Arian Foster pulls on a black stocking cap dotted with red flowers, almost as if he knows winter is coming on a perfect near 80 degree Houston day. In a way, it's already arrived for Foster's Houston Texans team.
Foster is still hobbled, his every game missed crippling the Texans offense no matter who is at quarterback. Across the locker room, Jadeveon Clowney — the supernova defensive talent — tells reporters he feels "all right" even as he casually puts the knee that's robbed him of his otherworldly speed up on a chair.
Two of the Texans three most talented players are such faint shadows of themselves that even the most dogged groundhog would have trouble seeing them. And now Bill O'Brien's team is back below .500 (5-6) in a jumbled AFC where 10 wins very well may be the playoff minimum. If it's not winter, that's a heck of a chill running down O'Brien's spine.
Ryan Mallett — the Texans' latest wanna be franchise quarterback — heads into this Monday morning with a right pectoral that might be torn, part of the indignity of a Sunday that includes a wayward 22-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which Mallett's arm proves to be less accurate than a sawed-off shotgun. Mallett's not likely to be taking snaps again anytime soon.
Now O'Brien has to make sure the Texans don't just go backwards because of this.
The Texans defenders needs QB hope more than anyone. You can hear it in their tired voices after a game in which they are stuck on the field for more than 39 minutes.
That's what elevating mediocre journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick back into the starting quarterback role does. It pushes the Texans even further back while providing an illusion of safety. O'Brien should not reach for that illusion.
Fitzpatrick's already proven what he can do is not good enough. Going back to Uncle Fitz to desperately try and claw out a victory against the flawed Tennessee Titans next Sunday is the kind of thing timid coaches just trying to hold onto jobs do. It reeks of coaching scared.
O'Brien's not in a position where he has to make such a "safe" move.
Bob McNair's handpicked first-year coach is free to go for it. Which means he should start Tom Savage. If Mallett's out, why wouldn't he?
Start seeing what the intriguing rookie — the only quarterback on the Texans roster who hasn't already proven he has NFL limitations — can do. Yes, there will be growing pains. But there also might be a bit of magic.
And that's something you're sure not getting with Fitzpatrick.
The Texans' playoff life already teeters on the edge of a cliff. It would take a monumental streak for the Texans to pull a run to the postseason off now. Fitzpatrick's shown he is not capable of leading this team on such a run. Savage might not be either. But he could be. There's promise in Savage. There's hope.
McNair's handpicked coach is free to go for it. Which means he should start Savage. If Mallett's out, why wouldn't he?
Starting Savage would be perceived as a move for the future — and there's plenty of truth in that. But the hidden truth is he could be better for the here and now too.
"I hate losing," O'Brien barks after this one. "I hate it. I hate it with every fiber of my body."
Sometimes shattering a losing culture requires doing something bold. Elevating Tom Savage from the scout team to first team sure qualifies. O'Brien saw something in Savage to target him in the draft, to shun trading up for much higher-profile prospects like Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater later in the first round. Why not shake up his team and start the rookie?
He wouldn't exactly be keeping Aaron Rodgers on the bench to do it.
Tom Savage's Quarterback Hope
These Texans desperately need some quarterback hope. They need it more than some illusionary playoff push that hinges on Ryan Fitzpatrick just playing well enough to beat the Titans and Jaguars of the world. Even with Foster out and Clowney limited, the Texans still somehow pull within 16-13 of the now likely playoff bound Bengals after trailing 16-3. Even with Fitzpatrick whipping passes five feet over Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins' heads, they have a real fighting chance.
"The crazy thing about is that even though we we were never really able to get anything going, we were never out of the game," Johnson says.
"We were right there in the fourth quarter," Hopkins says.
That's with the offense contributing no touchdowns — and killing the cause with one of the easiest safeties you'll ever see. The fallacy comes in seeing this and assuming the Texans only need a gatekeeper at quarterback. Hey, with Johnathan Joseph finally stopping A.J. Green with a 60-yard Pick-6, who needs daring quarterback play?
The Texans game-changer defenders needs quarterback hope more than anyone though. You can hear it in their tired voices after a game in which they are stuck on the field for more than 39 minutes of action. It's unmistakable in J.J.Watt's almost monotone, "Maybe we need to score more points."
No, a return to Ryan Fitzpatrick won't do. Tom Savage is the only real quarterback hope.
Bill O'Brien only has one winning move. For today as well as tomorrow. Play the kid.