INDIANAPOLIS -- Davis Mills lobbed the spiral with confidence, spinning the football into a tight spot where only wide receiver Chris Moore could secure the pass.
It was the most encouraging moment so far during the Houston Texans' quarterback's up-and-down rookie season as he rolled to his right and fired a pass to Moore between New England Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson and safety Devin McCourty for a 67-yard touchdown pass.
Although Mills didn’t secure his first NFL victory during his third start, falling 25-22 last Sunday at NRG Stadium, his dramatic turnaround was historically significant and perhaps foreshadowing an interesting plot line of development for a franchise in need of a long-term answer at the quarterback position.
“I’m out there, in the moment every play,” Mills said. “I’m not thinking I’m going to throw an interception. I’m out there making decisions, trying to protect the football. That pass, I tried to put it up where either Chris could have caught it or nobody was going to catch it. I was just going out there trying to make plays.”
With veteran starter Tyrod Taylor still on injured reserve with a hamstring strain and Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson on the roster but having issued a standing trade request and dealing with legal problems, Mills could represent the present and future at quarterback for the 1-4 Texans as they prepare for Sunday’s AFC South division road game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
One week after Mills threw four interceptions and had a 23.4 passer rating and 87 passing yards during a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills that marked the most lopsided margin of defeat in Texans franchise history, the strong-armed third-round draft pick from Stanford turned it around against the Patriots and Bill Belichick and a defense ranked fifth overall and fourth against the pass. Mills and Russell Wilson are the lone quarterbacks to pass for three scores against the Patriots as rookies against Belichick.
Mills was extremely sharp, completing 12 of 13 passes on third down and 3 of 3 on fourth downs for 209 yards and two touchdowns on those downs, finishing 21 of 29 overall for 312 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 141.7 passer rating. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, Mills is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 300 yards and three scores with a passer rating of at least 140.0.
In an improvement league, no one improved as much as Mills did.
“He’s growing every day, every week and every game that he gets a chance to go out there and play,” Texans veteran wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. “You continue to see him get better and learn from the little things and come out and practice and work on them. He’s going to continue to grow, and he has the right mindset for sure.”
Mills leans heavily on the advice of offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton and coach David Culley as well as older players like Cooks.
The brain trust is working as Mills continues to receive invaluable knowledge and training on the job at the NFL’s most difficult position.
“Tim and Pep have done a great job with bringing him along and doing the things in our offense that he’s comfortable with,” Culley said. “The more he plays, the more comfortable he gets. He’s seeing things now a little better because he’s playing, just want him to continue to do that.”
That starts with mastering the basics: making good decisions and avoiding interceptions.
“Big thing, obviously, just protecting the football,” Mills said. “When you’re not turning the ball over, you have a chance to win the game when it comes down to it. So, that was the biggest step, just making smart decisions and giving my team a chance.”
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Mills has maintained a low-key, even-keeled approach to the game, on and off the field. He is matter of fact and direct in his interview style, not getting emotional in any situation or line of questioning. Mills is extremely professional and sure of his skills.
“I don’t think the confidence is an issue,” Mills said. “I think the biggest thing is just kind of learning from my previous mistakes, learning from those and just continuing to get better each and every week.”
Because of Mills’ intelligence and studious nature, he’s able to compartmentalize mistakes and apply those lessons to the next play, the next moment, the next game.
“He really focused on the game plan,” Kelly said. “He’s kind of learning that on the fly. It’s a testament to him and his capacity to process and learn from those mistakes quickly.
“You saw that he played a pretty clean game. There’s some stuff that we need to clean up, but he definitely took a step in the right direction.”
For Mills, it’s about continuing to build and not have setbacks. The Texans have an opportunity to go 2-0 in the division after opening the season with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars with Taylor under center.
They’re mired in a four-game losing streak. If Mills plays another strong football game, they should have a chance to defeat the 1-4 Colts.
“I think there’s power in momentum,” Mills said. “I think once you’re starting to make plays, the team starts rallying around that, and you get some energy off the sideline, some momentum. Once everything starts flowing, that’s when guys are out there having fun and playing really good football.”
Culley announced already that Taylor will regain his starting job whenever he’s healthy enough to play again. However, Taylor is believed to be at least a few weeks away from recovering from his Grade 2 strained hamstring.
For now, it’s Mills’ job and he’s determined to keep the momentum going.
“The biggest thing is coming in, putting your best foot forward every day, continuing to become a better player,” he said. “I’m preparing like I’m the starter even if not, but the biggest thing is just putting the team in a situation to win games.”
How Mills is handling adverse circumstances is convincing teammates in the Texans’ locker room to believe in him.
“That guy’s a tough guy, man,” blocking tight end Antony Auclair said. “That loss in Buffalo was a tough loss. He always stayed calm, and I think you don’t see that from a regular guy. Coming off that bad loss and then coming out firing in that first quarter. I think he played great.
“If you look around in the NFL with all those first-round quarterbacks that are starting right now, they don’t have that many wins. I think Davis is doing a great job right now for us, and he’s only getting better.”