I sat down when I got home Sunday early evening after the Texans 28-25 season finale loss to the Titans and stared at my computer. I kept staring, hoping some words would come to mind. Finally, I closed my computer screen and walked away…for three hours. I just kept trying to collect my thoughts on what I had just seen and not just on Sunday, but for the entire 2021 season. There's a lot to get to in the final Harris Hits of the 2021 season, so let's roll.
The first place to start is with rookie QB Davis Mills. There's been so much consternation about Mills and how he was a wasted draft pick in the third round. There aren't many rookie quarterbacks that have stepped into a situation as unique as the one the Texans faced in 2021. Regardless, his obituary was written before he could even get off the field on one of the first Saturdays in Training Camp. He had thrown multiple interceptions that day and the critics of Mills being drafted crowed louder and louder as they puffed their chest to prove themselves correct that the Texans wasted a third round draft pick. They had already created the narrative THEY wanted. A funny thing happened along the way, though…Mills got better, every single week. Now, it didn't look great when he was facing some of the best defenses in the NFL in his first starting stint but when he had a chance to return to the starting lineup against Seattle, he looked like a different and more mature quarterback. He then won at Jacksonville. He lit up the Chargers. He had a solid first half at San Francisco. Then, there was Sunday against the Titans - 301 yards through the air, three touchdowns and a 128.5 rating. He finished the year with THREE games with a 128.5 rating or better and all three teams were playoff teams - Patriots, Chargers and Titans. Well, they would've been playoff teams if the Chargers…uh, well, you know.
Down 21-0, Coach Culley told me heading into the locker room that he wanted the offense to play with more tempo in the second half. After the Texans forced a three-and-out to start the second half, Mills went to work. He hit David Johnson for seven yards, which got things started. A few plays later, he threw a dime down the Texans sideline that Rex Burkhead skied to rip out of the air for a first down. Then, OC Tim Kelly called the same flea-flicker that he called in the third quarter against New England in Week 5. It worked beautifully against the Patriots when Mills dropped a nugget right in the hands of Chris Conley in Week 5. This time he did the same to Chris Moore to get the Texans on the board and cut the lead to 21-7. That touchdown shook off the offense's first half malaise and turned this from a Titans easy Sunday coronation into one of the best games of the season.
After the defense forced another three-and-out, Mills drove the Texans down for a field goal to cut the lead to 21-10. Another Titans' three-and-out gave the ball back to Mills and he delivered again with the help of Danny Amendola who made a TREMENDOUS catch on an over route from Mills for the key first down in that drive. Once the Texans got inside the five-yard line, Mills bought time, threw back across his body, finding Amendola wide open in the back of the end zone. On the ensuing two-point play, Mills stuck one into Amendola at the pylon to cut the lead to 21-18. NRG Stadium was as loud as it had been all season long. The defense's three consecutive three-and-outs and Mills' dime dropping lit the place UP!
Earlier in the week, I was on air with SportsRadio 610 afternoon host Ron "The Show" Hughley and he asked me what I wanted to see on Sunday. I told him I wanted to see Mills make even more progress but, most importantly, I wanted to see the Texans score in the second half. The Texans had all of 71 points in the second half, minus the 22 they scored after trailing the Rams 38-0 back in Week 8. So, I said it was important for Mills to show progress and for the offense to score in the second half. I didn't anticipate the Texans would put up a goose egg in the first half, but once they did, I certainly didn't anticipate them putting up 25 in the second half, four more points than they had scored in the third quarter all season. In the second half, Mills engineered four drives. They ended as follows: touchdown, field goal, touchdown and touchdown. More specifically…
Eight plays, 72 yards - Chris Moore touchdown from Mills
Eight plays, 52 yards - Ka'imi Fairbairn field goal
Eight plays, 82 yards - Danny Amendola touchdown & two-point conversion from Mills
Seven plays, 80 yards - Amendola 26-yard touchdown from Mills
Mills finished his rookie year throwing for 2,664 yards, 16 TD and ten INT, four of which came in the second start of his career at Buffalo in torrential rains. After that game, he threw 14 TD and six INT. I won't put him in Canton, as a former Texans head coach cautioned about, well, everyone, but Mills improved, found his confidence, found his voice in the huddle, gained the respect of the team and competed his guts out. No matter how you felt about him as the Texans first draft pick of the 2021 NFL Draft, if you're being fair, you should, at a minimum, acknowledge that Mills improved steadily and consistently and has an opportunity to do even more of that in the future. Is he the face of the franchise for the next two decades? Not yet. Do I want to see how much he can improve from Year 1 to Year 2 and beyond? Hell yes.
After the game was over, I was standing outside the locker room waiting to interview rookie WR Nico Collins. Mills was walking over to the media workroom to do his postgame media session. DL Maliek Collins was walking back over to the locker room after he had finished his media session. Maliek saw Davis and reached out to shake his hand. I couldn't hear what he said to Davis, but I could see Davis nodding along to what Maliek was saying. I know body language and it seemed clear to me that Maliek's handshake and discussion was a show of respect and of gratitude for what Davis had endured as a rookie. By the end of this season, these vets seemingly grew to respect Davis that much more. He seemed to win them over and the second half today did nothing but cement his status with those grizzled veteran players.
Speaking of Maliek, man, he was on one today, as he'd been all season, actually. The Titans interior had a really tough time with Collins, especially on the pass rush. He finished with a sack, a TFL and two quarterback hits. He has been an interior menace throughout the season, even if he didn't have mind blowing numbers to match. Trust me, if you've watched him this season, you know. If not, just keep on guessing.
Seeing WR Danny Amendola at the podium after the game was a bit nostalgic, a bit sad and a lot of very, VERY cool. He was but a glint in the eye of the Texans throughout Training Camp, but when we got ready for Week 1 against the Jaguars, Amendola was added to the roster and made an immediate impact. He had five catches for 34 yards and a touchdown, but he suffered an injury in Week 2 and that was seemingly the story of his season…until Sunday. In the second half, he went bonkers, catching all seven of his receptions for 113 yards, a touchdown and a two point conversion. He and Mills hooked up in all different ways throughout the day. Amendola ran over routes away from man coverage. He went up the seam for a massive catch and run to end the third quarter. He made a wonderful grab for the two-point conversion. His touchdown catch was the easiest catch he made all day. When he got to the podium, he was asked if that was it, for his career. Was he going to retire? He didn't make a declaration one way or the other, stating that he would take a few weeks to step away, assess the damage to his body and decide. If that WAS it, the last game, he went out like the football playing Jesse that he's been his entire career - a studly performance when his team needed him most, an Amendola trait if there ever was one. I just wish we had been able to see it for his hometown team more than just this season as opposed to that other team up north for so long.
This might have been the best game LB Christian Kirksey played as a Texan. He FLEW to the football, racking up eight tackles and two TFLs and one pass defensed. He was off like a shot on a few outside zone plays, in the second half, in particular. I kept saying Kirko, Kirko in the second half to Marc when plays were finished. Talk about respect, man, there are very few guys I respect more than him on many different levels. Early in the season when the Texans struggled mightily in games, Christian was asked to do my postgame interview. I know he hated it. I hated it. But, he couldn't have more respectful and forthright.
The Texans defense in the first and third quarters was lights out. In the second quarter and the one drive in the fourth quarter, it wasn't nearly as productive.
The play that'll have every Texans fan shaking their head was the near Jacob Martin sack/Ryan Tannehill completion to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Martin came about as clean as he could have darting inside of Titans LT Taylor Lewan. HE HAD HIM!! He had Tannehill dead to rights, the place was about to erupt…but the Titans signal caller wiggled out and found his receiver wide open down the far side of the field. A few plays later, Tannehill dotted WR Julio Jones in the back of the end zone to nearly break the back of the Texans. Mills answered with a touchdown drive of his own to cut the lead back to three, but the damage had been done with that Tannehill escape.
Well, that's going to do it for the 2021 season, one that we won't ever forget for many reasons. It ran the gamut of emotions from Week 1 to the final snap of the game on Sunday. It was a year in which a quintet (and more) of rookies grew up in front of our eyes, helping to establish a foundation for years to come. It was a year in which a handful of veterans got a new lease on life. This season hit every single emotion possible and the one that hit me on the way home - no game next week sadness. That said, it IS time for the offseason, one of the most important in team history. Thanks for being here all season long. GO TEXANS!!
Check out the best photos from the Texans-Titans Week 18 matchup.