When the Texans line up against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, a gangly man from Montana will crouch under center and receive the team’s first snap of the season. His name is Brock Osweiler. He’s the second-tallest quarterback in NFL history, and the recipient of an equally large free agent contract (four years at $72 million, $37 million of it guaranteed) from Houston’s ownership this March.
So, who is this dude? Is he worth the king’s ransom that the Texans shelled out for him? Will Houstonians come to love or loathe their new QB1? Ahead of this weekend’s opener, let’s investigate:
Who is Lil Oz?
The 25-year-old Osweiler grew up a basketball star in Kalispell, a city of 20,000 that sits about 80 miles south of the Canadian border. Gonzaga head coach Mark Few offered Osweiler a scholarship as a freshman in high school, which he accepted, only to renege two years later, having decided that his earning potential was greater on the gridiron. Kevin Van Valkenburg, in an ESPN the Magazine profile last winter, wrote that “Osweiler became known as the cocky, friendly kid who drove around town in a black Dodge Durango with the license plate ‘LIL OZ.’”
After a productive run at Arizona State, Denver drafted Osweiler in 2012, in the second round. He played understudy to Peyton Manning for three-and-a-half seasons, and then stepped into the first team last November, after Manning went down with a series of injuries. He won five of his next seven starts, only to reclaim his seat on the pine for the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, stuck again behind Manning, the still-hobbled-but-sorta-playable NFL legend. He’s only thrown 305 career passes.
Why’d Houston sign him?
Because it’s incredibly difficult to play quarterback professionally, and competent ones don’t just wander in from the street, looking for work.
Texans fans know this intimately. Sports Illustrated described the play of Matt Schaub, their 2013 starter, as “a slow-motion freight train derailment.” Over the next two seasons, six different signal callers have suited up, none of whom instilled any amount of confidence. Brian Hoyer’s five-turnover travesty in the January playoffs would have sent any general manager, no matter how tight-fisted, digging into his wallet.
And Osweiler, at least on the surface, looks like he can hang in the NFL: “At 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, he possesses surprising mobility, impressive smarts and an arm that is capable of making all the requisite throws.” Ten of those tosses went for touchdowns, against six interceptions. SI’s offseason scouting report touted his moxie. “The biggest thing that stands out is that from the QB's first start in 2015, the game was never too big for him.” (Insert tall guy joke here.)
Is he any good, really?
Still, appearances—and small sample sizes—can be deceiving. The folks at Football Outsiders, the NFL’s best analytical website, were none too impressed with Osweiler’s performance in Denver. Using data from the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue, they found that Osweiler threw an interceptable ball once every 21.2 attempts (27th among the quarterbacks in the catalogue) while throwing accurately on just 76.2 percent of his passes (22nd). Their conclusion? “He mostly proved to be a mediocre quarterback who made bad decisions in the pocket, lacked subtlety, and couldn't throw with precision.” That’s … not especially reassuring.
The buzzword of the offseason, though, is “command.” It takes a lot of mental dexterity to understand head coach Bill O'Brien's playbook, one that gives the quarterback complete control. Osweiler dug in. The team’s summer trip to Arizona was “all business,” star receiver DeAndre Hopkins said at the time. “[Osweiler] would text us in the mornings to make sure guys were on time. We’d get a text 30 minutes beforehand asking if we were up and ready to go. He brought us out there to work.” And now, as basically every single headline suggests, Osweiler has “command of the offense.” This allowed for some impressive downfield throws during the preseason, and gives Texan fans measured reason for optimism.
Only two Montanans have ever started an NFL game at quarterback. The first was Ryan Leaf, one of the league’s most infamous busts. Beginning this Sunday, Lil Oz will try to chart a more promising path.