needed a drive at the end, and that just said an awful lot of the offense to go down there and get that touchdown like that. We’ve missed Brandin probably most of the year a little bit. He’s been banged-up and he’s a great player.
“So, that gives the team a boost when you have a player like that. I know he’s been working hard to get back, rehabbing to get back to be able to help this football team win. And today was a good example of what he can do for our football team. Just glad to see him have success like that. Played outstanding ball.”
Cooks caught four passes for 34 yards and one touchdown on a team-high nine targets. He has caught just 48 passes for 554 yards and two touchdowns last season to lead the Texans in receiving, but his production is down from his previous two 1,000-yard seasons since being acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams.
Although this is likely the end of his tenure with the Texans, barring an unanticipated change of heart, Cooks made it a priority to get back on the field to be with his teammates and compartmentalize his bigger-picture issues for the offseason.
“At the end of the day, it is win or lose with my guys and that’s what’s most important,” Cooks said. “I miss getting out here on the field with my guys and coming out here today and being able to go to battle and being able to finish and getting a dub. That was huge and is very important. At the end of the day, I have a lot of respect for these guys and every chance I get I go out there and give my best.”
Mills, frequently criticized for his up-and-down play this season following a promising rookie season, split time again with dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel.
He even completed a four-yard pass to Driskel on the Texans’ second series.
Mills later scrambled and fumbled into the end zone with running back Rex Burkhead recovering for an early touchdown.
Mills finished the game 17 of 28 for 178 yards and one touchdown with one interception off a deflected pass. He engineered a five-play, 73-yard drive with sideline completions of 20 yards to wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and 37 yards to Amari Rodgers before his six-yard touchdown pass to Cooks.
“He stays even keel no matter what is going on,” Cooks said. “He kind of tunes out the outside noise and all he is focused on is trying to help this team win.”
Mills completed all nine of his throws for 103 yards on the Texans’ final two scoring drives for the 2-12-1 Texans.
“It goes to show how much fight this team has,” Mills said. “The record is what it is at this point. But we’ve kind of been fighting for everything we can do week in and week out to go out there and scratch our way to get some wins.
“We’ve been close the last couple of weeks, got it today and we’re really excited for these next few games to close out the season. Our guys are ready and we’re excited to get back home in front of our fans against Jacksonville.”
Mills completed four throws for 69 yards on the game-winning drive.
“When you lose games, that’s what we signed up for,” Smith said of the criticism Mills and the team has faced. “But things can change quickly. That’s what I’ve seen in this league. I mean, you can be down.
“If you keep fighting, there’s a chance for you to get that bad taste out of your mouth, Davis and the rest of us. All of us been in that same situation, but we got it done today.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to KPRC 2 and click2houston.com