HOUSTON — The Texans apparently found the quarterback they were looking for, who had been with them the entire season. Somehow, Ryan Mallett had difficulty escaping the shadow of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who last year backed up the long disappointing Jake Locker in Tennessee.
At his best, Fitzpatrick is a poor man’s Alex Smith. Like Smith, he has subpar arm strength, but he can run with purpose and effect, and he’s a tireless worker who knows his craft. He has a Harvard education and an ability to read defenses. And perhaps next to Aaron Rodgers, he has the greatest oratory skills in the NFL.
And unlike Smith, Fitz manages to heave his helium ball downfield that rangy receivers like DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Johnson – much unlike Smith’s — can haul in for a 30-yard gain and add yards after the catch. For the season Fitz is averaging 8.1 yards per pass, which is better than Brees, Brady or either Manning. And the Fitz’s 17-8 TD/pick ratio is also close to elite-caliber.
On the field, Fitzgerald sees his opportunities downfield – and seizes them. His coach, Bill O’Brien pointed out that “he’s good when he has a clean pocket around him.”
When he has time to throw, and Hopkins, Johnson, Arian Foster and – in the red zone — J.J. Watt to throw to, the Texans are a formidable offensive force.
Prior to Houston’s early-season win over Buffalo, Fitzpatrick, who two years ago started for the Bills, delivered a convincing locker-room speech in which he declared, “I know how to beat that team.”
He beat the Bills and a few other teams. But just like the Bengals, Bills and Titans had found when he quarterbacked for them, the Texans couldn’t get over the .500 hump with a short-armed quarterback who tends to lob interceptions when pressured.
Fitzpatrick’s arm strength is laughable by NFL standards. In a training camp drill he could not throw the ball 45 yards through the uprights.
But he was good enough at leadership to keep a team afloat.
Or maybe not.
As much as O’Brien tried to ignore Mallett, there he was in practice, 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, flinging missiles as easily as if tossing a frisbee. It had been the same with the New England Patriots, where O’Brien watched Mallett backing up Tom Brady, with all being under the vigilant eye of Bill Belichick.
But no matter how pretty his passes were on the practice field, there were questions, going back to Mallett’s college days at Arkansas, about his decision-making under fire. Which is one of the criticisms that dogs Fitzpatrick.
A few days before his much anticipated debut in Cleveland on Nov. 16, Mallett tried to reassure Houstonians that “I’m not a dumb quarterback like a lot of people say.”
Many of us who saw Mallett play in college suspect he was the victim of coaching stupidity more than his own. At any rate, there was never a compelling reason to test his football IQ during real NFL games, as long as the highly durable and all but enshrined Brady is above him on the depth chart.
The Texans were in their bye week when Obie decided to pull Mallett out of the tool chest. They proceeded to pulverize the Browns, 23-7. Foster’s sub, Alfred Blue, rushed for 156 yards and Mallett struck through the air for 211 and two touchdowns.
Cleveland’s quarterback, Brian Hoyer, was not surprised. He had been a teammate with Mallett in New England, where “he had the strongest arm I’ve ever seen.”
O’Brien, who invariably prepares his team well even if not distinguishing himself as a game-day tactician, followed a blueprint that often works for debuts: The coach equips a rookie with the nine or ten pass plays he performs best, and the defense has no way of knowing what those plays are.
Though fooled at first, the defensive coordinators soon have film so they can dissect the kid’s weaknesses. Poof, Case Keenum is done.
We didn’t get to see if Mallett is another Keenum, or a Brady-in-waiting.
After he made only two starts, the Texans lost Mallett to injury because he was training too hard in the weight room. He ripped a pectoral muscle trying to bulk up like a tight end. He played anyway but did not play well in a loss to Cincinnati.
So now the Texans see a quandary.
Mallett becomes a free agent at the end of this season, his rookie contract expiring as major surgery looms. If the Texans sign him to a contract, they will have to deal with questions about their role in his injury, just as Mike Shanahan may be forever linked to the crash of RGIII in Washington.
Why would a quarterback do strenuous weight-lifting during the season? Who does Mallett need to block? And what does this tell you about HIS decision-making at 26?
Where was the strength coach while this training regimen was going on? Where was the quarterback coach?
O’Brien as much as possible tries to emulate his mentor Belichick. But I doubt he ever saw Tom Brady straining himself in the weight room with the football season in progress.
So now, Mallett’s market value is shaky.
But is it shakier than Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback? Or a fling at a draft that this year produced only moderately successful first-round quarterbacks in Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater.
Fitzpatrick had his career day Sunday against a Tennessee defense that provided little of the pressure it put on Ben Roethlisberger a couple of weeks earlier. Fitzpatrick threw six touchdown passes and had no sacks or interceptions in a 45-21 romp.
So the Texans are 6-6 in the AFC South, whose leader, Indianapolis, seems unimposing at 8-4, having yielded 51 points to Pittsburgh, 42 to New England, 27 to Washington.
All those teams have balanced offenses and penetrating receivers – very Texan. And as Washington showed with Colt McCoy, it doesn’t take an elite passer to find holes in Indy’s defense.
The Colts won 33-28 in Houston in October, but that was before the new Fitz emerged.
Mallett, with his long-term knowledge of O’Brien’s offense, ran it better – and threw it better — than Fitz had done. Fitzgerald, to his credit, did not fail to notice. “I learned a few things watching Ryan run the offense,” he said after his 358 yards against an admittedly bedraggled Titans team.
The Texans are a longshot for the playoffs, but there’s an avenue to get there.
They need, foremost, steady production from a beaten-down and unenthusiastic Foster, who’s nursing a strained hamstring.
When healthy, which is not often, Foster is the NFL’s best all-purpose back, a power driver with speed and hands who’s among the most reliable of blitz protectors.
Meanwhile, Houston’s defense is steadily improving as Romeo Crenel knocks opponents off balance with his multiple schemes. Blitzing safety DJ Swearinger at times looks like an emerging Polamalu. Crenel almost makes you forget he has the most mediocre linebacking in the league. Not the worst, just the most consistently mediocre – awaiting a more complete comeback from Brian Cushing.
But there’s always the incandescent Watt, deserving of his MVP buzz, even if, let’s be honest, his total impact is somewhat less than that of Aaron Rodgers.
Watt-ever, he’s a monster growing meaner and more dominant every week. He produces constant disruption: sacks, swat-downs, fumbles, interceptions, blocked kicks and end-zone dances of varying quality.
Perhaps one day he will be complemented by the pass rush of the league’s top pick overall, Jadaveon Clowney. “Doctor Clowney,” O’Brien sarcastically calls him, referring to his RGIII-like knack of espousing on the details of a knee injury that keeps him from playing very much.
Yes, another truly fierce pass rusher besides Watt would be good to have. As for the schedule, it’s highly favorable. Two of the Texans’ last four games are against Jacksonville. Aside from those gimmes, they will have to beat Baltimore at NRG and win at Indianapolis, on Dec. 14.
A student of probability or a safecracker would say that’s not a likely combination. But given the repeated stumbles by Indy and Baltimore (lost last week at home to San Diego), the Texans are not looking at an impossible quest. The best of Fitzpatrick, while not as good as Mallett, could still be good enough.