What does a respectable starting debut by Houston Texans rookie quarterback Davis Mills mean for his immediate future and the outlook of a franchise in need of a bright spot?
Mills had some encouraging moments during his first NFL start against the Carolina Panthers’ top-ranked defense during a 24-9 loss Thursday night at NRG Stadium.
Mills delivered in some clutch moments and looked poised in a loss.
The replacement for injured starter Tyrod Taylor, who’s on injured reserve and expected to be sidelined for roughly a month with a Grade 2 strained hamstring, according to league sources, Mills didn’t throw an interception and didn’t fumble despite being sacked four times and hit nine times by the most effective pass-rushing defense in the league.
Because the Texans’ running game is practically nonexistent, Mills could provide some solid production while throwing primarily to veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks, his favorite and most accomplished downfield target.
When he ran the no-huddle offense, the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford was sharp. He connected with wide receiver Anthony Miller over the middle for a one-yard touchdown pass, capping a crisp seven-play, 64-yard scoring drive in just 1 minute and 12 seconds at the end of the first half as he completed 5 of 6 passes for 60 yards.
Ultimately, that was the top moment for Mills and the Texans as an ineffective running game, mistake-prone special teams and a defense incapable of containing Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold and wide receiver D.J. Moore spelled doom as far as being competitive in the game.
Mills completed 19 of 28 passes for 168 yards and one touchdown pass with zero interceptions for a 95.6 passer rating. Mills avoided crucial mistakes in a mostly encouraging performance in his first NFL start.
“I thought he did very well,” Texans coach David Culley said. “He did not turn the ball over at all, which was a big thing going into the game. I thought he threw the ball very well. I thought when we went into our two-minute offense, he did an excellent job of taking us down the field and making some nice throws and nice plays. I thought he did a nice job for us.”
Mills produced the second-highest first-half passer rating with a 126.9 by a Texans quarterback making his first NFL start behind Case Keenum’s 137.5 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 20, 2013.
A former blue-chip recruit from Atlanta who chose Stanford over Alabama and Michigan, Mills was an honorable-mention All-Pac-12 selection who passed for 1,508 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions in five games last season. He set a single-game school record with a 504-yard performance against Washington State. As a sophomore, he passed for 1,960 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
Although Mills only started 11 games at Stanford due to a knee injury, he showed enough to impress the Texans and be drafted 67th overall.
Mills made strides following a rocky preseason and completing just 8 of 18 passes Sunday against the Cleveland Browns for 102 yards, one touchdown and one interception Sunday after Taylor strained his hamstring, an injury that could sideline him for four weeks and prompted the Texans to place him on injured reserve.
“I always think back on that quote, ‘It’s never as bad as you think it was and it’s never as good as you think it was,'” Mills said. “There’s obviously a couple plays I would like back, but I’m going to come in and watch the film and see what we can improve on, but also see what we did well to move forward.”
“I felt comfortable out there. Obviously, you want to kind of go in there and get that first hit in and really settle in, but I felt throughout the game confidence was there the whole time. I just wanted to go out there and make plays with the guys around me.”
Mills did that, connecting with Cooks for nine catches and 112 yards on 11 targets. The timing and chemistry between the rookie and the veteran is building.
“He handled himself well,” Cooks said. “We just have to continue to just get on the same page and get that chemistry going between us all. Very proud of how he came out.
“There’s no moral victories, so unfortunately, we didn’t get the win. We didn’t have our best day on the ground, but we’ve got to find a way to make up for that in other areas.”
Mills threw a lot of interceptions during the start of training camp in practice and three interceptions in a preseason game against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but was careful with the football against the Panthers.
“No surprise at all,” Cooks said. “Nothing surprised me. I just knew what type of guy he was. He’s calm and collective the way that he goes about his business in practice, the success that he had, the big-time throws that he had was not surprised at all.”
“I have seen a lot of growth, just even throughout the practice week with a short week the way that he took command and got us receivers after practice on a short week to still go over stuff. His leadership really stood out in that aspect. So definitely have a lot of respect for him in that aspect and that’s where I saw him grow.”
Mills got no support from the running game as the Texans were limited to 42 rushing yards on 17 carries with starter Mark Ingram held to 21 yards on six carries, David Johnson to two runs for 11 yards and Phillip Lindsay to five yards on seven carries.
“We’ve just got to be better,” Culley said. “We’ve got to play better. Offensively, our biggest ills of the night was the fact that we could not establish any consistency in our run game, and we have got to be able to do that to be successful, to be able to become better in the pass game and to be consistent and stay on the field, and we weren’t able to do that.”
The Panthers, led by pass rushers Haason Reddick and Brian Burns, rank first in the NFL in fewest points allowed per game, fewest yards, rushing yards, passing yards, sacks and quarterback hits.
The sacks and several third-and-long situations led to six punts as the Texans went 1 for 9 on third downs and 0 for 1 on fourth down.
Reddick had 1.5 sacks and three hits on Mills and came away impressed with the rookie passer.
“He’s a tough guy,” Reddick said. “He escaped my grip a couple times and it was shocking to see. Even with the one hit, just the way he got back up, the guy, he’s just tough. He’s mentally and physically tough.”
–By Aaron Wilson, Field Level Media
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