I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to talk about the Houston Texans this much in 2023. They had a nice little offseason, hiring the brilliant DeMeco Ryans away from the 49ers, trading up to draft a blue-chip defensive prospect in Will Anderson, and picking C.J. Stroud to lead the franchise for the next decade. This season seemed like it would be a step in the right direction for a franchise that had been wandering aimlessly for the past few years, but it didn’t seem like we’d have to take Houston seriously for at least another year or two.
Well, we’re now a little over a week out from Thanksgiving, and the Texans are sitting at 5-4 and just a game out of first in the AFC South. They own the division’s best point differential and have already beaten the first-place Jaguars on the road. In the AFC, only the Chiefs, Ravens, Bills, Dolphins, and Browns have outscored opponents by more points this season. Houston is still a cut below the top tier in the conference, but after Sunday’s dramatic 30-27 win over the Bengals, a team that has made the AFC title game in each of the past two years, the Texans could be not only a playoff team, but also one that could pull off an upset and disrupt the power structure in the conference.
While a lot has had to go right for Houston to get to this spot so quickly, it doesn’t take a football expert to figure out the primary catalyst: Stroud. The rookie quarterback followed up a record-setting performance against the Buccaneers last week by outplaying Joe Burrow in his own stadium and leading the Texans on a game-winning drive. Stroud is now second in the NFL in passing yards and ranks in the top 10 in almost every efficiency metric, including expected points added and QBR. That’s how Houston has stuck around in the playoff chase despite featuring a bad running game and an exciting but mediocre defense.
This is what the great quarterbacks do. They accelerate a team’s timeline. Stroud has been so good, so early, that it’s no longer a question whether he should be the offensive rookie of the year, or whether the Panthers erred in passing on him to take Bryce Young with the top pick in April. Those conversations have already moved on. Stroud’s points of comparison aren’t Young, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis. They’re Dan Marino, Andrew Luck, and Justin Herbert—at least among all-time NFL rookie seasons. If you didn’t know anything about the second pick from the 2023 draft, I’d forgive you for thinking “the first rookie QB since” was part of his legal name. It’s all you heard after Stroud led Houston to a second game-winning drive in as many weeks on Sunday.
Stroud is on pace to become the first rookie QB to lead the NFL in passing yards since Davey O’Brien in 1939. Only Herbert and Luck threw for more yards in their first nine starts. Since the turn of the century, only five rookie quarterbacks have averaged more EPA per dropback: Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Matt Ryan (2008), Robert Griffin III (2012), Russell Wilson (2012), and Dak Prescott (2016). Here’s a list of first-year quarterbacks who have averaged more yards per dropback over that span:
There is no list. It’s Stroud all by himself.
We don’t even need the “rookie” caveat to talk about Stroud anymore. He ranks seventh in the NFL in EPA per play after 10 weeks. He’s slotted in right behind Tua Tagovailoa, who’s throwing to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and backed by the league’s most efficient run game, and Jalen Hurts, who is pulling in $51 million a year to throw to A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith while playing behind the best offensive line in football. The Texans have provided Stroud with a good (not great) supporting cast, and he’s keeping pace with two guys who have been in the MVP discussion the past two years. He’s been more efficient than Herbert, Burrow, Matthew Stafford, Geno Smith, Trevor Lawrence, Jared Goff, and Kirk Cousins. He is leading a passing game that ranks third in DVOA. We aren’t just watching a great rookie season; this would be a great season for any quarterback in the league, regardless of experience level.
We’ve rarely seen a rookie quarterback perform like this, but it’s not unusual for a quarterback, young or old, to put up dominant stretches only to regress toward the mean over a larger sample size. Griffin looked like the NFL’s next star before injuries stalled his development. Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate in his second year and is now struggling to hold down a job. Mac Jones was the best rookie of 2021 and has been benched for Bailey Zappe four times since October of last year. It’s worth asking whether what Stroud is doing is sustainable. But every time you put his game in the spotlight, he comes out looking even better. How Stroud has done this is even more impressive than the historic accomplishments.
Usually, when we see a rookie quarterback get off to a fast start, the formula involves a strong running game around him, a dominant offensive line, imaginative play-calling, and a good group of skill players. While the Texans have certainly supplied their young quarterback with some of those pieces, this isn’t a situation in which just any young quarterback would thrive.
One thing Houston’s offense hasn’t done well this season is run the football. Even after getting over 100 yards from Devin Singletary against Cincinnati on Sunday, the Texans rank 27th in run EPA, 22nd in rushing success rate, and 30th in rushing average, according to TruMedia. That’s led to 54 percent of Stroud’s dropbacks coming in obvious passing situations, the seventh-highest mark in the NFL this season. Those second-and-long and third-down situations are when passing is most difficult. It’s when defensive coordinators dial up unique pressures and coverage disguises, and when rookie quarterbacks tend to look like rookie quarterbacks. But not Stroud, who has held his own against the trickiest play callers in the NFL, including Baltimore’s Mike Macdonald in his first start and Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo on Sunday.
Stroud never flinched against Anarumo, who’s gotten the better of quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen on the NFL’s biggest stages. But the veteran defensive coordinator did make it hard for the rookie with his trademark tricks: changing up his coverage calls and drawing up well-designed pressures to get Stroud’s mind racing. They just didn’t work. That’s been a theme throughout the season for Stroud, whose production hasn’t been padded by easy, schemed-up throws. The Texans quarterback is averaging over 9 air yards per attempt. He’s the only quarterback ranked in the top 10 in EPA who can say that, according to RBSDM.com. He ranks near the bottom of the league in yards-after-catch percentage. He’s lost about four expected points on screen passes. And Houston’s play-action rate, and his production on those plays, is about league average. There are no gimmicks here. This is real quarterbacking—locally sourced, farm-to-table passing.
That’s not to say the Texans offense isn’t well-designed. First-year coordinator Bobby Slowik, who came over with Ryans from Kyle Shanahan’s staff in San Francisco, runs a solid version of Shanahan’s scheme. He’s doing his best to work around some of the personnel deficiencies the Texans are dealing with—including an offensive line that has been beaten up over the first half of the season—and generally provide Stroud with open targets. But Stroud’s success has differed from that of quarterbacks in this same offense—like Brock Purdy and Tagovailoa—because Houston doesn’t rely on attacking the middle of the field. Sure, there have been some games where Stroud has a standard Shanahan offense passing map: green dots concentrated in the center of the field.
But even when teams have taken away those throws, Stroud has proved capable of attacking outside with similar precision:
Stroud is doing a lot of the stuff we’ve praised Purdy and Tagovailoa for doing in their offenses—throwing with anticipation and touch over the middle—but he’s providing a little something extra thanks to his physical talent, which, we can say now, was underrated during draft season. Against the Bengals on Sunday, Stroud was a creative force. He used his quickness and speed to buy time and then used his arm strength and strong core to get the ball to his receivers.
Like past Ohio State quarterbacks, who don’t have the best track record in this league, Stroud had a lot of help around him in college and rarely needed to improvise to keep the offense humming. Ad-libbing wasn’t on his tape because it didn’t need to be. Scouts knocked him for that in the predraft process. And they also questioned his processing speed, which has been a common complaint about past Buckeyes quarterbacks. But as easy as those oversights would be to mock now, it’s difficult to blame scouts for getting it wrong. The Ohio State product didn’t do any athletic testing before the draft. He didn’t run, jump, or lift at the NFL combine or his pro day in Columbus, so we couldn’t quantify his talent. And then even Stroud admitted that he could have used his mobility more in college.
“I’ll be honest, I told [NFL teams] like I’ll tell y’all: I didn’t do it a lot in college, and I feel like I should have,” Stroud said in March. “It’s something I do regret. I feel like I could have done it a lot more. … But when dudes are open, you feed your guys the ball or they look at you like you’re crazy when you walk back to the sidelines. If you’re open, you’re going to get the ball.”
In Ohio State’s offense, dudes were always open, and Stroud was always finding them on time, so he rarely had to run. But in the pros, that’s no longer the case, and the young quarterback has already made a significant adjustment to his decision-making process. In 2023, his average scramble comes after 4.5 seconds, according to Pro Football Focus. In his final season at Ohio State, that happened at 6.34 seconds. That’s a 1.8-second difference! Compare that to the other rookie quarterbacks.
Average Time to Scramble for the 2023 QB Class
|Player||2022 (CFB)||2023 (NFL)||Difference|
|Player||2022 (CFB)||2023 (NFL)||Difference|
Now that the situation and his surrounding talent calls for it, Stroud is scrambling his ass off, and defenders are having a tough time keeping up. In a September win against Jacksonville, Stroud reached 19.6 miles per hour on a run. That’s the ninth-highest speed for any QB on a run attempt this season, per Next Gen Stats, and just 0.1 MPH slower than Richardson’s fastest run. The Colts rookie is a bigger fella, but he also ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at the combine, so Stroud keeping up with him suggests that the Texans QB could be a special athlete.
The first few months of his pro career also suggest he’s a special thrower. Arm talent hasn’t been an issue for Stroud, and while it wasn’t seen as a weakness for him as a prospect, it wasn’t held up as a major strength either. Again, that attribute may have just been harder for scouts to pick up on while watching Stroud play in a stacked offense. He was throwing to wide-open receivers from a clean pocket at Ohio State, so a lot of zip wasn’t required. Wide-open receivers and clean pockets don’t come around too often in the NFL, but that hasn’t affected Stroud’s performance. The rookie has made several high-level throws on the move that require blue-chip arm talent.
There isn’t a box Stroud hasn’t checked this season. He’s got the numbers and the tape, and now he’s starting to collect wins over the league’s other up-and-coming signal-callers. The MVP talk has officially started after the win in Cincinnati, and even if it feels a bit premature for a guy with nine games under his belt, you better get used to hearing Stroud’s name in those discussions. It’s going to be happening for a long time.