Davis Mills is the perfect example of how a team should not develop a quarterback.
The way the Texans have treated Mills is an embarrassment to the organization – three head coaches, three offensive coordinators, three quarterback coaches and three systems in three seasons.
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Head coaches David Culley, Lovie Smith and DeMeco Ryans.
Offensive coordinators Tim Kelly, Pep Hamilton and Bobby Slowik.
Quarterback coaches Hamilton, Ted White and Jerrod Johnson.
And yet Mills soldiers on without complaint. He knows he’s going to be replaced as the starter by rookie C.J. Stroud, the second overall pick in the draft. The only quarterback the Texans have drafted higher than Stroud was David Carr in 2002.
There’s no guarantee Mills will even be on the team. Case Keenum didn’t return to the Texans to be inactive on game days and designated as the emergency quarterback. Mills would be a waste in that role, too. So what’s the plan other than hoping Stroud develops well enough to be named the starter for the first game at Baltimore?
Mills is smart. He understands his situation. The Texans know he’s the ultimate team player who’ll say all the right things coaches love. He never gripes about anything, including the inept coaching he suffered through last season when he regressed from his rookie performance.
When Mills met with reporters after Tuesday’s OTA, he addressed a number of subjects that affect him, beginning with how he sees his role on the team knowing Stroud was drafted to take his place in the starting lineup.
“I'm competing for that starting job,” he said. “Since I've been drafted in the NFL, I've been in a competition. I don't think anything is going to change. It's been great getting to know C.J. He's an extremely hard worker, and it’ll be good to see how we go out there every day and make each other better.
“Every year in this league, you feel more and more comfortable. Obviously, the hunger and the drive to become better are still there. It's definitely a different feeling from when I was stepping in as a rookie (and) not knowing anything (compared) to where I am now, having all that built-up experience from my starts over these past two years. I'm blessed to have the opportunity to compete for another job.”
As a rookie in 2021, Kelly was Mills’ offensive coordinator and Hamilton was his position coach. He appeared in 13 games and was 2-9 in 11 starts. He threw for 2,664 yards, completed 66.8 percent, totaled 16 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions and compiled an 88.8 rating.
Mills finished strong, going 2-3 over his last five starts, throwing nine touchdown passes and two interceptions. He had four games with at least 300 yards passing and triple-digit ratings.
Mills didn’t play well enough to be guaranteed the starting job beyond last season. With Hamilton as his coordinator and play-caller and White as his quarterback coach, Mills experienced a regression, and coaching had a lot to do with it.
The offense may have been the worst in franchise history. Mills was 3-11-1 as a starter, including winning two of the last three games. All three victories were on the road against AFC South opponents.
Mills threw for 3,118 yards, completed 61 percent, totaled 17 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions and posted a 78.8 rating. His interception percentage rose from 2.5 as a rookie to 3.1. His average yards per attempt slipped from 6.7 to 6.5. He had two 300-yard games but no ratings in triple digits.
Asked what last season was like for him, Mills said, “A big learning experience. Obviously, we wanted to win more games, and I think it led to some of the decisions we ended up having to make as an organization this offseason.
“It's another day, another day for me to get better. I'm looking at it as another learning experience that's going to add to my ability to play quarterback at a high level.”
Slowik is a first-time coordinator and play-caller after working for Kyle Shanahan for nine seasons, including the last six with the 49ers. His system will be similar to the one Shanahan utilizes and the one Gary Kubiak employed in eight seasons with the Texans. Mills is intelligent enough to adjust to his third system.
“The only thing difficult is just picking up new plays and not having anything to fall back on from the previous year,” he said. “A lot of different offenses across the league run similar concepts, but they're just calling it different things. Some of it is getting rid of the old verbiage and picking up new terminology. A lot of the other stuff is learning from new coaches, the new guys we have in the room and finding ways to get better.”
Mills’ contract doesn’t expire until after the 2024 season. As a third-round pick, he doesn’t cost the Texans a lot of money. There’s no rush to trade him, and he shouldn’t be released.
Once quarterbacks start to get injured, maybe general manager Nick Caserio can get a draft choice for him. If Stroud or Keenum is injured, Mills won’t be going anywhere. There are a lot of possibilities for him, but knowing Mills, he’ll just focus on learning from Slowik and Johnson and trying to improve on a daily basis.
“I actually went to a quarterback camp with (Johnson) when he was working the Elite 11 circuit when I was in high school, so I've known him for years,” Mills said about the Houston native. “Bobby is another guy that's been great to know. He's another guy that's put in hours and hours studying defenses. I know he's worked on the defensive side of the ball. He even has more insight than what a strictly offensive coach would have. It's been good seeing how he's going to game plan to attack defenses and use our personnel to make big plays.
“A ton of stuff we talk about in that offense is firing the ball in our inside-outside zone run scheme, using our big, athletic linemen, getting our playmakers on the edge, setting up play-action and ways in the drop-back game to get our guys in space with the ability to run after catch. We've been pushing the tempo a lot, being aggressive with timing and anticipation on our side as the quarterbacks, and really trying to emphasize to those guys on the edge that we're playing fast, and we're going to run by people this year.”
Like Stroud, Mills plans to soak up as much of Keenum’s knowledge as possible. Keenum, 35, has played for seven teams, including three times with the Texans.
“It's a new offense for me (and) a new offense for him, but he’s been in a version of it previously,” Mills said. “He has a ton of built-up knowledge from being in the NFL for so many years. It's been great getting to ask him different questions and seeing his experiences and being able to learn from him.”
Whether he plays for the Texans or another team, Mills will have a new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, making the 2023 season a third consecutive learning experience for him.
At this early point of his career, stability has been a foreign concept, something he hopes to eventually rectify.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He writes three columns a week and does two Houtopia Football Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com.