Well…they finally broke me. After years of saying "This team can win a Super Bowl with Matt Schaub", the Houston Texans have finally bludgeoned my confidence enough that I can no longer pretend to realistically expect a championship in Houston so long as Schaub is in town.
I just…he just…can’t do it anymore.
Sure, the Texans might get hot and finish somewhere in the ball park of eleven wins by season’s end. They might even win a wild card game, but does anyone really expect this Texans team to put up much of a fight against Denver, Indianapolis, or even Kansas City in January, if they even get that far? I do not, at least not based on what I have seen thus far in 2013. If something amazing happens and Gary Kubiak’s boys prove me wrong, I will be elated (and do not mistake this article for me jumping off the wagon, which I have not), but my "expectations" for glory in the New Jersey snow this winter are all but gone. As a result, in just Week Six of the 2013 season, I have already starting going into Draft Mode.
Is this a little early to start looking at the college ranks for Matt Schaub’s replacement? Of course. Does it at least give me joy to see someone else play the quarterback position without throwing a pick-six? Absolutely.
Before I get into my personal draft crush in the 2014 quarterback class, I want to expand on why I think that a first round signal caller is a very realistic option for the Texans' front office this coming April. Think back to the selections of Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Jimmy Clausen, Robert Griffin III, and Geno Smith. All of them have two things in common – they were all high draft picks, and they were all taken by struggling head coaches that had been tenured with their teams for at least two seasons. Now look at the hiring of Chuck Pagano, Jim Harbaugh, John Harbaugh, Ron Rivera, Joe Philbin, Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan, Raheem Morris, and Jim Schwartz by their respective teams. Not coincidentally, the first thing every single one of them did was take a quarterback high in the draft.
Quarterback is not just the most important position on the field; it is the most important player for a head coach’s job security. Having a young, promising signal-caller to develop has an uncanny habit of giving front offices and coaching staffs more time on the clock to right the ship. No owner or fan base is going to give a head coach a longer leash when a top 10 defensive end comes in to his own, but a fresh face at quarterback managed to give coaches like Marvin Lewis, Leslie Frazier, Rex Ryan, and Mike Shanahan a stay of execution. Gary Kubiak is at a crossroads in his career as Houston’s big boss, and if his Texans do not answer the bell over these final eleven regular season games, a high draft pick invested in the quarterback position might be one of the only moves that saves him.
Assuming Rick Smith deems it necessary to make a serious move at quarterback for the first time since swapping first round picks and sending two second round picks to the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 for Matt Schaub, he sure picked a good year to do it. The 2014 quarterback class is loaded, and I mean L-O-A-D-E-D. The top end talent might not be quite on the level of the Luck-RG3-Wilson triad (yet), but the depth in this class is astounding. No less than seven quarterbacks can make a case for first round selection. Considering the legendary glut of talent at every other position this year, that is saying something. Teddy Bridgewater headlines this class as a smart, accurate, poised pocket passer who could be mentioned in the same breath as Andrew Luck as a prospect, while Tajh Boyd, Marcus Mariota, and Brett Hundley form a threesome of super athletic dual threats with unlimited ceilings. "Behind" those top four, I personally like Stephen Morris out of Miami as an excellent fit for the Gary Kubiak offense.
Morris, when all is said and done, could be anywhere between the third to eighth quarterback taken, has a cannon for an arm on top of refined footwork, a quick release, solid athleticism, and experience in a pro style system with full field reads. I would not be shocked if Morris is a top 10-15 pick, but with the uncertainty of Mariota and Hundley jumping to the pros, and teams like Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, and Jacksonville all having shaky quarterback futures, who really knows who will be available at any part of the first round? It is possible that if Houston wants to claim their quarterback after both Bridgewater and Boyd are plucked within the first ten picks, a trade up might be the only way to get it done. As for breaking down what Houston would get in exchange for likely giving up multiple high picks for Stephen Morris, that was the fun part of my week.
The first thing you will notice when watching the Miami Hurricanes on offense is how surprisingly similar their playbook looks to the one employed by Gary Kubiak. The Canes look to establish the run early and often with a zone blocking scheme that features Duke Johnson, one of the very few truly unstoppable players in college football, and Miami bases the aerial game off of play-action and high percentage, methodical passes. The primary difference from the Texans, however, is that Miami actually has a quarterback that can make defenses pay deep down field with some of the prettiest play action bombs you’ll ever see (keep in mind in the GIF below that Morris barely even stepped into this throw. This deep shot was basically all arm).
Morris has put up gaudy stats before, but I think one of his finest hours came early this season against the always-intimidating Florida Gators defense. Morris’ offensive line was completely overmatched by the Florida front seven, and time to throw was hard to come by. Moving pockets, quick passes, and an endless stream of bootleg passes to the flats were virtually the only ways Morris could get yards, yet he still managed to toss two early touchdowns that ended up deciding the game.
What I really liked about Morris was that he was never, ever fazed by a top tier defense that treated every snap like a race to the back field. He took his time at the line, read through his progressions efficiently for most of the game, and found a way to threaten Florida just enough with his arm off of naked bootlegs to give Duke Johnson some cut-back lanes to work with. Morris was cool, calm, collected, and downright dangerous when in rhythm. His stat line was concerning considering he threw for just a 48% completion rate on 25 attempts, 2 touchdowns, and a late interception. When you add in drops, throwaways, mistakes by receivers on identifying hot reads (seen below), and a spectacular pass deflection, however, Morris really only had seven "bad balls" the entire game. Seven questionable passes is definitely more than you want to see from week to week, but the peaks in this game vastly overshadow the valleys.
My only complaint, which I am expanding on from my first 2014 mock draft from earlier in the season, is that Morris has trouble with consistency in his ball placement and progression reads when facing long down and distances. He does not get scared in the pocket, scramble too early, or do anything remotely resembling Blaine Gabbert under pressure (quite the opposite actually, considering the amount of shots he took while throwing in this game). Rather he seems to try so hard to make a play in long yardage downs that he either puts way too much on the ball and overthrows his man, rushes his progressions and chucks it at covered receivers, or both. Despite the occasions that this gunslinger mentality has paid off, Morris needs to control himself and check the ball to his underneath option when nobody can break free down field. Yards after catch should be his best friend, not a distant acquaintance.
Of course there are the throws where Morris just straight up sails it by releasing the ball a fraction of a second too early or foregoing touch in favor of zip, but mechanically he is so smooth, and so quick, that improving his control should not be terribly difficult. Take a look at this pass below. The ball is delivered high, but watch Morris’ eyes stay centered off the snap to control the safeties. He scans right to check on his primary read (which could not get off the jam quickly enough to get open in time), then switches to his back side read immediately and tosses what should have been a first down had he not released the ball a smidgeon early. Notice his perfect weight transfer from back foot to front foot, how he keeps his off arm tight to his body to help crank his hips and shoulders towards his target. His throwing elbow is at a perfect ninety degrees and the ball passes right by his ear hole. Morris’ set to release time is extraordinarily fast, and his overall throwing motion is just plain gorgeous.
When Morris does harness his power, quick release, and eye discipline all in the same play, he can be a devastatingly precise passer.
Even more impressive, Morris has the arm strength to hit receivers on timing routes outside the numbers, a throw on which Matt Schaub has been intercepted twice so far in five games because of his inability to get the ball to his receivers before a cornerback can plant and undercut the route.
I love how Morris freezes the linebackers with his eyes as he fakes the hand off before delivering a bullet to his receiver in the face of tight man coverage. This is an NFL throw, folks.
And if that is not enough, Morris is also athletic enough to extend plays with his feet if necessary (if he does not trip over himself, that is).
Morris definitely has room to improve, but his combination of athleticism, leadership (staying on a heavily penalized Miami team and guiding them back into a national ranking and undefeated record should be commended), arm talent, and technical polish should help his stock skyrocket during the pre-draft process. Keep an eye out when the Miami Hurricanes take on ‘Famous Jameis’ Winston and the Florida State Seminoles on November 2nd, a game in which I expect nothing less than an epic offensive showdown. I may be alone in this right now, but to me, Stephen Morris is a first round quarterback with the ceiling to take this very talented Texans team to a Super Bowl. Whether Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak have thought about drafting a young quarterback this coming May is a mystery. If there is one thing I have learned in my years of watching the NFL, it is to never rule anything out.