When the Houston Texans traded up from No. 25 to No. 12 in the 2017 NFL Draft to acquire Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, the thought — or maybe the hope, and definitely the chatter — was that Tom Savage would start for a few weeks and let Watson get acclimatized.
In Pro Football Talk's PFT Live back in May, Texans beat writer John McClain said, "…there is no true competition. Savage is the starter, and he'll remain the starter until injured or proven ineffective during the regular season."
In late June, ESPN's Texans reporter Sarah Barshop said, "the Texans will do everything possible to allow Savage to be a game manager, working with a great defense and a run game they hope can be consistently productive."
Just today, Texans coach Bill O'Brien said no decision has been made about who will start Thursday night's game at Cincinnati. So who should start? Let's break down the two possibilities: Tom Savage vs. Deshaun Watson.
The Tom Savage Era
The Texans offense truly terrible in the first half of their season opener against the Jaguars. Tom Savage really didn't even have a chance to look bad because the Jaguars pass rush was on top of him before he could catch the snap. This kind of thing was pretty standard:
Savage has 1.9 seconds from the time the ball touches his hands until he is touched by a Jacksonville defender. Some Jags used the bull rush, some used the speed rush, but they sent four guys and all four got home.
Tom Savage myths:
1) He had a bad game (Most accurate game from a Texans QB in years)
2) Holds onto the ball too long (2 reps over 2.5 sec)
— Jayson Braddock (@JaysonBraddock) September 11, 2017
That's what they were working with on Sunday. Here's the Texans two-minute drill at the end of the first half, to give you a little taste of what it looked like.
Houston gets the ball back with 2:02 left in the half after Leonard Fournette scored a short touchdown to put the Jaguars up 12-0 (the Texans defensive front looked pretty bad against the Jags offensive line in the first half, but that's a whole separate article).
For the first two Houston plays, the offensive line actually protected decently well. Savage completes two accurate, on-time passes to Deandre Hopkins and CJ Fiedorowicz for seven and 15 yards, respectively. He still ended up on his back after the Hopkins pass, but it worked. Then the fun began.
Here's the Texans next play — 1st and 10 from their own 47 with 1:18 left in the half:
Jacksonville picked it up and ran it into the end zone, but it was reviewed and called an incomplete pass. Crisis averted. Temporarily.
After that, Savage targeted Hopkins on two straight pass plays (good call), both of which resulted in pass interference calls. That brought the Texans to 1st and 10 on the Jacksonville 31. (A side note here: the Texans gained 27 penalty yards in the first half on plays where Savage targeted Hopkins — they gained 56 yards rushing and passing the ball.)
Here's the 1st and 10 on the Jacksonville 31 after the interference calls — 1:06 left in the half:
As you can see, the pocket collapses from the outside-in, forcing Savage up and into the waiting arms of Calais Campbell. Considering he had already been sacked four times at this point, and pressured on damn near every dropback, it would have been nice to see Savage get the ball out of his hand with some urgency here.
It would have been even nicer to see the Houston coaches call something quicker. This three-step dropback out of shotgun wasn't exactly a slow-to-develop play, but the Jacksonville defense knew exactly what was coming. Zero misdirection on anything. Savage never stood a chance.
This should have been a one-step throw type play. Get it out of Savage's hands NOW. I only bring this up because we're going to come back to the playcalling later.
Here is the next play after that sack — 2nd and 16 with 49 seconds left in the half, down 12-0:
The edge blocking was bad, the blocking up the middle was bad, and the result was awful. Again, Savage has NO time to throw the ball before the Jags defensive linemen are on him.
This is an ideal scenario for the Jacksonville defensive ends — they know exactly what's coming and how to stop it. All the Jags have to do is get by their man and destroy the quarterback, which they were able to do time and time again.
What are the Houston coaches thinking here? Play action obviously wouldn't work here (too late in the half for a run-fake after they've already established they are looking to move the ball down field) and Savage isn't athletic enough for a bootleg. But straight dropbacks were the best they could come up with? Why not a screen pass or some slants? The defensive line is fully committed to the pass rush, over-penetrating, and the Jags DBs have proven they can't do much against Hopkins.
If not those, then hand the ball off three times and get into the locker room. They had already given up one strip sack, nearly gave up another, and it didn't take a genius to see something like this might be coming. Christ, just take a knee. Jacksonville only has one timeout left at this point.
A lot of it doesn't make sense. After the kickoff, they came back out and ran the ball for six yards. Good. Let's just get to the locker room before this gets any worse. But then they pass! Inexplicably, with 20 seconds left in the half, on their own 32 yard line, the Houston Texans call a pass play. Mercifully, they complete it for seven yards, thus ending the Tom Savage era in Houston.
Final note on the Savage Era: the Texans ran three play-action passes in the first half. They completed one for seven yards and two were catchable passes dropped by Texans receivers. Here's the lone completion:
If you weren't paying close attention, you might think, "yeah, that worked okay. Savage had a clean pocket and time to throw, and delivered a pretty good pass." The second part is true. The first part is not.
Watch Jacksonville defensive tackle Malik Jackson, lined up in the B gap between the right guard and right tackle. Notice anything? He gets into the backfield so fast that he thinks they are setting him up for a screen pass, so he hesitates. That's the only reason Tom Savage is alive today. Here's another angle:
The Deshaun Watson Era
The Texans got the ball to start the second half, and out came Deshaun Watson. The offense IMMEDIATELY got better. The very first play from scrimmage was a read-option look that never would have worked with Savage:
The defensive linemen can't crash down like they had with Savage in the game, and it opens up space for Lamar Miller to bust out a seven-yard gain.
The Houston offense was incredibly vanilla with Savage. (Remember the lack of play-action.) But with Watson on the field, we can already see the Texans force Jacksonville defenders to make choices. The defense has to respect his legs.
Then they go no-huddle and try the read-option handoff again, this time it doesn't work. Miller is dropped for no gain. You can already see this is different. Then look, slants!
They drove all the way down the field like this — quick pass, read-option look, play-action bootleg, and then the best part. Watch what Watson does when he faces pressure from the outside:
This is especially exciting because it looks a whole lot like a play from earlier with Savage in the game, except with one crucial difference:
Watson can run! It's not his go-to, but it's an option for sure.
The rest of the drive wasn't as good. Watson made some bad throws and some rookie mistakes, and wasn't on the same page as his wide receivers several different times. But the pressure he and the Texans offense exerted on the defense forced the Jags into some mistakes as well.
First they extended the Houston drive with a roughing the passer call on 3rd and 20, then had to give an interception back two plays later thanks to an illegal use of hands penalty.
The drive culminated in what Texans fans will hope is the first of many, many Watson-to-Hopkins touchdown passes:
Again we see the play-action fake. The Texans used some sort of misdirection on just about every play in this drive and it worked beautifully. On this play, the fake handoff freezes the linebackers, and leaves Hopkins wide open for the score.
Watson was far from perfect. His accuracy was spotty. Sometimes he was on the money, sometimes he was WAY off. But the threat of the run was enough to keep the Jags defense off him long enough to let him throw (most of the time).
The Texans' Deshaun Watson experiment began too late in this game for any kind of meaningful comeback, but signs are promising moving forward.