CLEVELAND — Ryan Mallett marches into the huddle, full of purpose and controlled fire. He's a man on a mission, certain he's right where he is supposed to be.
Matthew McConaughey's Wall Street tycoon seemed less sure of himself than the Houston Texans latest would be quarterback savior does on this day. Mallett lets everyone in the Texans huddle know what he wants in clear, decisive terms. They'll keep up with the Mothball Quarterback or he'll leave them behind.
Suddenly, the Texans are moving faster on offense than they have all season, finally playing with something close to the type of pace first-year coach Bill O'Brien has yearned for all fall. Mallett will get everyone moving, pushing forward toward the same goal.
What? You think the forgotten University of Arkansas gunslinger is going to be a little hesitant because he is starting his first game of any significance in nearly four years, starting his first NFL game ever? Please. That's not Ryan Mallett.
"He's certainly confident," veteran receiver Andre Johnson says, letting out a rare chuckle when asked about Mallett. "Very confident."
Considering the circumstances, it's no stretch to call this one of the biggest regular season wins in Texans franchise history.
Mallett's confidence, a monster workhorse game from rookie running back Alfred Blue that no one could have expected and the type of out-of-this-world game from J.J. Watt that almost everyone's starting to always expect adds up to a critical 23-7 Texans win. It is Mallett's unbending, painfully patient confidence that Johnny Manziel, a Texas reared quarterback, needs to learn from though.
In truth, it's absurd that Manziel never gets into this game against the team he wants to beat most. The Browns offense is a mess and Brian Hoyer looks overmatched and befuddled for large stretches of the afternoon. With Watt, Brian Cushing and Ryan Pickett completely shutting off Cleveland's running game, Hoyer hoists the ball up 50 times and only completes 40 percent of those passes.
He looks more lost than a tourist in Times Square.
And still Manziel sits and sits — and sits. At one point it looks like Hoyer is hurting, so Manziel quickly yanks on his helmet and starts toward the field. Not so fast, Johnny. False alarm. False hope.
If Browns coach Mike Pettine turns to Johnny Manziel in the fourth quarter, he might have a chance to steal this game with a spark. Instead, he sends his team stumbling out of first place.
It's apparent that Johnny Football will need show more patience than almost anyone anticipated. He could do much worse than looking across the field to Ryan Mallett for an example of true resolve.
"It made the four years worth it," Mallett says after running off the field as a giddy winner in his long-awaited career NFL start No. 1. "I couldn't ask for a better start to my career."
No one wants to wait as long as Ryan Mallett has. It makes Johnny Manziel's vigil look like a cup of coffee. But there's Mallett on a frigid day in Northern Ohio, with his parents in the stands, spreading the ball around to six different receivers, throwing for 211 yards and two touchdowns, giving the Texans hope again.
New Texans & Manziel Reality
With the tough conditions win, Houston's now 5-5, still alive in the AFC's playoff picture. Considering the circumstances — the team's best offensive player (Arian Foster) out with an injury, breaking in a new quarterback, playing on the road in the cold against a red-hot division leader, fighting to keep the playoffs in reach — it's no stretch to call this one of the biggest regular season wins in Texans franchise history.
This one belongs right up there with that franchise debut upset of the Cowboys, that first playoff-berth clinching win in Cincinnati and that toppling of Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Denver.
"I don't think many people had us coming in here and winning," left tackle Duane Brown says. "Especially winning convincingly. This is a huge win for our organization."
At one point it looks like Hoyer is hurting, so Manziel quickly yanks on his helmet and starts toward the field. Not so fast, Johnny. False alarm. False hope.
It leaves O'Brien talking about the smile on Johnson's face, about the payoff for all the veterans who kept their belief in the new coach's plan. "Andre Johnson, that guy just wants to win," O'Brien says, admiringly.
One thing that marks Bill Belichick coached teams is they improve drastically as the season goes on. Maybe, just maybe, this Belichick disciple is bringing that type of in-season jump to Houston. For at least this week, the Texans sure look like a much better team coming out of their bye.
"I think this is the type of win that defines our team," Cushing says. "This was a very tough football game, played very physical, played in the cold. I don't know if people see us this way, but this is a tough team.
"I think we've found our identity."
These Texans aren't pretty. Even their new quarterback is more brute force than pinpoint touch. Ryan Mallett towers above the pocket and fearlessly uncoils missiles with his cannon arm. Mallett is a 6-foot-7 drill sergeant rather than a Joe Cool Montana style of quarterback. He's very much a part of the fray, overpowering throws.
"He has a very strong arm and it showed today," second-year receiver DeAndre Hopkins says. "He can basically get the ball wherever he wants."
Somehow Mallett still stays ultra confident in his one big gift through all the years of wait. Johnny Manziel needs to keep his own belief through his own agony. That bravado is one of the biggest gifts Johnny Football has.
"It made the four years worth it. I couldn't ask for a better start to my career."
In his own way, Andre Johnson knows what it's like to think things are never going to change. When he's dressed in a postgame blue pinstriped suit, looking very much like a Wall Street power player himself, someone actually asks him what it feels like to know the Texans have "found their quarterback." After Game One of Mallett.
Johnson doesn't take the bait — or shoot an incredulous, you-know-how-many-times-I-have-heard-that look. No. 80 knows he and the Texans have been fooled before. Still, it is nice to have that guy who's so sure of what the Texans need to be doing march into the huddle.
"He doesn't do it in a cocky way," Johnson assures of Mallett's confident approach.
Johnson flashes a slight smile. You never know with quarterbacks. Even when they've been in the NFL's version of suspended animation for years.
"It felt good today," Mallett says in his podium moment. "It's like driving a car."
Sometimes a coach gets smart by just throwing the waiting guy the keys. That's sure something for the Browns to think about. The snow doesn't start falling in Cleveland until Ryan Mallett's left the stadium. But Mallett's performance may very well end up whiting out the obstacle in Johnny Manziel's way too.