It was a bold decision for a franchise seeking a return to relevancy after consecutive four-win seasons and spoiling the fan base from 2018 to 2020 with some of the league’s top quarterback play from Deshaun Watson, who threw for an average of 4,280 yards and 28 touchdowns during that time. Watson, of course, requested a trade in January 2021 and then missed the entire season while embroiled in legal issues stemming from alleged sexual misconduct, before ultimately being dealt to Cleveland this March. (Two grand juries decided not to bring charges against Watson related to the allegations.)
The Texans can’t say definitively what they have in Mills, who left Stanford with a year of eligibility remaining, but they are confident he has the mental and physical makeup to be successful. He threw for 2,664 yards and 16 touchdowns, with 10 interceptions, while going 2-9 as the starter in 2021, but over the final five weeks, he was dramatically better than he was early in the year.
“I know we haven’t played a game this year, but when it was time for him to step up last year, he did,” Smith said. “One of the first positive plays I showed our guys during the voluntary minicamp was him against the Chargers. The guy was awesome. Once you get that type of play from your quarterback, it’s a heck of a start.”
The Texans appeared to be staggering in that Week 16 game. A 12-point lead was cut to four with just under six minutes to play. Mills didn’t blink. He led the offense on a 72-yard drive that culminated with the second of his two touchdown passes, a 13-yard strike to Nico Collins on a slant route, and Houston went on to win, 41-29, securing back-to- back victories for the first time in 20 games.
Mills had down moments, such as a 40-0 loss at Buffalo in Week 4. Mills attempted 21 passes in that game; four were intercepted. He had no touchdowns and just 87 yards passing. Interestingly, that is also the game the Texans point to as an example of why they believe so firmly in Mills. Because he did not allow it to break the confidence of a young player.
Instead, Mills put on a show the following week against New England, completing 21 of 29 passes for 312 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. It was not the first time they had seen him bounce back after a poor outing. Mills was awful during an early practice in training camp, only to put the defense on its heels the following day with a strong showing.