Was Bill O’Brien too slow switching to Tom Savage?


Clearly, Savage time had come. Should it have come earlier?

HOUSTON – It was a long and winding road that led to Tom Savage replacing the totally dysfunctional quarterback Brock Osweiler. It was a bright idea that was slow in coming to Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien. It was just a matter of time before Osweiler would be jettisoned. Was it too much time?

It took being down two touchdowns to woeful Jacksonville in Week 15 to inspire O’Brien to find a seat on the sideline for someone widely described as “the worst starting quarterback in the league.”

Osweiler’s season stats are deplorable: 59% complete, 5.8 yards per pass – and upside-down, with 16 interceptions to 14 touchdowns.

Could Savage possibly be that bad? Apparently O’Brien thought so. As he saw it, this was another journeyman like he’s had before, a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mallett. Indeed, the Savage resume is dotted with red flags.

He began his college career at the academically respected Rutgers, so maybe he’s not dumb. But he mysteriously fell out of favor after starting as a freshman. He was benched following an injury in his sophomore season.

So he transferred to Arizona, only to be crushed by the arrival of Rich Rodriguez, who promised to install a spread offense with a running quarterback, which Savage is not. Rich-Rod did not think pocket passer Savage worthy of revising his playbook.

So Savage transferred again, this time to the U of Pittsburgh.

He put up solid numbers throughout his far-ranging college career, except for his sack total. In 849 drop-backs he was tackled for the loss 92 times.

Scouts liked his 6-5 height and strong arm, but not his struggle to locate receivers downfield and his immobility. He didn’t slide away from pressure. He was a fourth-round pick in 2014, not a likely starter, but perhaps he could develop into a semi-reliable backup.

In training camp the Texans equipped Savage with a high-tech vision aid strapped to his head. It was supposed to improve his readership of defenses, and perhaps it did. But O’Brien was still doubtful.

If Savage had looked like a possible franchise quarterback, would Texans general manager Rick Smith have engaged in an ill-conceived bidding war for Peyton Manning’s backup?

It was a war Denver Broncos president John Elway was happy to lose to the only team interested in fighting it. A Hall of Fame quarterback himself, Elway was well aware of Osweiler’s limitations, one being that he’s a slow reader of defenses. Sort of like, well, Tom Savage.

Although Savage outplayed Osweiler during the preseason, the Texans stayed committed to a player with a contract guaranteed for two years at $37 million.

“We don’t make decisions on how much a guy gets paid,” O’Brien insisted. But of course, that’s exactly what they did. O’Brien could not have benched Osweiler without causing a rift with Smith.

But eventually it occurred to O’Brien that Osweiler could cost the jobs of both the GM and the coach. Smith’s only hope is that Savage is better than he thought.

To be truthful, Savage has been nothing special in his two appearances for the Texans. His 82.6 passer rating is hardly another world from Osweiler’s 71.4. Savage has yet to throw a TD. Or complete a 35-yard pass. He was sacked four times Saturday night by the Cincinnati Bengals, and O’Brien felt two were the fault of the quarterback.

But Savage was as game as a game manager can be, making sure the ball was secure. The 12-10 nudge past slovenly Cincy was not a treasure, but O’Brien saw that “it doesn’t matter what it looks like, we’re in the playoffs.”

Unlike Osweiler constantly withering under pressure, Savage seems steady, composed. He will take the sack, but he won’t heave the ball to a crowd. He understands risk/reward in a way that Osweiler did not.

Against better teams than the Bengals – as all the playoff entries will be – O’Brien will have to let Savage strike deep for the speedy Will Fuller and the ex-Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, who was visibly frustrated by the incompetence of Osweiler.

Unfortunately, Hopkins may start resenting that his very sure hands are being tied by O’Brien.

So far, OB has shown no confidence in Savage throwing downfield. The run-obsessed coach doesn’t create much opportunity for a sustained drive by calling 5-yard slants on third-and-eight.

But in a city weary of the Osweiler turnover machine, the fact that Savage hasn’t thrown a pick almost justifies a parade down Main Street.

As for O’Brien, he’s drawing Coach of the Year buzz for rallying his team to a playoff berth after losing its best player, J.J. Watt, early in the season.

By holding off on benching Osweiler, O’Brien avoided the dreaded Quarterback Controversy. By now, even the Brockster sees the change as unavoidable. By all accounts the locker room is solidly behind Savage.

The switch came not a minute too soon. But it may turn out that it was precisely the right time.

 

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