Houston Texans: Tom Savage
The Texans' quarterback situation has changed significantly since then, which begs one question: Is it his time now?
Making Mallett the starter during the Texans' bye week was equal parts Mallett being ready to take the helm, a belief that Fitzpatrick had done all he could and a desire for better evaluation. Mallett had developed for three seasons as a backup quarterback in New England and improved steadily as Fitzpatrick's backup in Houston.
Now that Mallett is out of the picture for this season with a torn pectoral muscle, the Texans have broader evaluation needs.
Therein lies the argument to start Savage.
Nearly everything we know about him comes from his limited time playing in college. Here's Matt Williamson, ESPN's resident scout:
"He is a big strong kid with a great arm. He is tough in the pocket, but very limited mobility. He wasn’t at Pitt his entire college career and had a lot of learning still to do when he entered the draft. How much has he progressed since then on the mental aspects of the position? I really don’t know. But much like [Zach] Mettenberger in TEN, he has starting QB traits and if mentally prepared, should get a shot before the end of the season."
That arm drew attention during training camp. Strength was something he'd been asked to improve once he got to the NFL. The two quarterbacks ahead of him have helped his mental progression.
"Mallett has a good grasp of the offense just from being around it for so many years," Savage said. "Fitz is a vet and he’s been around the league and he’s kind of got that mental toughness that young rookies need to kind of learn. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve been around, so it’s good to get both of their features and kind of instill it in myself."
A franchise quarterback is a tough thing to find, but when you find him, that sets up a team for years. Finding that player, and developing him if necessary, is the most important factor in any NFL team's success. Devoting resources and time to that process is often necessary but can require patience. If Savage struggles at first -- a bigger risk with Savage than Mallett given Savage's limited time in both college and pro practices -- that doesn't necessarily mean he'll never grow into a solid quarterback. But it does mean the Texans' immediate future could be rough.
That's a tough ask of a team that is not yet out of the playoff race.
The Texans' loss Sunday to the Bengals combined with Indianapolis' win made that harder, especially since there are now nine teams in the AFC with at least two more wins than Houston, but the Texans aren't out of it yet.
With a postseason berth still at stake, it'd be difficult to hand over the reins to a rookie who's had almost exclusively scout-team repetitions so far. You can bet that will matter to the Texans' thought process.
And if we've learned something from Mallett, it's that waiting can sometimes be the best thing for a young quarterback's career.
Something happens to those of us who live in warm climates when temperatures dip below, say, 45 degrees at home or abroad. It's all we can talk about. Take this story, for example, in which the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith reports from Berea, Ohio, where the Browns practice and where he's been all week. It begins with a lot of talk about cold. More importantly, Kyle Shanahan, now the Browns offensive coordinator, thought that leaving the Texans might not have been his smartest career choice. It was, however, a lifelong dream to work with his dad. "Houston was great. I loved the guys there," Shanahan said. "Coach Kubiak giving me an opportunity to be a coordinator. To do it with Schaub and Andre and ... Owen Daniels, all those guys. I loved my time in Houston, and it was really tough for me to leave. I don't know if it was the smartest career choice for me. But it was something that I was going to do, regardless. I wanted to go coach with my dad, and it was a lifetime goal of mine."
Houston Culture Map's Chris Baldwin doesn't buy Ryan Mallett as a long-term solution for the Texans. He thinks Tom Savage will get a chance shortly. He writes: "Savage is the only quarterback left on the Texans roster who hasn't already proven he has severe NFL limitations." I disagree that Mallett has proven he has severe NFL limitations. Preseason games aren't a great predictor. Mallett is still very much of a mystery.
I thoroughly enjoyed this episode of Ask Drew (which was also the first episode I've seen, but I'll be back). In it Drew Dougherty from HoustonTexans.com answers reader questions, some seriously and some not. He's also excited to see what the Texans do with their new quarterback, as am I.
In his weekly notebook, Albert Breer of NFL Network has a couple of Texans-related notes: one on Texans new starting quarterback Ryan Mallett and one on first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. The Clowney note offers some solid insight to how Clowney's health was viewed before the draft:
Speaking of the Texans, it's worth paying attention to what Jadeveon Clowney is saying about his knee issues. One of the concerns with the first overall pick back in the spring was that he was such a "kinetic" athlete that he'd be predisposed to soft-tissue injuries. Sure enough, in his first NFL game, he hit a soft spot in the rugged NRG Stadium turf and suffered a meniscus injury that's lingered. In April, Clowney's off-the-charts score on the "force plate" test, administered by the Atlanta Falcons, garnered a lot of headlines. But clubs were just as interested to hear what else was found about his physical makeup. Dr. Phil Wagner, who created the test, told me then that, "(Clowney's) movement signature validates that he's both very physically gifted and physically resilient. What we found is he's not a large injury risk, and he certainly has a lot of tools." Hearing that would be encouraging to teams, but the fact that it was even brought up shows there was a level of concern.
The Houston Chronicle's plan to do pieces on each of the Texans' quarterbacks got a jolt last week when Texans coach Bill O'Brien declared Mallett the team's new starter. The Chronicle's Brian T. Smith offered a catch-up with rookie Tom Savage, whose story really doesn't change much each time he's written about. He's still working, waiting and learning. And the Chronicle's Dale Robertson offers his take on Mallett's ascent.
If you didn't buy San Antonio as a legitimate destination for the Raiders, should they leave Oakland, you aren't alone. Amy Trask, the former CEO of the Raiders and now a CBS analyst, doesn't either, writes Tom Orsborn of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The next, and certainly not last, piece about Texans defensive end J.J. Watt comes via Jim Corbett of USA Today. In it, he examines Watt's life. He also includes this excerpt:
Hall of Fame coach/analyst John Madden calls Watt his favorite defensive player and, "the anti-tap-out guy'' in a league where defensive linemen typically rotate plays.
"I always thought there was one guy who from the defensive side of the ball could win a game by himself," Madden told USA TODAY Sports. "I did a game in Detroit and Lawrence Taylor scored on an interception and dominated on defense.
"J.J. Watt is that same kind of guy who can dominate a game and can score. There haven't been a lot of guys like that in the history of this game."
Corbett also did a Q&A with Texans coach Bill O'Brien, who revealed he talked to his team about the way the San Francisco Giants and San Antonio Spurs won, as an example. "And when you read the quotes or you listen to both teams after they won their championships, what were some of the things they said? No selfish players. Great teammates. Great leadership, great role players. Guys that really embraced their roles, guys who practiced competitively. That's what we're striving for here."
John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says Texans coach Bill O'Brien must feel like he's juggling chainsaws at a circus. Says McClain: "The fact is they're just not good enough to overcome their deficiencies in personnel as well as their physical and mental mistakes. And that's why they lose games they could win."
Rookie quarterback Tom Savage has been impressed with Ryan Fitzpatrick's mental toughness, writes Matt Hammond of Sports Radio 610. "He just doesn't get rattled," Savage said.
Bill O'Brien returns to coach a football game in Pennsylvania on Monday, for the first time since he left Penn State, where he was the head coach until coming to Houston. He still cherishes his time at Penn State, writes Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. O'Brien often talks fondly of the players he coached at Penn State, and they are keeping tabs on their old coach, too. I liked this exchange from the story:
“We're all kind of Texans fans a little more this year,” tight end Jesse James said.One can't say O'Brien shies away from reclamation projects, writes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, having taken on Penn State in 2012 and then the task of turning around the Texans in January.
“We all follow the team pretty closely. Guys are always their watching games as much as possible.”
Told that multiple Nittany Lions players said they consider themselves honorary Texans fans, O'Brien quipped, “They should be studying on Thursday night. They shouldn't be watching our football games.
“I'm kidding. I'm glad to hear that they're fans, and I'll always be fans of them.”
Tom Savage is learning out of the spotlight, writes Dave Zangaro of CSNHouston.com. He has a lot of practice not playing football. "Luckily for me, my college path actually prepped me for this a little bit," Savage said. "I went a thousand days without even being eligible to play. It’s not the same feel obviously because at any moment, I can be the guy. Each week, I kind of just prep like I’m the starter and that’s kind of what I did at the two schools I had to sit out at and that’s what I’m doing here. Really, I’m just picking the older guys' brains and soaking up as much as I can."
Adam Schein of NFL.com ponders which 3-3 team needs a win more: the Texans or the Steelers. His main reasoning centers around his belief that the Texans are better than the Steelers and this is a game they should win. I agree that this is a very winnable game for the Texans.
The Houston Texans, though, were patient during the draft. We don't know yet if that strategy worked, but their patience has led to an unusual quarterback situation that is unlike any in the league.
First, the turnover. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Texans are the only team in the league without a single quarterback on the roster who was with the team last season.
The second rarity is where those players were drafted.
Neither Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett nor Tom Savage, was drafted higher than the third round. Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round pick out of Harvard. Mallett was a third-round pick out of Arkansas and Savage was a fourth-round pick this year out of Pittsburgh.
According to ESPN Stats and Info (thanks to Evan Kaplan for looking all this up), the Texans are one of just three NFL teams that has no quarterback who was drafted higher than the third round on their active roster. Remarkably, the St. Louis Rams, with Shaun Hill, Case Keenum and Austin Davis, don't even have a quarterback who was drafted into the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two quarterbacks and both were drafted in the third round -- Josh McCown and Mike Glennon.
Interestingly, this isn't new for the Texans. Last season their quarterbacks included third-round pick Matt Schaub, fifth-round pick T.J. Yates and undrafted Keenum.
Backup quarterback is among them.
It will be like that at various positions, as it usually is in this final preseason game. What might be considered a throwaway to viewers who won't recognize a lot of the names, matters a lot to the players fighting for roster spots.
Keenum and Savage aren't exactly competing for roster spots. O'Brien stopped short of saying he would definitely keep three quarterbacks on his 53-man roster, but said that was "more than likely." Asked if the three quarterbacks he kept would be the three that are now with the team, O'Brien used the same language. He noted the time each player has spent with the team as being valuable to their worth to the Texans.
One of those two players will go into the regular season as the declared backup.
Of course, the same thing happened last season and didn't mean much. T.J. Yates was named the backup with Keenum staying inactive for the first six games of the season. Yates, though, had less than half a game of action once Matt Schaub went down with an injury before former coach Gary Kubiak named Keenum Schaub's official replacement.
It also did a lot for his coaches' confidence in him.
"I would say it’s pretty close," Texans' coach Bill O'Brien said today about the backup quarterback competition. "I think it’s pretty close. We’re discussing that right now. Both guys had good moments last night, but I think that Tom Savage definitely closed the gap, and it’s pretty close."
Savage and Case Keenum have spent the past several months competing to be the team's backup quarterback. Keenum has eight games of starting experience from last season, while Savage barely even has college experience upon which to call.
The natural conclusion was that Savage would have a lot of work to do before being ready to play in the NFL.
And while O'Brien cautioned against getting too carried away with what Savage did in the 74-yard touchdown drive he led Saturday night, he was clearly impressed.
"We broke the huddle, and as a young quarterback when the referee leans into the huddle and he winds the clock you’ve got to get going, so he probably could have called the play before the referee wound the clock," O'Brien said. "So he ended up calling the play and then having to break the huddle, and it involved some motion and shifting and things like that.
"... It wasn’t confusion as much as it was he had to get going, and I thought that he kept his poise there really well. He was able to motion, I believe it was [Travis] Labhart, and then make the correct protection point, and then make the right read, and then make the throw, which is a good thing to see for us for a rookie quarterback to be able to do that, so I thought he handled that situation well."
eenum was still Ryan Fitzpatrick's backup as of O'Brien's press conference. Savage is making a push, though.
"I’ve always been calm," Savage said. "It’s kind of my personality out there. Just go out there and stay calm and perform when I have to."
He didn't get much time Saturday night, entering the game with 4:25 left in the fourth quarter. But Savage certainly made the most of the time he got, orchestrating a seven-play, 74-yard drive that finished with a successful two-point conversion attempt. In a position to win the game for his team, the rookie did it.
"He's been getting better every week and every day in practice," O'Brien said. "We put him in a few two-minute situations in practice, but not nearly as much as Ryan and Case, obviously."
That's Savage's role on the team right now. He's a developmental quarterback, competing with Case Keenum to back up starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. He's in the enviable position of having a quarterback room that supports him through the competition. Later Keenum called it "awesome."
As he learns, he's finding himself in positions that beget stress. For example, learning you'll be playing much sooner than you expect, which Savage did last week. Or going into a game late, needing a touchdown to win, as he did Saturday night. His play improved immensely from one week to the next.
"Really it’s just, you’ve gotta trust the process of how you were prepared," Savage said. "The coaches did a great job of this game especially. Fitz and Case on the sideline were helping me out a ton when they knew I was going in. [Quarterbacks coach George] Godsey helping me out. It was good. You have a good supporting cast here that really wants the team to succeed."
Poise under pressure is a necessary quality for a quarterback to have. It's part of what the Texans liked about him in the draft, and it'll be a boon to his efforts to become the team's starter at some point.
"Overall he's come in and not let the nerves get to him," O'Brien said. "He's improved everyday. Hopefully, he continues to get better."
It showed in the 31-yard touchdown pass he threw to Ryan Griffin. It showed again during the two-point conversion he tossed to Travis Labhart to win the game. It's just a preseason game, sure, but Savage's progress has been evident.
On Thursday, we talked about how special it was for Texans' rookie Tom Savage that Manning checked in on him this week.
Texans starter Ryan Fitzpatrick first met Manning as a college quarterback back when he was at Harvard. He attended Manning's Passing Academy (and didn't expect that Manning would remember that).
"I was a college counselor, but I didn’t think at that point that the NFL was in my future," Fitzpatrick said. "Looking back on it, it was just a really neat experience for me to go against some of the other college guys and kind of size myself up and meet the Manning family."
Position groups in the NFL tend to bond, even crossing team lines. But it seems to be a much more active bond with quarterbacks. There are fewer of them, they can often feel isolated in the glare of the spotlight that comes with their roles, and more is expected of quarterbacks than just about anywhere else on the field.
"I think quarterbacks in the NFL, it’s a brotherhood," Fitzpatrick said. "We’ve all got our bond and we all go through similar ups and downs and all the same things. Some of us more than others, obviously, but it’s a nice thing that we share."
This week though, Savage got to share a practice facility with another pretty good quarterback role model. He was working with some receivers when Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning walked up to him unsolicited.
The reigning league MVP asked the rookie quarterback how he was mentally, how he was faring in his first NFL training camp.
"I'm not going to lie -- I got a little starstruck when I first saw him," Savage said. "It was pretty unique to go out there and watch one of the greatest play."
The positions in which the two came into the league are different. Manning was the first overall pick of the Indianapolis Colts, immediately expected to change a franchise. Savage was a fourth-round pick this May, a product of the Texans' patience at the position. He's not expected to start right away -- he's a project with size, arm strength, intelligence and a nomadic college football career that gave him little chance to develop. Savage is currently third on the Texans' depth chart after starter Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum.
Savage and Manning found common ground in how hard it is for a quarterback to come into the NFL.
"He kind of reassured me of the rookie grind and how it is for a rookie," Savage said. "It was good, it was good to hear. Just when you're not in, get as many mental reps as you can. Just keep grinding because he said it'll be a long year, but at the same time it's gonna be fun.
"... It's good to hear that he went through some moments, too, where he had to grind through it."
Manning threw a league-high 28 interceptions in his rookie season in 1998. The Colts went 3-13 that year, but enjoyed a dominant run with Manning for the next decade.
"It is a process," Savage said. "Knowing that, obviously as a quarterback you don't want to lose games and throw a bunch of picks. You don't want to say it's OK because Peyton did it. You want to do the best you can do. But just take kind of his work ethic and put it on the field."
Savage watched that work ethic and its fruits this week. He saw Manning's command of his team, and how much his receivers respect him. He knew that didn't come easily.
Said Savage: "Everyone knows he's probably one of the hardest working quarterbacks in the history of the game."
Texans coach Bill O'Brien took a bit of an unconventional route with playing time for his quarterbacks this weekend against the Atlanta Falcons. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the game, then left early for rookie Tom Savage. Fitzpatrick returned for a quick two-minute drill type situation and then Case Keenum finally went in as the last quarterback in the game. Normally, you have your second-team quarterback go into the game second. That gives him a chance to face second-team opponents, or even some starters. O'Brien said Keenum is still the Texans' second-string quarterback, a little bit ahead of Savage, writes Dave Zangaro of CSNHouston.com. He did not tell Savage ahead of time that he'd be getting second-team reps, instead surprising him with the news to see how he handled the pressure. O'Brien also talked about this being a bounce-back game for Fitzpatrick.
The order of the quarterbacks did not please Chris Baldwin of Houston Culture Map.
The contributions of rookies in Saturday night's game should not be overlooked, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. From first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney to undrafted free agent pickup Anthony Denham, who made an important special teams play. Denham, by the way, has a personal story that will make you want to root for him.
The Chronicle's Brian T. Smith reviews O'Brien's Sunday press conference here, starting with the notion that the Texans were "juiced up" ready to avenge their blowout preseason-opening loss. In a way, the Texans got the best of both worlds. They got an early, wake-up-call thumping in a game whose final result doesn't really count.
- When practice began, coach Bill O'Brien didn't like how it was going, so he stopped the script and threw the team into something different. A grind-it-out, high-energy, live tackling goal-line drill. "I just put the ball at the 10-yard line and let’s play football, you know," O'Brien said. Immediately the energy at practice jumped. Jonathan Grimes took a handoff from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and scored. A few plays later, nose tackle Jerrell Powe blew up a running play, tackling running back Andre Brown behind the line of scrimmage. "It ended up being a goal-line situation. I thought that got the guys going a little bit and we ended up having a decent practice."
- Early in practice, the second-team offense incurred O'Brien's wrath after a sloppy series. The entire unit had to run a lap together.
- Rookie quarterback Tom Savage's reps have increased throughout camp. O'Brien said he is taking developmental reps and has had 130 7-on-7 or team drill reps in 11 practices. Savage's throws in practice have been a mixed bag. But his head is spinning less than it was when he arrived in Houston and that is evident. On one play, undrafted rookie defensive end Julius Warmsley arrived in the backfield in what might have been a sack if he was allowed to touch Savage. Savage coolly found receiver Travis Labhart in the end zone.
- Backup quarterback Case Keenum is working on feeling more comfortable being uncomfortable. "Does that make sense? Just pushing the limits and trying to find some continuity with the guys you’re playing with. So, it’s getting better. It’s getting better every day. Still making mistakes every day, which you know I don’t like. But I think that’s what makes you better; not making the same mistakes."
- The Texans have Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday and Friday. They'll face the Arizona Cardinals on the road on Saturday.
Thanks for your questions for this week's mailbag. I thought this would be a good way to wrap up the offseason.
It was really interesting to watch day by day. One thing we had to consider while evaluating what we saw was that they were still learning a new playbook. I think that's the area in which Ryan Fitzpatrick had the biggest advantage. He's learned new systems before and there are only so many variations for an NFL offense. This staff dumped a huge amount of information on players, partly to see how they learned and what they'd retain. My feeling was the starting job was Fitzpatrick's to lose and he didn't do anything to lose it during the voluntary portion of this offseason. Keshawn Martin, Mike Thomas, Alan Bonner and Kareem Jackson have all been part of that group, though I wouldn't expect Jackson to become a primary returner. This is one of those positions that really gets sorted out during the preseason games. Remember two years ago Trindon Holliday forced himself onto the roster with three return touchdowns in four games.
@taniaganguli Was the QB competition close? Or was Fitzpatrick head and shoulders above the other three?— Tom Vaughan (@tomvaughan) June 19, 2014
He does. During practices, Bill O'Brien makes an effort to go around to various position groups and pull players aside for individual instruction. O'Brien really likes that personal teaching. He didn't stop when he became a head coach at Penn State and he hasn't stopped at the NFL level. I asked him once if that was a difficult balance to keep, and he said it's not as long as you stay organized.
@taniaganguli does coach Obrien personally work with QBs?— Coach McGuirk (@TexasMonte) June 19, 2014
I could definitely see him starting games if there were an injury to Fitzpatrick. Barring injury, though, that will depend a lot on what Fitzpatrick can do for the Texans. He is a fairly known quantity given how long his career has been. But at 31 there's still room for growth. The biggest issue will be ball security, something that's been a problem for Fitzpatrick. Back to your original question, though, if he can protect the ball better and if things go better around him than they did for Matt Schaub, I can see Fitzpatrick staving off the rookie. Tom Savage is clearly raw, but also clearly very talented. His arm strength might be the best of any quarterback the Texans have or have had on the roster this season. He's also a willing student who acknowledged since the moment he got drafted that he has a lot to learn. You wonder where his development would be now if he was at one college for the past four seasons. I could see Savage putting himself in a position to earn starts by November. But if Fitzpatrick is doing well enough, the Texans won't need to rush him.
@taniaganguli baring injury, does Savage start any games this yr, if so how many?— GILES LAMONT (@GilesGman) June 19, 2014
It's all Brooks Reed has been doing on the field, and something he did during games last season in specific packages. Reed's skills are better used outside on a regular basis, but he's done well working inside this summer. Getting reps inside for Reed is becoming a yearly tradition lately. I think there's still a good chance he stays outside this year.
@taniaganguli how has Brooks Reed been looking at inside backer?— Austin Lantz (@AustinLantz10) June 20, 2014
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that Smith and O'Brien have been in contact with Johnson and are trying to ease his concerns. Rapoport also reported that Johnson's frustration with the Texans is not about the team's decision to not draft a quarterback until the fourth round but rather his concern about being part of another rebuild.
Johnson turns 33 on July 11 and is near the end of his career. The Texans' 2-14 record last season was due to more than just quarterback issues and it's going to take more than a season for the franchise to reach a level where it can compete with the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots in the AFC.
Drafting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick, guard Xavier Su'a-Filo in the second round, and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and defensive tackle Louis Nix in the third round certainly addressed some of the Texans' biggest needs. However, Smith and O'Brien didn't draft a quarterback until taking Tom Savage in the fourth round and instead are going to rely whichever player emerges from the group of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates.
That's certainly not good news for Johnson, who is 55 receptions and 1,116 yards shy of cracking the top 10 list in both categories in NFL history.
Johnson said last week that he wasn't sure if Houston is still the place for him -- although he did not ask for a trade -- and that he wasn't going to attend the Texan's OTAs and mandatory minicamp June 17-19. A trade is unlikely to happen anyway considering the Texans would have $11.96 million in dead money on the 2014 salary cap.