JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- C.J. Stroud trusted his eyes, and his growing instincts and understanding of the game. He knew that his friend, rookie wide receiver Tank Dell could create separation and make a dynamic play.
From the start to the finish of a 37-17 upset victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans’ rookie quarterback was on point with his accuracy and timing. In the first quarter, it was Stroud who provided a boost to the previously winless Texans’ bruised outlook with a perfect 46-yard lob that Dell caught over his shoulders behind cornerback Darious Williams to set up a touchdown run by running back Dameon Pierce.
In the fourth quarter, it was Stroud who put the exclamation point on the first win for first-year coach DeMeco Ryans. Stroud delivered a 68-yard bomb to Dell, a speedy former University of Houston star, for a 68-yard touchdown pass.
It’s throws like those that set Stroud apart during the early portion of the season in the rookie quarterback draft class. And it’s signature plays like those that give Ryans even more confidence in entrusting the direction of the offense and the entire team in the capable hands of the second overall pick and two-time Heisman Trophy finalist from Ohio State.
“Everything starts with the quarterback,” Ryans said. “We have a good one who’s done really good things. He’s improved every week. That’s what I really like and admire about C.J., he’s dialed in to improving every week.
“He’s not satisfied. He’s been a leader for us for the offensive unit, and it’s impressive to see a young man go out and continue to get better each week and lead that group.”
Stroud, who celebrates his 22nd birthday in October, completed 20 of 30 passes for 280 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 118.8 passer rating. Stroud has set an NFL record with 121 passes to start his NFL career without an interception. He has passed for 906 yards and four touchdowns in just three games. He’s averaging 302 yards per game and is on pace to finish the season with 5,134 passing yards and 22 touchdown passes.
“Coming from Ohio State, man, it’s a pressure element that’s pushed on every week that either you can’t lose, and if you’re playing a less-than team that people think are less than, you have to win by 70-plus points,” said Stroud, who had a congratulatory call from Buckeyes coach Ryan Day before his press conference Sunday. “Everything has kind of been like I did in college and just the hard work that it takes, and it takes a little more in the league because just that one little play, one negative play that can ruin the whole game, that I’m learning.
“What prepared me from college is working now in the league as well. I think this is just the beginning. We won. Let’s throw it away. Watch the film, correct the issues, and let’s go on. That’s the next step is just doing it again, being consistent.”
Stroud has passed for more yards and touchdowns without an interception than any quarterback in league history.
He passed for 384 yards against the Indianapolis Colts a week ago. It was the second-most passing yards by a Texans rookie since Deshaun Watson’s 402-yard game in 2017.
“I think the sky’s the limit for C.J.” Ryans said. “He just keeps his head down and keeps working. C.J. is a very humble young man, and he’s all about the team. That’s how you become successful in this league. It’s not about one person, and C.J. understands that more than anyone else, and he understands how important it is as a team to play together. So, he keeps his mindset the way it is, he’ll continue to improve, get better, and be a really good quarterback in this league.”
One week after wide receiver Nico Collins had a career-high 146 receiving yards, Dell had the best game of his rookie season so far with five catches for 145 yards and one score. A third-round draft pick who became friends with Stroud at the NFL scouting combine, Dell set a Texans rookie franchise record for receiving yards against the Jaguars.
It all bodes well for the present and the future.
An unlikely fourth-quarter comeback win over the Colts in the final game of last season engineered by current Texans backup quarterback Davis Mills on a touchdown pass and two-point conversion to tight end Jordan Akins set in motion a chain of events that led to the arrival of C.J. Stroud. Although the win cost the Texans the top overall pick and the chance to draft Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, now with the Carolina Panthers and sidelined with an ankle injury, they are thrilled with having Stroud.
Stroud off to the fastest start of all of the quarterbacks in this rookie class, including Young as he was drafted one spot ahead of him by Carolina after they traded with the Chicago Bears to obtain the top overall pick in exchange for wide receiver D.J. Moore and draft capital.
“That quarterback is unbelievable, man,” tight end Brevin Jordan said after catching his first touchdown since his rookie year Sunday. “I was just telling somebody on the sidelines the best thing to happen to the Houston Texans organization was us beating the Indianapolis Colts last year in the last game of last season. So, 7 is the guy, man. We rock behind him at all times.”
Although Stroud has no running game to speak of to complement his passing prowess as the Texans rushed for just 86 yards on 26 runs for a 3.3 average, an actual improvement from losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Colts and a makeshift offensive line, nothing has fazed him.
He completed passes to eight different targets.
He has the third-most passing yards by a rookie quarterback in NFL history, trailing just Cam Newton’s 1,012 yards with the Carolina Panthers and Justin Herbert’s 931 yards with the Los Angeles Chargers.
The losses to the Ravens and Colts stuck with Stroud after growing accustomed to winning nearly every week in college.
“For me, I think remembering the feeling of losing, how terrible it is and feeling what we just felt in the locker room right there, that’s what it’s about: doing it again,” Stroud said. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve learned about this football game since I was little. The great ones do it every week.
“If they don’t do it that week, they don’t have two bad weeks. That’s what we’re working toward. I think that’s what it takes, man. The preparation and the work we put in, now it’s time to do it all over again.”
Aaron Wilson is a contributor for SportsTalk790.