HOUSTON -- If there's one thing the Houston Texans must work on entering the 2022 season, it's figuring out if Davis Mills is the future at quarterback. Luckily, Lovie Smith and Pep Hamilton have hours of film to study entering the offseason.
Smith was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach on Monday following a month-long search. Hamilton, who served as the team's quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator in 2021, now will lead one side of the ball as the new offensive coordinator.
Both believe in Mills' potential. They've watched him grow from being a mid-round no-namer to a rising prospect at the game's most important position. And no team can thrive without stability under center.
“It always starts with the quarterback, and Pep’s reputation says he knows how to develop young quarterbacks,” Smith said at his introductory press conference Tuesday. "Davis Mills, I had a chance to see him from a lot of different angles this past year.
"We’re going to have an offense that’s going to score points, put our guys in position."
Smith and Hamilton are honest entering their new roles. Eleven games aren't enough to tab Mills as the next franchise quarterback and heir apparent to Deshaun Watson on Kirby Drive.
Of course, Mills did impress. Stanford coach David Shaw said when selected 67th overall last April that if he would have returned to Palo Alto, he would have been QB1 in the 2022 draft. If looking back at a re-draft, there's likely no way Mills makes it out of the top 32 picks thanks to his upside.
Mills outplayed every rookie quarterback besides New England Patriots Pro Bowler Mac Jones. As the first pick in the GM Nick Caserio regime, the Georgia native finished with 16 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions, and an 88.8 rating. All three stats surpassed the four other rookie QBs drafted in the first round.
"The arrow's up on Davis," Hamilton said. "We have a lot of work to do … but I think it was important that he had the experiences, both good and bad, that he accrued this past season. We have something to build on."
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There's a trust factor between Hamilton and Smith, one that will allow the new coordinator to work hands-on separate from the head coach. Hired back on Smith's staff in 2007 with the Chicago Bears, it didn't take long for the then-quarterbacks coach to build a reputation.
After a brief stint as head coach of the D.C. Defenders in the XFL, Hamilton returned to the pros as the Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach in 2020. That season, rookie sensation Justin Herbert strutted his stuff, breaking Baker Mayfield's rookie touchdown passing record on the way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Prior to all that, Hamilton developed wunderkind Andrew Luck at Stanford into the top pick for the 2012 draft. Two years later as the Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator, Hamilton helped Luck post career numbers on the way to an 11-5 record and an AFC Championship appearance.
"I tried to hire Pep a couple of different times and it didn’t work out," Smith said. "It’s kind of a perfect storm for him to be able to lead our offense."
Little tricks that helped Luck and Herbert rise to the top are what Houston hopes will happen with Mills this offseason. There's enough film to see why Caserio wanted draft him, but not enough to feel comfortable with him being "the guy" for the next decade.
It can be argued: If anyone can get the best out of Mills, it's Hamilton. Best of all, Smith is giving full control to his offensive coordinator. That alone might be the key to bringing Houston back to its winning ways.
"Word gets out on the guys that are bright, that are doing this that can help you win football games," Smith said. "That’s what was told to me about Pep Hamilton.
"If you give guys an opportunity, they show you exactly who they are, and that’s exactly why I’m excited about what he’s going to bring to us."