The amount of insight one can draw from the outcome of any given NFL preseason game is limited. We should make that clear from the get-go, because too much is often placed on the result of a game in which the goal of the coaches is to evaluate their talent against live competition, rather than to have the most points on the board at the end of the game.
That said, “points on the board” weren’t really in the offing when the Texans took the field for their first preseason matchup against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, which the team lost 32-0. While the ultimate score is generally irrelevant in a preseason game, the questions about the Texans under new head coach Bill O’Brien are thrown into sharper relief when it’s clear that none of the quarterbacks on the team’s roster—starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kubiak-era holdover Case Keenum, or rookie 4th-rounder Tom Savage—were capable of leading the team to score at any point.
The biggest question mark for the Texans going into the season has been at quarterback, of course. Matt Schaub’s no-good 2013 season cost him his job, and got head coach Gary Kubiak fired, while simultaneously revealing to fans that young backup Case Keenum wasn’t the franchise’s future, either. This put the team’s new leadership in the position to have any passer they wanted in the draft, as the team’s 2-14 record earned them the first overall pick. Texans fans ranging from A&M regent Tony Buzbee to Slim Thug urged the team to take Johnny Manziel, but the team declined both to take him with the top pick or even to trade back into the second half of the first round to pursue Manziel or Louisville standout Teddy Bridgewater, which left the Texans without a rookie quarterback until round four of the draft, when they took a flier on raw talent Tom Savage.
That leaves the team with the unsuccessful Keenum, the undeveloped Savage, or the unwanted Ryan Fitzpatrick, a street free agent who played last year as a backup in Tennessee after stints in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. His primary distinguishing characteristic as a signal-caller is his impressive beard. The Texans, in other words, are probably the team with the most unsettled quarterback position in the NFL, and while a preseason game wouldn’t be cause to worry on its own, the inability to score points with the current quarterbacks on the roster lends credence to concerns about the position. We were scared they’d be bad, and lo, they are bad.
Fitzpatrick was annointed the starter during training camp, and his stat line on Saturday was dreadful: he completed six of the 14 passes he attempted, averaged fewer than 4 yards per attempt, and added two interceptions to the mix. That gave him a whopping 19.2 passer rating. That’s bad even for a player who’s career-best rating for a season still never topped 84, and it speaks to the real question fans should have for the Texans: is this really the way the quarterback situation is going to play out this year?
In mid-August, of course, the options at quarterback are almost never better than what’s currently on the team’s roster, but one very interesting name is on the table: Patriots backup Ryan Mallett, a 2011 third-round draft pick who was a college standout at Arkansas before backing Tom Brady.
The Patriots have long been rumored to seek a trade partner for Mallett, and the Texans a link to the young quarterback: Mallett spent his rookie season under Texans’ coach Bill O’Brien’s tutelage in New England. He’s also one of the more coveted young backups in the NFL—despite having thrown only four regular-season passes in his career (one completion, one interception, 17 total yards). In his first preseason action, however, Mallett didn’t impress much: like Schaub, he managed only 55 yards in one half of action, though he did complete five passes in twelve attempts, without the interceptions (good for a QB rating of 55). Still, Fitzpatrick’s preseason failure fits into the ongoing narrative of his career through five teams and multiple disappointments, while Mallett is still largely an unknown entity.
Of course, it must be said that Mallett may be just as terrible as Fitzpatrick and Keenum, but for a Texans team that has buttressed fans’ worst fears about the team’s offense, the non-zero possibility that he mightbe good has to make him a tantalizing option.
All of this, though, requires that the Texans actually consider making a late change at quarterback, and that’s something that O’Brien only occasionally seems interested in. On Sunday, he dropped coach-speak like “you’re always thinking about what you can do to make the team better,” but by Monday, he’d offered his support of Fitzpatrick in a one-word response. That one-word response could change if Fitzpatrick continues to struggle, of course—and if Fitzpatrick’s previous career as a starter is any indication (fans of his previous teams and snarky Grantland columnists nicknamed him “Pickspatrick” for his tendency to throw interceptions), continued struggles aren’t out of the running.
O’Brien may be smart to not want to give up future draft picks in order to pin his hopes on an untested backup who may ultimately be no better than the quarterbacks currently on his roster. But after the disappointment of Matt Schaub, the eliding of Johnny Football, and the first glimpse of Ryan Fitzpatrick and the backup band in the preseason, Texans fans would probably prefer the hope that an unproven passer represents over the despair of another season without a qualified starter under center.
(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)