- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans are taking an interesting approach to finding their starting quarterback for this coming season. They're giving each of the four quarterbacks on their roster a fair amount of practice repetitions to see who can shine the brightest during the offseason. That sounds like a great idea when you have a legitimate competition. But when you have a situation like Houston's, it's better to focus on coaching up your most experienced quarterback, a guy named Ryan Fitzpatrick.
For all the high hopes surrounding a potentially lethal pass-rushing combination of J.J. Watt and rookie Jadeveon Clowney this fall, the Texans' fortunes will not hinge solely on their ability to frustrate opposing quarterbacks. Plenty will be decided by whom new head coach Bill O'Brien puts under center for his team, which is why it's surprising to see his handling of Fitzpatrick. O'Brien handpicked Fitzpatrick in free agency, presumably because the nine-year veteran could be a suitable bridge to whomever the Texans viewed as their quarterback of the future. Now it feels as if Houston is wasting time with a strategy that is built around selling the public on the notion that anybody could win the starting job.
Why O'Brien would take this approach is a question worth asking. Despite all of Fitzpatrick's flaws -- and he has some sizable ones -- he's still the best quarterback on this roster. T.J. Yates has been in town long enough to prove he's not the answer. Case Keenum excited local fans because of his impressive college career at the University of Houston and eventually wound up losing all eight games he started in 2013. The optimism about rookie Tom Savage, drafted in the fourth round out of Pittsburgh, also needs to be tempered at this stage. If he's Houston's quarterback of the future, he'll need more than this offseason to make the Texans' power structure feel good about making that proclamation.
To his credit, Fitzpatrick hasn't complained about the setup. As he said after an OTA session Thursday, "I'm seeing this as an opportunity to play and compete. At this point, that's all I can ask -- a chance to earn a job and apply everything I've learned from my experiences." This is also something that any smart veteran would say when eyeing a spot that is far from guaranteed. Fitzpatrick has known from the first day he signed with the Texans that nothing would be handed to him.
There's nothing wrong with that, as Fitzpatrick has fought for every opportunity he's ever gained in this league. It's just that it's difficult to see any way that Fitzpatrick isn't this team's starter when Houston opens the season against Washington. Even though he hasn't exactly impressed so far this offseason, he still has played more than the other three quarterbacks on this roster combined. He also has started 77 games in the NFL, including 53 for Buffalo in 2009-12.
That should be ample evidence for the Texans to spend more time focusing on ways to get Fitzpatrick playing his best football by the time September arrives. The more they try to expose the younger quarterbacks to the offense, the more they detract from Fitzpatrick's ability to gain the trust of his teammates. Given his Harvard education, Fitzpatrick is bright enough to pick up an offense that many people say is far more complicated than the system former head coach Gary Kubiak ran during his eight seasons with the franchise. It's essential that he gets adequate time to prove he's a leader who can help this team escape the stench of last year's 2-14 season.
Houston already has enough problems with Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson avoiding offseason workouts because he's unhappy with a team that seems on the verge of rebuilding again. By sticking with this idea that every quarterback deserves a fair amount of practice reps, the Texans are merely reinforcing the very notion that is making Johnson sulk. There is only so much time for teams to work on their craft in a league that has cut down substantially on offseason practice time. Houston just doesn't have the luxury of waiting too long to see if a better option than Fitzpatrick emerges before the fall.
This isn't Seattle. It's not as if Savage is going to morph into the next Russell Wilson and start blowing people away with his skill as a rookie. The more apt comparison for the Texans is Kansas City. If O'Brien can steal a page from the Chiefs' blueprint -- which led to them going 11-5 last season after a 2-14 finish in 2012 -- then Fitzpatrick could look a lot like Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith by the end of the season.
Houston has more than enough talent to return to playoff contention. The AFC isn't strong, the Texans face a significantly weaker schedule than they did in 2013, and they still have plenty of key players from the teams that won the AFC South in 2011 and 2012. If they copy Kansas City's formula for success in 2013 -- which included a dominant running game, strong special-teams play and a defense that flustered opposing passers -- they should have more chances to win. If Fitzpatrick can provide the efficiency and leadership that Smith displayed, they will be even more dangerous.
Texans coaches already see that Fitzpatrick has valuable intangibles. "He loves football," quarterbacks coach George Godsey said. "The first thing we look for in a quarterback is, does he want to put the time in? He's shown that. He's played in different systems and learned a lot of things. He does a good job of controlling the offense."
The Texans also need that additional time with Fitzpatrick because they need him to curb the propensity for turnovers that consistently has plagued him. He's thrown 93 interceptions during his career, which is a big reason why he's on his fifth team as he enters his 10th NFL season. O'Brien apparently believes he can coach Fitzpatrick to make better decisions with the football, but this is something that won't happen overnight. In a lot of ways, it will require a certain level of trust between quarterback and head coach.
Sometimes quarterbacks throw interceptions because they're not very good. Other times they do it because they feel the need to make a play. Given the lousy teams that Fitzpatrick has played for during his career -- his career record is 27-49-1 as a starter -- it's likely that bad circumstances, inexperience and desperation contributed to his mistakes. Remember, the first thing O'Brien liked about Fitzpatrick when courting him was his intelligence.
Fitzpatrick's resilience could end up being even more of an asset once he settles into the job. He has been just about everything a quarterback can be throughout his career -- third string, second string, starter, quarterback of the future and then disappointment -- and those experiences have given him a comfort level with his present situation. "When I look back at my first five years in the league, it's almost laughable what I didn't know," Fitzpatrick said. "That's why this offseason has been fun for me -- just all the knowledge I've gained from Coach O'Brien and Coach Godsey."
That training will only mean something once the Texans do what seems logical -- and give Fitzpatrick the job. They could've drafted a quarterback with more buzz -- Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and even Derek Carr were available -- and they could've pursued a veteran such as Josh McCown, who signed with Tampa Bay in free agency after he impressed in Chicago last fall. Instead, they went with a strategy that made Fitzpatrick the wild card of this season. Their next step should be giving him ample opportunity to help this team prosper in the near future.