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The Houston Texans, C.J. Stroud, and Davis Mills Flashbacks

Let’s take a quick walk down Davis Mills lane.

Houston Texans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Yesterday, C.J. Stroud was awarded two more commendations for his historic rookie campaign:

  • NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month - November.
  • AFC Offensive Player of the Month - November.

Yes, player of the month! Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, move to the side! There’s someone new in town!!! C.J. Stroud is here to stay!!!!

…Okay, despite my exaggeration, there is now overwhelming evidence that this miraculous start to a career is less of a hot start and more typical. Last week’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was Stroud’s sixth game with 300+ passing yards, his fifth game with a 100+ passer rating, and his third game in four weeks where his completion percentage was over 70%. These kinds of stat lines are now something we can legitimately expect to see from a rookie quarterback, the Texans rookie quarterback, and it would now be exceptional if he were to not have a performance like this.

These are now Stroud’s second and third monthly awards of the season, his first coming in September when he was the NFL Rookie of the Month. A truly remarkable accomplishment, and a testament to just how many great games Stroud has had just 12 weeks into his professional career.

Every time Stroud makes another exceptional performance look routine, I am reminded of now backup quarterback Davis Mills’ performance against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. For some of you reading that may be new to Houston Texans fandom (Welcome!) and for the millions of football fans that practically ignored the Texans from 2020 to now, Davis Mills was the Houston Texans’ starting quarterback before C.J. Stroud, drafted 67th overall from Stanford in the 2021 NFL Draft. Mills - a controversial but intriguing quarterback propsect who only appeared in only 14 contests in college - was Nick Caserio’s first selection as the Houston Texans general manger. Eventually replacing an injured and then underwhelming Tyrod Taylor, Mills appeared in 13 games as rookie en route to winning the starting job at the end of the season. That 2021 rookie season, Davis Mills looked much like he has all of his career - haphazard, slow, occasionally exciting, but always inaccurate - until those magical, folkloric final few weeks. Before December 2021, Mills jittery performances quickly soured any early enthusiam. Even though his first great perfromance came in Week 5 against the New England Patriots of all teams, Mills was buoyed by desperate heaves somehow reeled in by then Texans’ receivers Chris Moore and Chris Conley, leading him to 3 touchdown passes that were more lucky than impressive.

Regardless, this was basically the only positive tape Mills would cook up all season until December 26, 2021. On that fateful day, the clouds rested in the mountains, the blue sky gleemed with cosmic intensity, the earth shook, the heavens opened, and when the Los Angeles Chargers’ defense entered NRG Stadium, Davis Mills became the second coming of Joe Burrow.

Against the Chargers, Davis Mills passed for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns and had a 130.6 passer rating. This game completely changed the narrative for Mills, and then the season finale against the Tennessee Titans put the offseason hype into full steam. In that game, Davis Mills followed up his Chargers performance with a 301-yard, 3 touchdown performance where he had a 128.5 passer rating! What?! After 13 weeks of quarterbacking so sloppy that scoring over 20 points seemed impossible, and now in the final month he’s dicing up good teams? For me, a fresh Texans fan looking for anything positve about them to cling on to, these two games were enough to fall head over heels for Davis Mills. All of the sudden, the Houston Texans had completely transformed into this potent offense, led by this diamond-in-the-rough, lesser known quarterback that finished his rookie year on a heater. Davis Mills was no longer some forgotten backup on an awful team, he was a surprisingly talented prospect that had pundits to prove wrong in 2022!

To get an idea of where I and the many Mills tub-thumpers were coming from, I want you to watch this pass from Mills. I’m going to give you an image: Brock Purdy.

Those 2 games were all he needed to get me and many other Houston Texans fans fully strapped in for the Davis Mills Experience for all of next season, regardless of the infamous turmoil and coaching changes plaguing the organization. Nothing else mattered because Davis Mills was HERE.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you it didn’t work out so well. Another year and another rookie quarterback later, I think it’s safe to say we - as in, the Davis Mills believers - were wrong to bet on him. That shocking Chargers game never became an impetus to gradual improvements, and ended up yielding a full season of watching Mills recede back to his normal sloppiness, snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory again, and again, and again.

But, he still had those great games, those exemplars of quarterbacking us fervent believers could point to like a north star. He still proved himself as an NFL quarterback on a poor roster. He still was, given context, far better than the vast majority of people expected after he was taken in the 3rd round of the 2021 NFL Draft. I even made a quick analysis of his abilites soon after the Texans drafted him, and I spoke to the wildly impressive flashes of brilliance Davis Mills would exhibit on the field.

Is it no wonder I fell so hard for Mills mania in December 2021? Can you blame me, desperately searching for needles in the haystack, that I might become a bit overjoyed when I find a box of them? A by a box, I mean 2 good games?

And how could we forget this infamous graphic:

This is how we got to 15 games of Davis Mills in 2022. For me and many others, he was just good enough to keep you believing. So, if Davis Mills was good enough in those couple of games to be a starter in 2022, how do his stats compare to C.J. Stroud?

C.J. STROUD, First 11 Games:

  • 3266 Yards
  • 19 TDs
  • 5 INTs
  • 63.7 CMP%
  • 100.8 Passer Rating
  • 8.7 Adjusted Yards per Attempt

Davis Mills, First 11 Games:

  • 2200 Yards
  • 12 TDs
  • 9 INTs
  • 66.57 CMP%
  • 86.2 Passer Rating
  • 6.2 Adjusted Yards per Attempt

Davis Mills, 2022 Full Season Stats (15 Games):

  • 3118 Yards
  • 17 TDs
  • 15 INTs
  • 61.0 CMP%
  • 78.8 Passer Rating
  • 5.8 Adjusted Yards per Attempt

It’s just incomparable. C.J. Stroud has just fully left Davis Mills in the dust. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are very impressive stats from Mills, and he rightfully deserved the comparisons to his fellow quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2021 Draft. A pretty darn good first draft pick by Nick Caserio, but the difference between Mills and Stroud is night and day. Stroud is averaging 269.9 yards a game to Mills 200 in 2021. He’s already completely leapt over all of Davis Mills’ stats for the entirety of 2022, and there’s still six games left! Even though there was a lot more expected of Stroud than Mills at the beginning of their NFL careers, this comparison really puts into perspective just how different this new era in Texans history Stroud has launched us into. What a difference a year can make!

I bring up Davis Mills, the Chargers game, and reopen the scabbed-over wounds of 2022 not just to gawk at the comparison, but to show how far this team has come in just a year. In a single year, the Houston Texans have completely flipped their fortune, primarily because of a rookie quarterback who is playing at a such a high level that playoff contention is a real possibility for Houston for the first time since 2019. The difference in statistics between these two quarterbacks is the difference between the 25th ranked passing offense in 2022, to the 2nd ranked passing offense in 2023.

After that Chargers game in 2021, a kernel of hope began to blossom within me that the Texans would not be terrible in 2022, but instead ahead of schedule. Maybe it wouldn’t be a good season, but it would be one that shows foundational improvement, and Davis Mills’ growth in year two would make sure of that. I was wrong, 2022 was an intensely disappointing season for the Texans and Davis Mills right from the start, ruining any sort of momentum they could’ve carried from the last season.

After his Chargers game, many Texans fans hoped Davis Mills could usher in some optimism for a team that quickly went from AFC contender in 2019 to laughing stock in 2020. He was a legitimately good quarterback for fleeting moments of his young NFL career, and made me believe that the road back to contention might not be as bumpy as it appears. Well, it sure ended up being pretty bumpy, and our wishes of a quick rebuild seemed to fade away abruptly.

Oh, how foolish we were!

On January 8th 2023, during the Texans’ season finale in Indianapolis, the clouds parted, the sky opened up, and the heavens roared. Our wish for contention was to be granted, and down into Lucas Oil Stadium they sent their messenger: that beautiful, long-necked Davis Mills. He was to save us yet again, with a twisted, otherworldly Mini Hail-Mary pass that would seal a Houston Texans victory so thrilling and surreal, none of us could understand its perfection until months later.

In the 2022 season finale, Davis Mills capped off an abysmal 2022 campaign with a highlight-filled perfomrance against the Indianapolis Colts, throwing for 298 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and a game-winning 2-point conversion that launched himself into Texans lore forever. And like all gods, he was vilified at first for his deeds, gathering the ire of Houston faithful like a heavy chain around his long neck. This victory bumped Houston off the first overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft, a complete disaster for Houston as it took away their opportunity to select any player - or quarterback - they desired. Now, with the second overall pick, they were at the hands of fate. But, as winter turned to spring, it became clear this is exactly what fate had in mind. With the first overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Carolina Panthers took quarterback Bryce Young out of Alabama, and with the second overall pick in the draft, the Houston Texans selected their future MVP: C.J. Stroud.

I guess Davis Mills really does work in miracles.