On Sunday, the Texans finally got the kind of quarterbacking performance Bill O’Brien and Co. were expecting would be the norm after they inked Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal back in March. Well, other than the fact it came from a guy named Tom Savage.
After O’Brien benched Osweiler early in the second quarter, Savage came in and led the Texans from 13 points down to beat the Jaguars 21–20, push Houston to 8–6, and keep the team tied atop the AFC South with the Titans. Yet, despite Savage’s adequacy (23-for-36, 63.8 percent, for 260 yards) in the face of Osweiler’s inadequacy (a 59.6 percent completion rate with 14 touchdowns and 16 picks), O’Brien refused to commit to a starter for next week’s game against Cincinnati.
“I think we’ve got three really talented quarterbacks here — I really do,” O’Brien said after the game, also including Brandon Weeden. “We don’t make decisions [based] on how much a guy gets paid.”
Houston fans should hope that’s true, because on Sunday, Savage was everything Osweiler hasn’t been: He was poised, confidently leading the offense in methodical drives downfield and dabbling in no-huddle. He was accurate. He was aggressive. And he made a bunch of big throws under pressure. The third-year pro out of Pitt looked nothing like the guy we last saw in 2014, when he made two relief appearances and compiled a 52.6 percent completion rate with no touchdowns and one interception at 6.7 yards per attempt. No, the former fourth-round pick looked much more like the guy we saw this preseason, when he threw four touchdowns and recorded a 98.0 passer rating in four games.
Of course, Savage’s play wasn’t perfect either, but for now, O’Brien is just stalling on formally benching Osweiler. If Houston’s head coach is truly operating a meritocracy, Savage is going to be Houston’s starter on Christmas Eve. Once O’Brien pops in the tape of Sunday’s game, he’s going to see a lot more good than bad out of his soon-to-be-former backup quarterback.
The first thing that stood out about Savage’s performance was the throws into the face of pressure. Osweiler, who finished the game 6-of-11 for 48 yards and two interceptions, registered a passer rating of exactly 0.0 when under pressure on Sunday. Compare that to Savage, whose passer rating was 101.7 when under pressure and 103.0 when blitzed.
Savage’s second throw of the game, a deep shot down the sideline to Wendall Williams (who?) that picked up 32 yards, came in the face of a middle-linebacker blitz. Running back Lamar Miller did a good job of slowing down Jacksonville’s Paul Posluszny, but Savage still had to make the throw just as he was about to be hit.
On this throw to DeAndre Hopkins early in the third quarter, Savage kept his cool in the pocket and delivered the football despite knowing he was about to get blown up by Yannick Ngakoue.
Later, instead of panicking and trying to spin or elude pressure, Savage hung tough. After waiting long enough for the play to develop, he hit Keith Mumphery for an 11-yard gain that didn’t result in a first down, but put the Texans into field goal range.
On two more throws, both early in the fourth quarter, Savage made big completions from a “muddied pocket.” With pressure closing in around him, he kept his focus downfield and bought just enough time to get off both throws.
If you look at Osweiler’s average depth of target this year — 9.3 yards, 11th highest in the league per Pro Football Focus — it’s clear that O’Brien wants his quarterback to push the ball down the field. But Osweiler simply can’t operate in that system: He is dead last among qualifying passers in yards per attempt (5.8) and yards per completion (9.7). In just three-quarters of a game, Savage flashed more downfield potential than Osweiler has all year.
He hit tight end Ryan Griffin on a pair of deep shots down the middle late in the second quarter and early in the third …
… and then late in the third, he threw a dime to Hopkins in the end zone that really should’ve been a touchdown.
Savage’s best pass of the game, though, was this deep out to Hopkins on a third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. It required timing, arm strength, and accuracy.
That brings us to perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Savage’s Sunday: He got the ball into the hands of Houston’s superstar receiver. Prior to the weekend, Hopkins had been held to under 75 receiving yards in 11 straight games, but it was not for a lack of trying, as Hopkins came into the game 12th in targets (117) but just 32nd in catches (60). Last year, Hopkins caught 111 balls for 1,521 yards and 11 scores from the awful combination of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Weeden. So it’s another indictment of Osweiler’s performance that Hopkins had just 60 catches for 701 yards and four touchdowns before the Jacksonville game. But with Savage throwing the ball, Hopkins caught eight passes for 87 yards, most of those receptions coming against the talented rookie Jalen Ramsey.
Now, it wasn’t all good for Savage on Sunday. As his final stat line shows, the Jags held the backup passer out of the end zone, and just one of the nine drives he led ended with a touchdown. The Texans came into the game converting just 41.7 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns, ahead of only the lowly Jets, who barely count at this point. So while Savage was clearly a spark overall, Houston’s struggles near the end zone continued. The lowlight of Savage’s game was a missed fade to Hopkins on fourth down from the 1-yard line late in the first half. Again: Stop throwing fades, everyone.
Savage also struggled on third down, completing five of seven passes but converting only three of seven chances. On a third-and-4 a little more than halfway through the third quarter, it legitimately looked like he was trying to throw to Jaguars defensive lineman Malik Jackson, but Jackson dropped it. Then, on a third-and-3 late in the third quarter, Savage sailed an easy quick out to Hopkins and got his receiver blown up by Ramsey.
Overall, though, it’s hard to pick too many holes in Savage’s game — especially considering the mess he inherited. Houston’s offense came into this week’s matchup ranked 31st in DVOA, tied for 28th in points per game (17.6), and 31st in yards per play (4.8). Without much help from the run game, which picked up 79 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries (2.5 yards per rush), he made a bad, bad offense into something at least resembling competent.
Plus, while this may sound like damning with faint praise, Savage didn’t turn the ball over. When pressure came on a few plays and nothing was open downfield, he threw the ball away, showing veteran savvy to live to play another down. The Jags scored 10 points off of Osweiler’s two picks on Sunday, and his second interception (the straw that got the camel benched) came in the face of pressure. He escaped briefly and made a “heroic” pass into triple coverage that was easily picked off. Osweiler exited the game tied for second in the league in interceptions (16), and if Savage just can manage the game and avoid throwing as many back-breaking picks, the Texans will be in much better shape for the final two weeks and potentially beyond. The slightly-above-average defense has had to carry them thus far, and it really needs the help.
It’s not going to be easy for O’Brien to formally bench his $72 million man. They likely can’t dump Osweiler’s contract until after 2017, so the fallout from sitting him for a guy who’s making $600,000 in base salary this year would stretch into next season. But it’s something that the Texans need to do: Savage isn’t going to light the world on fire, but at this point Houston just needs someone who isn’t going to blow himself up.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Titans hold the tiebreaker in the AFC South over the Texans; the Texans hold the tiebreaker.