Davis Mills stood tall in the pocket and delivered a strike on an accurate sideline pass to Brandin Cooks, processing fast to hit the veteran wide receiver.
Mills’ 30-yard pass to Cooks led to a red zone touchdown pass to uncovered slot receiver Anthony Miller.
Although the Texans lost, 24-9, to the Carolina Panthers, Mills’ performance was encouraging enough against the NFL’s top-ranked defense that coach David Culley indicated the volume of the playbook will be expanded for the rookie quarterback going forward.
After Mills completed 19 of 28 passes for 168 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 95.5 passer rating as the replacement for injured quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the offense is likely to open up in his second NFL start next week against the Buffalo Bills.
“Going into this ballgame, obviously, with Davis and it being his first game getting a full-time start, is that we wanted to make sure that we kind of kept it to the vest in what we were doing for him,” Culley said. “I think what we end up doing is, we got to the point that we probably felt like we kind of went too far with trying to protect him and just kind of doing what we feel like we need to do.
“What we did find out coming out of this game is that he can handle a lot more than what we felt like, because of the way he handled himself in this ballgame. Moving forward, we’ll just get back to doing the things that we had started doing in that first game and a half when Tyrod was our starting quarterback.”
Most rookies quarterbacks' first NFL season are rough.
Retired New York Giants Super Bowl winning quarterback Eli Manning had a zero rating in his fourth NFL start against a Baltimore Ravens defense led by Ray Lewis. Manning went 1-6 as a rookie starter with six touchdowns, nine interceptions, a 48.2 completion percentage and a 55.4 passer rating.
Retired Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman went 0-11 as a starter, passing for nine touchdowns and 18 interceptions for a 55.7 passer rating.
How did Mills' first start compare to Texans Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson? Watson, who has a standing trade request, legal problems and isn't playing for the Texans while remaining on their 53-man roster, completed 15 of 24 passes for 125 yards for a 63 percent completion percentage in a 2017 win over the Cincinnati Bengals with an electrifying 49-yard rushing touchdown and a 75.9 passer rating.
Mills showed poise during a 64-yard no-huddle scoring drive to end the first half, completing 5 of 6 passes for 60 yards.
Since a difficult start to training camp with a handful of interceptions in a red-zone drill and three interceptions in a preseason loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the third-round draft pick from Stanford has made significant progress and displayed an even-keel, low-key approach toward the game.
“I have seen a lot of growth, just even throughout the practice week with a short week the way that he took command and got us receivers after practice on a short week to still go over stuff,” Cooks said. “His leadership really stood out in that aspect. So definitely have a lot of respect for him in that aspect and that's where I saw him grow within that last I guess week, really.”
Cooks has been Mills’ favorite target. Through three games, he has 23 receptions for 322 yards and one touchdown. That score was on a throw from Mills in a loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns when Taylor suffered a Grade 2 strained hamstring expected to keep him out for a month.
Cools is on pace for 130 catches, 1,824 yards and five touchdowns.
“It's awesome,” Mills said. “ Really experienced guy, just instilling confidence in me between every drive. He's a trustworthy dude out there that you know he's going to be in the right spot at the right time and it's great.”
Mills has upgraded his ball security and accuracy since the preseason.
In three preseason games, he completed just 48 percent of his throws and had four interceptions in 65 passes.
So far this season, Mills has one interception against the Browns. He has completed 58.7 percent of his throws for 270 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for an 80.9 passer rating.
Taylor has completed 70.5 percent of his throws for 416 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 112.1 passer rating. He injured his hamstring running for a touchdown against the Browns.
“I thought he did a good job out there,” Texans linebacker and defensive signal caller Christian Kirksey said. “I thought he was poised. He made a couple good throws. I'm sure there's some things that he saw that he wish he can get back or some things that he can correct, but that's everybody.
“I think Davis, he did a good job. He stepped in when his number was called and that's not an easy thing to do, to come in and play in this league at quarterback. I thought the guys rallied behind him, and he did everything he could do.”
The Texans haven’t been able to support Mills with the running game, though.
Against the Panthers, Mark Ingram, David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay combined for 37 rushing yards on 15 carries.
“When we looked at the video, basically we were the enemy and not them,” Culley said. “In other words, we did not execute some things that we had been executing previously. We got to make some calls that we didn’t get made during that ballgame that put us in some situations that put us behind the chains. We hadn’t been doing that.
"We just got to go back and correct those mistakes, and I feel like we’ll be back on track because we made a few more this game than we had in the previous two.”
The Texans know they can’t abandon the running game. They’ve got to block it better and break more tackles.
“I mean, when the run game's initially not working, you can't just entirely shift to the pass game,” Mills said. “I think a good balance in both and trying to keep the defense on their toes is the best way to attack it and that's something we try to do.”
The Texans went 1 for 9 on third downs against Carolina.
“We got behind the chains,” Culley said. “We had more second-and-longs than we’ve had before because we weren’t able to get started off with the run game very well. And then when we were above the chains, then we end up having some mistakes that put us back behind the chains. We’re not a football team that can play from behind the chains.”
Now, Mills has extra time to prepare for a road start against the Buffalo Bills and their stout defense.
“I know there was a few plays in the game when he goes back and he watches the video, he’ll sit there and say, ‘Man, I had that, I should have did this.’ Well, that’s part of the growing process that he’s had. But the beauty of that entire thing with him growing, it’s easier to grow when you protect the football from a quarterback position, and he did that.”
The faster Mills learns, the better off he and the offense will be.
“Definitely, there's a couple quick things that I can think of that I would like to improve on initially,” Mills said. “Going back, we'll see a lot from the film and also see the good in it that we can keep moving forward with.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.