Ten weeks into his fourth pro season, Ryan Mallett had yet to start a game at quarterback in the NFL. He hadn't seen the field since the Houston Texans' blowout win over the Oakland Raiders in Week 2, when he took one snap and dropped to his knee to run out the clock. He hadn't attempted a pass in a regular-season game since Week 14 of the 2012 season -- and that was just the fourth attempt of his career, with none of his previous appearances coming in meaningful situations.
All of that changed Sunday, when he led the Texans into action against the Cleveland Browns with a chance to keep the playoffs within reach. But before we get to his performance, let's go over how we got here.
Houston didn't acquire Mallett from the New England Patriots (in exchange for a conditional late-round pick) until after both teams had completed their preseason games this year, but that's not to say Texans head coach Bill O'Brien and quarterbacks coach George Godsey didn't know what they were getting. When you set out to add any player, particularly one with as little in-game experience as Mallett, the first thing you do is go back to your scouting report from when he was being evaluated as a prospect. Between the NFL Scouting Combine, pro days, player interviews, individual workouts and player visits, you'll have a good base of information with which to project how he'll perform in your system and on your roster. And in this case, O'Brien faced even less risk than usual.
That's because he and Godsey were, after all, on the Patriots staff that drafted Mallett in the third round in 2011 to be groomed as the heir apparent to Tom Brady. Thus, O'Brien had already run projections on Mallett as the Patriots' offensive coordinator in 2011 -- and he'd actually seen Mallett perform within his system every day in practice as a rookie. So when rookie Jimmy Garoppolo made Mallett expendable in New England, it made sense for Mallett to land in Houston, where O'Brien was installing a similar system. However, there were some big questions, most notably this one: How would Mallett perform under the pressure of a real game?
Fast forward roughly two months. Following yet another discouraging performance by starter Ryan Fitzpatrick, who completed less than 50 percent of this throws and turned the ball over for the ninth time in a Week 9 loss to the Eagles that dropped the Texans below .500 for the second time this season, it was time to find out what Mallett could do. O'Brien used his Week 10 bye to make the switch.
So what's the verdict?
For the most part, Mallett's first true NFL reps were very pedestrian, with the quarterback completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in Houston's 23-7 win. His first throw of the afternoon was a glaring miss: On the second offensive play of the game, he had Andre Johnson on a double move and underthrew the ball. Johnson stopped his route and came back to get it, and while he initially appeared to make a 28-yard catch, the replay showed the ball skipped off the turf before the receiver could haul it in. Following a successful challenge by the Browns, a potential touchdown -- Johnson had Joe Haden easily beat -- became an incompletion.
Mallett also threw an interception late in the first quarter, and while it won't officially be considered a red-zone pick in the stat book, given that the Texans were at the Browns' 29 when it happened, it probably cost Houston at least three points. As I wrote last week, it's crucial for backup quarterbacks to avoid turnovers and eliminate extra possessions for their defense. Mallett definitely wanted that INT -- along with the wasted scoring opportunity -- back.
Mallett's best play of the day came early in the fourth quarter, with the Texans on Cleveland's 38-yard line and clinging to a 10-point lead. On fourth-and-3, Mallett put a receiver in short motion to see that the Browns would be playing man coverage to the top of the formation. After making a great read, Mallett made an even better throw. Though Haden was in excellent position over Johnson, Mallett tossed a perfectly timed dart to Johnson's back hip on a stop route, converting the first down and keeping Houston's offense on the field. This was a huge play: It led to an easier field goal later in the drive and, more importantly, wiped almost four minutes off the game clock in what was still a two-possession game midway through the fourth quarter.
From a strategic standpoint, I really liked how Mallett incorporated the tight ends into this offense, a facet that basically had been nonexistent with Fitzpatrick under center. Entering the game, Texans tight ends had accounted for just 16 of the team's receptions all season. By halftime on Sunday, Mallett already had thrown two touchdown passes to tight ends (one of which, of course, went to defensive star J.J. Watt, who has been known to moonlight at tight end occasionally).
Mallett certainly has the physical tools to be a good quarterback in the NFL. He can make all the throws with ease, has a huge arm and boasts excellent deep-ball accuracy. But the bottom line is, one start isn't going to provide a clear picture as to whether he can be the guy in Houston for years to come. With six games remaining in the regular season, Mallett will need to prove that the game's not too big for him. It certainly will help his case if he can pull the Texans from mediocrity to legit playoff contention, an effort that got a boost from the Colts' loss to the Patriots on Sunday night.
I would not count out Houston, which is 5-5 and still has four home games on the schedule. Of course, the squad is also behind six other teams in the race for an AFC wild-card berth, with a Week 15 matchup in Indy looming large in the AFC South picture. All of which is to say that the Texans -- and Mallett -- obviously have some work to do.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @CoachBillick.