How complex stakes uniquely position the Houston Texans this season

Will Davis Mills take the next step? Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Houston Texans training camp is underway, and as it is for most football teams, all the city’s eyes are on second-year quarterback Davis Mills.

Mills, who played in 13 games for the Texans in 2021 and started in 11, will likely be QB1 when Houston takes the field on Sept. 11 against the Indianapolis Colts. For Texans fans that have had to sit through the past two seasons of agony, the near certainty of who the starting quarterback is should bring a sense of optimism around the 20-year-old franchise.

Houston fans know the story by now. The 6-4 quarterback closed the 2021 season with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions after his subpar, and at times, brutal first six career starts.

Let’s look at a possible best-case scenario for Mills. What if the Stanford product leads Houston to eight, nine or even more wins, heck even playoffs, while putting together a 25-touchdown or more season and limiting his interceptions to 10 or less.

That would certainly be enough for the Texans to confidently say they have “the guy” in Mills and go forward with the 23-year-old. He will be 24 by the time the 2022 season ends.

The exciting part for fans is that a 25-touchdown; 10-pick or less season is not that far-fetched either. Mills ended 2021 with 16 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 2,664 yards. Six of those interceptions came against the Buffalo Bills and Colts, two of the NFL’s top defenses in the NFL in 2021.

Now in Year 2, throwing nine more touchdowns in six more starts while holding off on the multi-interception games is not asking Mills to reinvent the wheel. The exciting thing is if Mills does take that next step, it will likely mean the surrounding pieces took a leap as well.

Of course, let’s slow down. There is a worst-case scenario for Mills. He could fail to build on his final five games in 2021; struggle to play a consistent 2022 season; and the Texans win 4 games or less for the third consecutive year. NFL defensive coordinators will figure out Mills’ weaknesses in 2022. He could fail to adjust.

So what? If that scenario plays out then the Texans can cut their losses and go in a different direction in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Texans are in a no-lose scenario.

Even if Mills plays well enough to show improvement but not enough to declare him the next franchise quarterback in a six-or-seven-win season, Houston also has the draft capital to be flexible.

Texans fans struggled to watch the Bill O’Brien-era end with the 24-0 debacle against Kansas City, which was followed by DeAndre Hopkins being shipped out for a second-round pick and running back David Johnson, and well the list goes on. Everyone knows what happened with Deshaun Watson, and even JJ Watt left for greener pastures.

After what seemed like years of not having a first-round pick, or in the case of 2021, what seemed like a punt of a season, the clouds have parted over the city of Houston.

The Texans have the rebuild off the ground. While there is a lot of work left to do, Houston is playing with house money at quarterback, and for that reason, fans should be excited for the 2022 season.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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