In many ways, we should have seen this coming.
Because he told us this is who he is.
Last spring, then-Ohio State quarterback prospect C.J. Stroud stood at a lectern on a stage in the Indianapolis Convention Center and met the media during the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Stroud was just one of the quarterbacks who spoke that morning, but he drew a massive crowd. As would Bryce Young, Will Levis, and Anthony Richardson that day.
At one point, Stroud was asked about his skill-set as a quarterback, and what kind of passer he wanted to be in the NFL. Near the end of a lengthy answer that covered discipline and creativity, he said this:
“And one thing about me, I think I’m a ball-placement specialist. I like to be very accurate. I don’t want my receivers have to do really anything to catch the ball. And I think I’ve shown that time and time on film.”
Stroud certainly showed that during his days at Ohio State.
Now he is showing that “time and time” on film in the NFL.
The latest example, a thrilling, record-setting day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Stroud completed 30 of 42 passes for 470 yards (a new rookie record) and 5 touchdowns passes, without throwing an interception. When the Houston Texans went down 37-33 with just under one minute remaining, Stroud drove them down the field in just six plays, connecting with fellow rookie quarterback Tank Dell for the game-winning score.
And what stood out on that drive?
Take the two biggest completions on the drive, starting with this deep corner route to Dell. With the Texans facing a 2nd and 10 at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line, and Houston out of time outs, options were limited. They had 16 seconds left, so they could attack the middle of the field, but ideally Stroud would be able to find something open along the sideline, preferably a play that picked up a big chunk of yardage.
The Texans runs a mirrored Smash concept, with a deep corner route and a flat route to each side of the field. With Tampa Bay dropping into a Cover 2, the corner routes will find space deep to the outside, but Stroud needs to navigate the underneath cornerback, as well as the sideline, when placing this throw.
He does that, putting the ball on Dell right along the sideline while taking a big hit in the process. Dell completes the catch, steps out of bounds, and Houston has a shot at the game-winning touchdown.
Which they deliver on the next play, again thanks to pristine placement from the rookie passer:
Houston comes out with three receivers to the right, and a single receiver to the left. They then shift running back Mike Boone outside towards the left sideline, which gives Stroud a bit of a pre-snap indicator. He sees cornerback Zyon McCollum slide over in response, which gives Stroud a hint that the Buccaneers could be in zone coverage.
As the play begins, that hint is confirmed, as Tampa Bay drops into Quarters. With Dell running a Bang-8 post route, he will get the leverage advantage over the cornerback, who is playing him with outside leverage. Just as Dell is coming out of his break, Stroud rips the throw, putting it just over the outstretched arms of the defender for the touchdown.
However, Stroud’s ability to put throws where he wanted to was a strength coming out of Ohio State, one that almost all evaluators praised Stroud for when he was a prospect. Perhaps the biggest question mark facing Stroud coming out of college was how he would fare under pressure in the pocket.
It was a question that Stroud thought he put to rest with his performance against Georgia. Under duress almost all game long by one of the best defenses in recent college football history, Stroud had one of the best games of his Ohio State career, and put the Buckeyes in position to attempt a game-winning field goal late.
Still, questions over whether that was a one-off performance, or something that Stround could replicate at the next level, lingered.
“I didn’t do it a lot in college and I feel like I should have. It’s something I do regret. I feel like I could have done it a lot more,” said Stroud at the Combine when asked about using his athleticism at Ohio State.
“But I think when you turn on the film and you really watch what I do, and you really look at film game to game, I have used my athleticism not only just in the Georgia game where I did it a lot. I’ve done it in every other game,” added Stroud at the time. “I’ve had tough third-down runs. I’ve had tough fourth-down runs. But there were times I didn’t run the ball when maybe I should have. I feel like that’s something that I learned and that’s what football is about. It’s about stepping back up to the plate and going back and working hard and fixing those problems. That’s something I plan to fix and I’ll show them my athleticism.
“I’ve done it before on film, but since people don’t think I can do it, I’m going to do it again.”
He certainly has been.
Take one of his first completions from Sunday, as he connects with tight end Dalton Schultz on this boot-action concept:
Or what about this completion to Noah Brown, as he bails the pocket to his right and finds his receiver with a defender draped all over him:
Another great example of Stroud using his athleticism on Sunday against Tampa Bay? This big third-down conversion from the third quarter. Watch as Stroud bails the pocket to his left, and then calmly creates space and time to find Schultz working towards the right side of the field:
If you were looking for a play that perhaps sums Stroud up best, it might be this connection with Brown from the fourth quarter. Houston runs a play-action concept with Stroud operating under center, and as he comes out of the run fake he picks up Brown working from right-to-left on a deep crossing route. But he also has pressure off the left edge. Watch as Stroud deftly climbs the pocket to avoid the pressure before making a perfect throw, just out of reach of the nearest defender:
Stroud has been fantastic this season, beyond just the Tampa Bay game, and as a result the Texans have more than hope for the future.
They have hope for the present.
After all, following Sunday’s win the Texans are now 4-4, already well ahead of where people expected them to be this season. They sit tenth in the conference, just outside the playoffs at the moment, but with a number of winnable games left on schedule there is a path not just to a winning record, but a playoff berth.
Sure, it is a longshot, but if you were to go back to August and tell Texans fans they would be here come November, I’d venture a guess they would take that in a heartbeat.
Or maybe, just maybe, those fans might have expected this.
Because maybe they listened to Stroud when he told us this was coming.