Davis Mills and Mac Jones shared a private quarterbacks coach along with several Zoom calls with Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, imparting valuable knowledge to the rookie quarterbacks before the NFL draft.
During one of those calls, Peyton Manning shared the perspective of his ignominious NFL rookie record for interceptions. The Hall of Fame quarterback uncorked 28 interceptions for the Indianapolis Colts in 1998, one more than Jim Zorn for the Seattle Seahawks threw in 1976, and four more than Terry Bradshaw did with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970.
It was a valuable conversation for the two friends and NFL starters as they prepared for their respective rookie seasons with quarterback guru David Morris, the founder of QB Country in Mobile, Ala.
“I’m close with Peyton and Eli and they had had a lot of Zoom calls with Mac and Davis during draft prep, and Peyton said, ‘I’d be really excited if one of you guys beats my interception record,’” Morris said in a telephone interview. “It gives that perspective of knowing those bad days are going to happen. It’s about, 'How do I prevent them and learn from the bad days?' Each play is its own entity. I couldn’t be prouder of those guys.”
When the 1-3 Texans and 1-3 New England Patriots square off Sunday at NRG Stadium, Mills and Jones will carry those teachings onto the field as they try to lead their teams to a victory.
A third-round draft pick from Stanford, Mills is coming off his worst performance as he threw four interceptions during a 40-0 loss to the Buffalo Bills that represents the most lopsided defeat in franchise history. He had a 23.4 passer rating against the Bills and has a league-low 50.4 passer rating, two touchdowns and five interceptions in three games as the replacement for injured veteran starter Tyrod Taylor.
A first-round draft pick and consensus All-American who won a national championship at Alabama, Jones beat out Cam Newton for the starting job in training camp. He completed 31 of 40 passes for 275 yards, two touchdowns and one interception during a narrow loss to Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday night, serving notice that he’s an up-an-doming quarterback.
When Jones completed 19 consecutive passes against a veteran-laden Buccaneers defense, it represented the longest streak by a rookie over the past four decades as he surpassed Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon’s 16 straight completions.
“Mac is a great dude,” Mills said. “I actually did my combine training with him in Mobile with David Morris. I got to know him a little in high school through the camp circuit. He’s been successful so far. Obviously, both teams have the same record but I think he’s handled their offense really well, and he’s progressing.”
A former blue-chip recruit from Atlanta, Mills is learning on the job about the ups and downs of arguably the most difficult position to play in the NFL. He struggled against the Bills by locking onto his primary read, not looking off defenders and throwing into heavy traffic.
“It’s a learning moment,” Morris said. “Look those days are coming, regardless of who you are. When you have one of those, you’re not grateful for it. It sucks, but you learn a lot from it. Those are the moments you can look back on the big picture and say, ‘Wow, that was hard, that was embarrassing. I’ve got to take care of the ball and not force things, not take a pick.
“You have to learn from those things, in those big moments, all those completions they don’t happen if you’re a hair or an inch off or the receiver doesn’t make a play. One of our themes for draft prep is, ‘You’re an inch away from being great or being mediocre.’ You have to be balanced and both of those kids look at the game and see the big picture.”
Against the Bills, Mills completed 11 of 21 passes for 87 yards. In the first half, he completed one pass for 3 yards and threw two interceptions for a 0.0 passer rating.
“Both Mac and Davis are very resilient, very tough,” Morris said. “Davis is one of those guys who’s very even-keel, very balanced and not real emotional at all in the big moments, in the challenging moments. Obviously, this position involves a lot of emotion and a lot of roller-coasters and ups and downs. Davis reminds me of El Manning. Whether it’s a four-pick game or four touchdowns, he’s the same. He’s not shrugging anything off. He learns from every moment. Both of these guys know how to prepare and how to get ready. You’ll see two guys playing good football on Sunday.”
Mills emphasized that his confidence hasn’t been shaken by the rough experience against a top Super Bowl contender.
“Definitely. I’ve always been a confident person,” Mills said. “I think from last week there was a lot to learn from, and I’m glad I kind of got some of those things out of the way so I can learn from it and hopefully improve from it going forward.
“I think the big thing, I’ve always kind of learned I’ve been an even-keeled person my whole life and you can’t let the situation get too big. I like to try to remain humble. The biggest thing is I’m playing for my teammates, I’m not kind of focused on myself too much. I’m just trying to do the best I can for them.”
The biggest emphasis from Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly to Mills this week: protect the football.
Mills had minus-23 net passing yards at halftime against the Bills.
“You can have the conversation as much as you want, but until he goes out and experiences it and makes the mistake and realizes, ‘Whoa,’ I think that’s kind of what really ingrains that philosophy in a player," Kelly said. "The big thing that we’re continuing to preach with him is that we’ve got to protect the football. Can’t have these situations where borderline careless decisions were made. When we’re starting to force balls and try to do things in tight windows that we really don’t want to do, we’ve just got to eliminate the careless mistakes there.”
How to avoid interceptions is something that’s been reinforced by Texans coach David Culley during meetings this week.
“It’s never a bad thing to throw a completion in front of the sticks and punt on fourth down and play the field position game rather than trying to force something and making a bad decision with the ball,” Mills said. “Talked about that, talked about sometimes incompletions are OK, or throwing the ball away or taking a sack, if the situation fits, to protect the football.”
Jones was sharper than Brady, but took the loss. As Brady completed 22 of 43 passes for 269 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions for a 70.8 passer rating, Jones had a 101.6 passer rating.
The accuracy and poise that Jones displayed during a last-second loss to the Buccaneers last Sunday night was overshadowed by Brady’s dramatic homecoming victory, but how the former Alabama standout performed was absolutely a big deal.
“I think you’ve got to have fun in those moments,” said Morris, a former Mississippi quarterback who has also coached New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones and former Texans quarterback A.J. McCarron. “If you’re kind of in the zone, it’s important to be in those moments and not just hover above them or beneath them. Emotions can flow. Mac does a very good job of managing them. After a touchdown pass, you saw a bunch of low fives with teammates and then he went directly back to the bench to study.
“It’s the frame of focus. As you’re trying to execute and have successful plays, it’s all about that play and not thinking about the next drive. As long as you can stay within the play and not hover over it and be pretty locked in, you have a better chance of having success. Then, it’s over and it’s on to the next one. Every play is its own entity, so be in the moment. Mac is a guy who’s ultra-competitive. It was a heartbreaker against Tampa Bay because he plays about as good as you can play and you don’t win it, so that’s frustrating. But Mac is a guy who has persevered through a lot. Most people don’t realize his road to getting there. He’s been very patient. When your moment comes, he took advantage of it.”
Jones passed for 4,500 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions in his final season for the Crimson Tide, beating Ohio State, 52-24, in the national championship game as he passed for 464 yards and five touchdowns. He won the Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Manning awards and finished third in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, which went to teammate DeVonta Smith.
Against the Carolina Panthers, Mills produced the second-highest first-half passer rating with a 126.9 by a Texans quarterback making his first NFL start behind Case Keenum’s 137.5 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 20, 2013. Overall, though, Mills has 357 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions with a league-low 50.4 passer rating.
Mills was an honorable-mention All-Pac-12 selection who passed for 1,508 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions in five games last season. He set a single-game school record with a 504-yard performance against Washington State. As a sophomore, he passed for 1,960 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions.
“I think Davis is a very talented player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick told New England reporters. “ Had a lot of production, had some big wins last season for Stanford. Good arm, pro-style quarterback, I think he’s got a good base. Like any rookie quarterback, he’s learning all the time, but I think you see a good talent level and a good ability to make the throws, and I think they’re doing a good job of trying to bring him along.”
Although Mills only started 11 games at Stanford due to a knee injury, he showed enough to impress the Texans and be drafted 67th overall.
“They were great, very competitive and real smart,” Morris said. “Those guys are academics, a lot of deep thinking on X's and O's and how to play this position better. We watched a lot of Alabama, Stanford and NFL film together. It was just a real treat being around two guys who are really mature and take the process seriously. They became close friends after being around each other for three months.”
As poorly as Mills played against the Bills, Culley remains optimistic that he can turn it around against New England. Of course, Bill Belichick will have a complicated defense for Mills to diagnose.
“Most rookies going through what he went through on Sunday, you would be really concerned, but I’m not concerned,” Culley said. “I see the same look in his eyes. He comes and prepares the same way. We’ve sat down, and we’ve talked one-on-one on what we need from you, what’s expected from you for us to move forward and for us to have a chance to get this offense to where it needs to be.”
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.