Davis Mills isn't playing like the quarterback whose performance and confidence became so shaky he was benched.
Since regaining his starting job three games ago, the Texans' quarterback has improved his play significantly. He manufactured a game-winning drive against the Tennessee Titans capped by his adeptly-placed touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandin Cooks and preceded by slick throws to Amari Rodgers and Phillip Dorsett.
Although Mills still has work to do to establish himself as a consistent passer and overall field general, his progress during the past few games is obvious.
The former third-round draft pick from Stanford has upgraded his ball security. He has three touchdowns and two interceptions over the past three games and has rushed for a touchdown while splitting time with backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, who's operated as a change of pace as a dual-threat option. Heading into Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mills is feeling much better about his game.
“I think I’ve progressed," Mills said. "Being benched made me go back and reflect on what I was doing the first half of the season versus how I can perform now. Step my game up, I think I’ve done that. We just watched a little cut-up of the first Titans game versus this next one and how I was playing. It was a big difference. I just want to continue progressing forward.”
For the season, Mills has completed 61.8 percent of his throws for 2,618 yards, 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for a 79.0 passer rating. His numbers are substandard overall, but there's been an uptick in how he's playing lately. He's taking better care of the football and he looks much less tentative. One of his interceptions was a desperation Hail Mary pass in the loss to the Cowboys.
Against the Titans, Mills completed 17 of 28 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He fumbled on a scramble that was recovered for a touchdown by running back Rex Burkhead.
Mills has managed to keep the Texans competitive despite the season-ending high-ankle sprain sustained by Pro Bowl alternate rookie running back Dameon Pierce. He's only been sacked once.
“It just seemed like poise. More comfortable back there," Mills said. "Not trying to do too much. Seeing it better and having a better feel of the offense. Being able to take what the defense is giving me instead of trying to force stuff.”
Although the 2-12-1 Texans are expected to eventually move on from Mills as their starter as they have two top-10 draft picks this spring and perhaps may select a quarterback like Alabama's Bryce Young, Mills is the man of the moment for the AFC South franchise.
Being benched was an emotional time for Mills, but he took stock and grew from the setback.
“Mentally, it was tough," Mills said. "I’ve always been an extremely confident person. I knew I would get another opportunity at some point. Knew I needed to make most of the opportunity, and I feel like I’ve done that up to this point. Played tough, really close in those first two games and won this most recent one. Just excited for another opportunity this week.”
During the fourth quarter against the Titans, Mills engineered a comeback. He completed 9 of 9 passes for 103 yards, including his score to a leaping Cooks in the back of the end zone.
“I just felt like he was decisive," offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton said. "Also, Phillip Dorsett made a couple of big plays, as well as of course Cookie catching the touchdown that put us ahead for good. It was good to see collectively our guys go out and protection was good, the routes were good enough for us to have an opportunity to complete passes in a critical situation. It was good to finish that way.”
Mills has embraced sharing the quarterback position with his friend, Driskel. It's a strategy intended to keep defenses off-balance. Sometimes, it's had mixed results. The point is to not be predictable. Driskel has played in five games with two starts, completing 9 of 14 passes for 86 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 61 yards on 15 runs with one catch for four yards.
"We feel like it’s a really good way to attack defenses, because it makes them have to deal with a lot of different looks that the offense is trying to give them," Mills said. "If we can keep them guessing and keep them in simpler looks than what they would normally prepare for when there’s just one quarterback out there, we want to stay in it and continue to try and get that advantage.”
The Texans are on a nine-game winning streak against the Jaguars, who are competing with the Titans for the AFC South division title and a playoff berth. Mills had no turnovers against the Jaguars in a 13-6 road win earlier this season, managing the offense well and completing 16 of 24 passes for 140 yards as he was only sacked once.
Yes, the winning streak against the Jaguars has come up in conversations around the Texans' training facility.
“Definitely, it’s mentioned throughout the week,” Mills said. “It’s hard to beat a team once. We’ve beaten the Jaguars nine times in a row as this point. We’re excited for the opportunity to make it 10. I think we’re in a really good spot right now. "
Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.