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Tom Savage driven by lost opportunity in battle to be Texans QB

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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.V. -- Tom Savage had just gotten his big break, displacing Brock Osweiler as the Houston Texans' starting quarterback last Dec. 19 and promptly directing a Christmas Eve victory over the Bengals that clinched the AFC South title.

Then, on the verge of an improbable postseason start, Savage saw it all unravel on New Year's Day in a meaningless regular-season finale against the Tennessee Titans. After taking a blow to the head on a second-quarter quarterback sneak, Savage was evaluated for a possible concussion and cleared to return. However, after re-entering the game for a half-ending kneel-down, Savage was reevaluated in the Texans' locker room and placed in the concussion protocol, a diagnosis that would essentially end his dream of starting a playoff game.

When given the bad news by Texans team physicians, Savage broke -- in this case, literally and figuratively.

"It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster for sure," Savage recalled Tuesday from The Greenbrier, where the Texans are conducting training camp. "You have an opportunity like that, and then you just can't be out there ... it's hard. [The doctors] weren't a big fan of Tom Savage that week. I heard a whiteboard was broken ... at least, that's what they tell me."

By the time I left West Virginia on Wednesday afternoon, three other Texans sources had told me about an incident that one called "surreal": Just after his teammates returned to the field for the second half of that game against the Titans, Savage -- angered by the doctors' refusal to clear him -- took out his frustration on the whiteboard, smashing it beyond repair.

This much is clear: As Savage attempts to hold off Houston's first-round draft pick, Deshaun Watson, in a training-camp battle to begin the season as the Texans' starter, the scars of last January remain embedded in his psyche.

"That was a tough time," Texans coach Bill O'Brien recalls. "He's had some injuries, and to suffer that one at that time -- when he'd finally become the starter -- was hard. He was not thrilled. He wanted to get back in the game. He's a competitive guy. And I'm sure that's part of his motivation now, to try to get back to that point."

By all indications, Savage is having a strong summer. The fourth-year quarterback's command of O'Brien's offense has shown up on the practice field, where the Texans' vaunted defense (the NFL's top-ranked unit in 2016, even with star defensive end J.J. Watt sidelined for most of the season) isn't manhandling the offense (ranked 29th last year) the way it has in past years.

"The offense is coming hard this camp; I can already tell they're different," defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said after Wednesday's spirited practice, which featured so many skirmishes that O'Brien joined his players in running a punitive lap around the goal post because, he cracked, "I can't control my team."

One highlight came about an hour into the two-and-a-half-hour session, when Savage lofted a gorgeous fade to star wideout DeAndre Hopkins in an 11-on-11 drill against the Texans' first-string defense. With a visiting officiating crew legislating the workout, Hopkins drew the equivalent of an And-1 -- provoking a pass-interference flag while making a tough catch in the corner of the end zone.

Savage celebrated by charging toward Hopkins and initiating a mid-air body bump.

"Tom and I, I don't think we've had one incompletion yet," Hopkins said. "If we did, my toe was out of bounds or something. That goes to show the work Tom's been putting in all offseason. It's pretty cool."

And yet, it's impossible not to notice the poise, athleticism and skill put forth by Watson, who wrapped up a brilliant college career last January by leading Clemson to a dramatic victory over Alabama in the national championship game, reversing the previous year's outcome. When the Texans traded up from 25th to 12th to select Watson in the first round of last April's draft, it was clear O'Brien and general manager Rick Smith view him as their quarterback of the future.

It's up to Savage to try to hold Watson off and remain the quarterback of the present.

"They're both competitive guys," Hopkins said. "They might not tell you, but it's showing. They both want that starting job, and they're not afraid to show it. My whole career has been a roller coaster with quarterbacks, so it's exciting to have two guys who are showing such command out there."

Said O'Brien: "For a rookie, [Watson] is very mature. He's been in big games, so nothing's too big for him. He works very hard and is very studious, and he's done a really good job of picking up the offense. He doesn't make the same mistake twice, and he's got really good poise.

"Tom has had a very good camp, and he's got really good command of what we're doing. He's throwing the ball really well, and our team has a lot of confidence in him."

For his part, Savage, a fourth-round draft pick in 2014, said he wasn't overly fazed by the Texans' selection of Watson, insisting it did not add insult to injury.

"Listen," he said, "there's no bigger realist in the world than me. I understand that Bill, Rick and Bob (McNair, the Texans' owner) all have to feed their families, and they're going to go with the quarterback they feel can best help them win games.

"We have a good opportunity as a team. I know what I need to do as a quarterback: protect the ball and move the chains. If you do that and play well, you can keep your job. If not, you probably won't. It's how the cookie crumbles."

Not surprisingly, Savage has held on to the memory of the way his playoff prospects fell apart on that emotional New Year's Day in Nashville. After doctors held him out of the Texans' first-round playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders, Savage was cleared to return for a Divisional Round road clash against the Patriots. However, Osweiler -- who has since been traded to the Cleveland Browns -- got the start, throwing three interceptions in Houston's 34-16 defeat.

"It's every kid's dream to go up there and play against that team," Savage said. "I wish I could have had that opportunity. Hopefully, we can get back to the playoffs and do it again."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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