Smith: With no Drew Brees at their dis­posal, Tex­ans are bet­ting it all on Sav­age.

Tex­ans of­fense ap­pears to still be a work in progress while Sav­age works out the kinks as new start­ing QB

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - BRIAN T. SMITH brian.smith@chron.com twitter.com/chron­bri­an­smith

NEW OR­LEANS — He was smooth. Danger­ous. Al­ready locked in and just wait­ing to be un­leashed for the real thing.

And when Drew Brees com­pleted eight of his ini­tial 10 passes for 65 yards and a length-of-the­field scor­ing drive in pre­sea­son game three, I was again re­minded of what was unig­nor­able dur­ing a four-day stay in Louisiana.

The Tex­ans re­ally could use No. 9 for the black and gold.

In­stead, the back-to-back AFC South cham­pi­ons are bet­ting it all on in­ex­pe­ri­enced Tom Sav­age in 2017. And the same things that were ob­vi­ous at the start of ex­hi­bi­tion play were still ev­i­dent as the pre­sea­son all but ended Satur­day night at the Su­per­dome.

Has Sav­age tech­ni­cally been ef­fi­cient? Sure. He was 10-of-16 for 79 yards in a 13-0 de­feat to the Saints and is a com­bined 27-of-36 for 246 yards, one touch­down and no in­ter­cep­tions in pre­sea­son play.

But has he ever ap­peared danger­ous? No. Smooth? Rarely. Still fig­ur­ing it all out — rhythm, tim­ing, con­fi­dence, feel — and need­ing ev­ery bit of the pre­sea­son to lock in as Bill O’Brien’s next start­ing quar­ter­back? Yes. “We didn’t coach well or play well on of­fense. … So we’ve got a lot of ground to make up there,” said O’Brien, whose team fell to 1-2 in games that don’t count. “I have to do a bet­ter job, and we all have to do a bet­ter job of­fen­sively. We will. We’ll do a bet­ter job.”

I’m sure the Tex­ans’ air at­tack will rip open Week 1 at NRG Sta­dium. I’m cer­tain it won’t all be dropoffs and check­downs be­hind a pieced-to­gether of­fen­sive line.

“Ob­vi­ously you’re not go­ing to show ev­ery­thing in the pre­sea­son. That’s just the way it is,” Sav­age said. “But there’s some shots that can be taken in the game. … We were just tak­ing what they gave us, and a lot of times we shot our­selves in the foot there, with the penal­ties and stuff. The game is not meant to be sec­ond-and-15 and first-or­what­ever.”

Sav­age soon will get No. 1 wide re­ceiver De­An­dre Hop­kins back. Maybe the Tex­ans will in­vite Duane Brown for a pri­vate Kirby Drive chat and give Sav­age his miss­ing Pro Bowl left tackle. This was al­ways go­ing to be a run-first, pass-sec­ond of­fense that knows its elite de­fense can win games.

But in Thurs­day’s prac­tice and Satur­day’s fi­nal fake warm-up, Brees op­er­ated on an­other level. And at the Su­per­dome, the Tex­ans’ of­fense looked like it still had a ton to fix, while threat­en­ing to of­fi­cially be a Week 1 work in progress.

“We didn’t score, so ob­vi­ously that’s on the quar­ter­back,” Sav­age said.

His team was of­ten its own worst en­emy, col­lect­ing eight penal­ties and rarely show­ing any­thing close to reg­u­lar-sea­son elec­tric­ity.

“We were sloppy,” said tight end Ryan Grif­fin, per­fectly cap­tur­ing the of­fense’s unin­spir­ing evening in just three words.

The last good look at Sav­age — if he plays in the pre­sea­son fi­nale Thurs­day against Dal­las, it should be ab­so­lutely min­i­mal — was the most con­cern­ing.

The quick, nowhere drives were back. He av­er­aged just 4.9 yards on 16 at­tempts and the field was rarely stretched.

“(Satur­day) was a tough night,” O’Brien said. “They threw a lot of things at us. And he han­dled some of it. Some of it, we need to do a bet­ter job coach­ing. … I’m very com­fort­able with him.”

Key weapons are miss­ing. No. 2 re­ceiver Will Fuller is out, while Brax­ton Miller was un­avail­able Satur­day.

But there’s no way around it: If the Tex­ans’ of­fense is still this vanilla by Week 2 at Cincin­nati and Week 3 in New Eng­land, the start of their sea­son has 1-2 writ­ten all over it.

“We have to be bet­ter,” said O’Brien, who ac­knowl­edged his team isn’t at full strength but de­clined to use the miss­ing play­ers as an ex­cuse. “We’ve got to get back to prac­tice and fix some of the things that hap­pened here.”

Also con­cern­ing: For the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive game, first-round pick De­shaun Wat­son didn’t close the gap.

The short, quick-re­lease darts con­tinue to be there for No. 4. But the ball keeps stick­ing when Wat­son sur­veys the full field, and an up-and-down prac­tice week dipped again Satur­day in the Dome. He started 7-of-14 for 62 yards, which in­cluded a 4.4 yardsper-at­tempt av­er­age that was ac­tu­ally worse than Sav­age’s.

There were two promis­ing plays when the rookie fought off an at­tacker, stood strong and found an open re­ceiver. There was also an in­ter­cep­tion thrown high, two sacks and an in­ten­tional ground­ing flag thrown near the Tex­ans’ end zone.

“I thought there was some bright spots,” O’Brien said. “They threw a lot of pres­sure at him.”

The Tex­ans also rushed for only 37 yards on their ini­tial 15 car­ries — not ex­actly the grind-it-out stats of a world beater — and Wat­son, like the QB he’s back­ing up, faced reg­u­lar pres­sure up the mid­dle and from the sides.

What was the Tex­ans’ big­gest prob­lem in 2016 (out­side of not hav­ing a last­ing quar­ter­back)? Touch­downs and of­fen­sive points.

How many did they score through three-plus quar­ters Satur­day? Zero.

Wat­son clearly needs more time to watch and learn.

Sav­age has two weeks left to look like a start­ing quar­ter­back and get his of­fense ready for Week 1.

Brett Coomer / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Tex­ans quar­ter­back Tom Sav­age com­pleted seven of 10 passes for 79 yards with no touch­downs or in­ter­cep­tions while play­ing most of the first half Satur­day against the Saints in New Or­leans.

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