Texans Rookie QB Tom Savage Must Decode Pass Rush to Survive in NFL

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Texans Rookie QB Tom Savage Must Decode Pass Rush to Survive in NFL
Associated Press
Rookie QB Tom Savage during a recent Texans workout.

Fashions change, and right now, the pros have gone gaga over action quarterbacksleggy characters who can shake and bake and make the big play happen on their own.

Russell Wilson just won a Super Bowl that way in Seattle. The 49ers have budgeted $126 million to keep Colin Kaepernick's act in San Francisco. And now, the Browns have similar fantasies about their top draft pick, Johnny Manziel, the lively former Texas A&M quarterback.

Dropback passers? That's so last decade.

But in Houston, the Texans are embracing the counterculture. With their fourth-round choice, they landed a slow-footed pocket operator who happens to be coming off one of the worst poundings in recent collegiate history43 sacks in 13 games and countless more blows and knockdowns.

He's Tom Savage of Pitt, and there were multiple moments last season when you wondered how he'd ever survive.

Savage is a lanky, scan-the-field type whose production directly jibes with the quality of his protection. He was nobody nationally until the scouts saw his workout at the combine and the media learned all about his heavy-duty arm strength. Suddenly, he was Tom Savage: sleeper candidatea guy who suddenly "can make all the throws."

Why all the sacking and punishment at Pitt? Part of the problem was a young offensive line that often folded against the heavies on the Panthers schedule. Savage could see the entire field but often saw the entire sky as well. Virginia Tech buried him seven times, and Georgia Tech got to him five times. Even FCS opponent Old Dominion got there twice. The old wisdom says you can't complete passes lying flat on your back.

But part of the blame was clearly on Savage, who often looked like he had no radar detector for trouble and only felt a pass rush when it was on top of him. He'd step into pressure, wade into the trap and hold on until it was too late.

Maybe it was lack of maturity (only 28 collegiate starts), but likely, it was something more genetic. Coaches can drill him you on footwork and proper reads all day, but nobody can teach "escapability." You're either programmed to play in traffic, or you're not.

Of all the pocket QBs on file, maybe the finest ever at physically managing a pass rush is the SteelersBen Roethlisberger, with an instinctive step here or there, a shrug of the shoulders or the big matador move. Despite his lumbering frame, Roethlisberger has always been able to thrust himself out of trouble and buy time to fix a broken play. It's been his calling card.

Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb was another one. Yes, he was more of a raw runner earlier in his career, but later, there was a craftiness to his escapesenough slick maneuvering within the pocket to dodge the pressure and find his dumpoff men. Dan Fouts and Dan Marino, though far less fancy, were two other experts adept at sifting through the fury that was crashing down around them.

At the opposite end of the scale was Rob Johnson, who played with Jacksonville and Buffalo in the late '90s and early '00s. A single glimmering start for the '97 Jaguars earned him a $25 million contract with Buffalo, and the Bills beamed at the prospect of finally having a top gun to replace Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.

What they got, however, was a guy who could only operate in spotless conditions. When his line got everybody blocked and things were clean and tidy up front, Johnson had the look of a pro. But when the pressure got near him, he'd often short-circuit. He'd hear shadows. He'd step into defenders and whirl in circles and get devoured by the pressure.

In Johnson's eight appearances in 1998, he was sacked 29 times; in 2000, it was 49 sacks. He couldn't mange the chaos around him. One AFC defender told The Sporting News that year:

While Rob is a good athlete, you're not concerned about him running or throwing. ... Once the pocket starts to break down a little, he loses discipline. He'll bend his knees and bring the ball down, so all the timing routes are out the window. If he wants to throw, he has to straighten back up, which takes more time.

Carl Mauck was Buffalo's offensive line coach during the Johnson years. Mauck's a former center himself, so he understands all the nuances and headaches that go with trying to keep a statue upright during an earthquake. It was a frustrating time for him.

"There are bad things and good things about immobile quarterbacks," Mauck said via telephone last week. "As a lineman, the immobile ones are easier to block for because you always know where they're going to be. The key is making sure they get rid of the ball in time. The guys that survive a long time in the league are the ones that can move in the pocket just enough to buy some time and get the ball off. For them, being immobile is no big deal.

"But if the quarterback can't run and he doesn't get rid of the ball, then you're in for a long day. That was Johnson's trouble. He had a lot of talent, but he would hold the ball. He'd hang on his primary receiver too long, and he took a lot of sacks.

"Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh is another one that doesn't have a real feel for a pass rush. But he's been successful because he's big and strong enough to buy himself some time. Then somebody comes open late, and he hits him. But his line has always given up a lot of sacks because of the way he insists on holding the ball back there."

In terms of physique, Savage is way more of a Johnson than a Roethlisberger. He won't be shrugging people off and muscling his way out of problems like Big Ben does. He'll need to be smarter with the ball as a Texan than he was as a Panther.

If he hangs on in Houston, it's because he's learned to let go and live another play.

 

Tom Danyluk joins Bleacher Report after nine years as a columnist with Pro Football Weekly. He is an award-winning freelance writer and author of The Super ‘70s, which you can find on Amazon.com. Questions or comments? Please contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.

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