When Stanford head coach David Shaw talks about the No. 1 trait to look for in NFL quarterbacks, he usually reverts back to his time playing for the legendary Bill Walsh in the early 1990s.
That’s when Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers head coach, was leading the Stanford program and Shaw was a young wide receiver there.
Years later, the two would meet in the offseasons, when Shaw had entry level coaching gigs at Western Washington, the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders.
Walsh once asked Shaw what he thought were the most important traits of a quarterback. Shaw started listing the measurables: accuracy, footwork.
The older coach told him all of that was good, but to look more for instincts. That trumped everything, Walsh told Shaw, even though it's not measurable.
“But you know it when you see it,” Shaw told In The Loop on Wednesday from the Paul “Bear” Bryant Awards in Houston. “So when you combine instincts with the athleticism, arm strength, toughness, intelligence, competitiveness, etcetera, then you’ve got a really, really good one. And that’s what I saw from the very beginning with Davis Mills. He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s got the instincts of that split-second decision, ‘is this a flat ball? Is this a ball that needs a little bit of arc, do I need to go three-quarter arm, do I need to go side arm? Do I need to hold it for a second and retreat a little bit as this guy gets in my face, and then let this thing go?’
“So all of those things that it takes to be good in the NFL, Davis has shown those and I knew once he got enough reps and got enough opportunities to play, he would catch up with the speed of the game. And I think that’s what you saw the last month of the season. He was as good as anybody, including some of the great ones, down the stretch in the NFL.”
Part of that is Shaw talking up his former player. Mills played for Shaw at Stanford from 2017 until 2020. Texans quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who worked with Shaw at Stanford from 2010-2012, was one of the early talent evaluators following Mills when he was in high school.
Mills, a third-round pick and the first for general manager Nick Caserio, did just turn in the most productive season for a rookie quarterback in Texans history.
He is likely the Texans’ starter going into 2022, even if they bring in another quarterback simply for depth.
Mills came a long way from when he was thrown into action with Tyrod Taylor’s injury in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns.
Center Justin Britt pointed to Mills’ growth from that time as what helped the Texans make progress after losing eight consecutive games.
Houston went 2-4 in the last six games with Mills starting. He also had the second-highest completion percentage and passer rating among rookie quarterbacks who started more than two games.
“If you look at him Week 2 when he stepped in for Tyrod (Taylor) and the nervousness of how he was going about it or the Buffalo game when the ball slipped out of his hand,” Britt said Monday. “The growth of him throughout the season is kind of what we were and how it went. We are only as strong as our leaders and the people who guide us. The way that he grew allowed us to keep improving and keep working.”
Veteran guard Lane Taylor said last week that he was impressed to see how far Mills had progressed since training camp.
"He was clearly a rookie this training camp, doing a lot of rookie things," Taylor said. "But over the course of the year, you can tell he’s just grown and grown and grown, and really taken over the huddle and done great things. I look for him to keep improving over the years."
Shaw took it a step further.
“It comes in stages for an NFL quarterback and some of the big-timers, they skip a lot of the stages,” the Stanford coach said. “But for a guy like Davis Mills, who just got comfortable, that’s the first thing - getting comfortable. And now you really start to take charge and there were moments where you saw him take charge. …
“Now, as the Texans continue to build, they’ve got that top-round draft pick. They don’t have to go get a quarterback. They’ve got one now. Now, you can put those other pieces around him. Because what you all saw this year, what if you give him a true No. 1 tight end, or what if you add another receiver, or that big-time pass rusher?”