Tyrod Taylor was absolutely fearless, not budging in the pocket while serious pressure was closing in on his face and delivering a perfect lob into the outstretched hands of wide receiver Brandin Cooks.
It was a 40-yard strike that energized the crowd as Cooks skied to haul in a pass from the veteran Texans quarterback.
Taylor wasn’t done connecting with Cooks, or improvising.
Cooks befuddled North Shore graduate K’Lavon Chaisson, an athletic former first-round draft pick from LSU. Taylor managed to elude a swipe to his helmet, maintained his balance and got Chaisson off his feet while buying time to hit Cooks again for a 52-yard pass behind cornerback Shaquill Griffin.
Between a handful of dynamic plays, including a 29-yard throw to tight end Pharaoh Brown on a one-handed grab and not committing a turnover, Taylor had an impressive debut as the replacement for embattled Texans Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Taylor manufactured a strong performance, completing 21 of 33 passes for 291 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 112.1 passer rating Sunday during a 37-21 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and top overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence at NRG Stadium. While Lawrence was picked off three times, it was Taylor, 32, who showed what experience and poise are all about. He had zero turnovers.
“He's a smooth operator,” Texans running back Mark Ingram said. “He's confident. He has the ability. Great leader in the huddle, commands the huddle, gets us out of bad plays into good plays. It's high tempo, guys in and out of the huddle. Play comes in the wrong way, he fixes it, adjusts it, gets us out there in the right alignment.
“Communicating, great in the huddle, and he just did a great job today. I'm happy for him. We came into the league together, and he's just overcome a lot of adversity. He's just a great player, man, and he proved that today, and he's going to improve. We're all going to improve, and we just try to all do our jobs to make his job as easy as possible.”
Signed to a one-year, $12.5 million contract,Taylor lost his starting job last season when a Los Angeles Chargers team doctor accidentally punctured his lung while administering a pain-killing injection. That led to Justin Herbert replacing him and eventually emerging as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
As much as that hurt to lose that status, Taylor has maintained a positive, determined attitude.
“It was fun,” Taylor said. “ It's never about me. It's about coming out and doing whatever it takes to help the team win. Ultimately, we came away today with the win, and that's always fun. Yeah, I was excited.”
Taylor threw touchdown passes to running back David Johnson and wide receiver Danny Amendola.
He also provided leadership for a team still sorting through things after Watson’s standing trade request and legal problems have dominated the headlines and conversations surrounding the AFC South franchise.
Winning a football game, even beating a 1-15 team from last year, meant something.
So did that 52-yard bomb to Cooks, who finished with five catches for 132 yards on seven targets.
“That was Tyrod making plays, extending the plays and doing what he's great at,” Cooks said. “I think it was awesome. Just the way that he came out leading, first drive didn't go how we wanted, but we recalculated and went out there and started moving the ball. He's a great leader and he makes plays and he's a playmaker at the end of the day.”
Taylor got off to a rough start, going three-and-out in his first series. He was nearly intercepted by Griffin on his first pass of the game.
“I thought early in the game, we were a little off a little bit on some throws early in the game, but he settled down, and he and Brandin ended up making a couple plays out of the pocket that ended up allowing us to get some big plays throwing the ball down the field,” Culley said. “Again, he's a guy that's not going to make mistakes. He's going to take care of the football. That's part of who we are.
“We talk about getting off to a fast start, and basically what ended up happening on that, he was a little late getting the ball out. That play could have been a game-changer had it been intercepted. But it was one of those deals where the kind of guy that he is, the kind of leader he is, is that those things don't bother him. . He's always the next play, and that's why we had a chance to win the game today is because he did what his job is to do is to get us in the end zone.”
Taylor also rushed for 40 yards on four carries, including a 29-yard scamper He was only sacked once.
“It’s tough when you play mobile quarterbacks in this league,” Culley said. “The last thing a defensive coordinator wants with a quarterback is when we've got everybody covered down the field is for him to use his feet to get yardage. Obviously, you saw today he did an excellent job of that.”
Taylor passed for 2,799 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 427 yards and four scores in 2017 in Buffalo with Culley on Sean McDermott’s coaching staff.
Taylor has the third-lowest interception rate since 2011 with interceptions thrown on just 1.4 percent of his throws with 20 interceptions during a decade in the NFL. Taylor is a multidimensional passer who can beat defenses with his feet and his arm, rushing for 1,850 yards and 16 touchdowns and passing for 9,770 yards and 54 touchdowns.
From the 2011 NFL draft, 12 quarterbacks were selected. That included Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Taylor, Nathan Enderle, T.J. Yates, Ricky Stanzi, Ryan Mallett, Greg McElroy, Colin Kaepernick, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.
From that group, only four are still playing: Taylor, Newton, Dalton and Gabbert.
And Taylor, through these unique, unprecedented circumstances, is now the Texans’ starting quarterback.
And an emerging leader.
“By example first,” Taylor said. “I've kind of learned that over the years. Regardless if you're vocal or not, if you're not leading by example, then no one is going to respond. You have to demand a lot out of yourself, set the standard, and I think guys will fall in.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128