Sometimes the next man up is just another lamb being led to the slaughter.
A well-known football maxim is that the backup quarterback is always the most popular man in town. It's the same phenomenon that applies in baseball to top prospects in Triple-A. In hockey, it's the backup goalie. In basketball, it's the sharpshooting sixth man. When things go awry, everyone is looking toward the "next man up"—the savior who can ride in on his white horse and save the day.
Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum isn't just a backup. He's also the young local prospect, undrafted last year out of the University of Houston, where he set all sorts of passing records. Before that, he grew up about five hours away in Abilene, Texas, winning a state championship for Wylie High School.
Add all of that up and one can figure out why Keenum is a popular topic on the message boards, fan blogs and sports talk radio around the Houston area.
Then, remember the struggles that quarterbacks Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates have gone through. The offense has been impotent and anemic under their collective watch. For years, that wasn't the case, as Schaub sat firmly entrenched in the national consciousness as just outside of the elusive "elite" zone. He was even a Pro Bowler last season.
Yates, as the last most popular man in town, has a playoff win to his credit—the Texans' first playoff win in franchise history.
Schaub's nine interceptions (many turning into defensive touchdowns) are among the most in the league in 2013, and his 6.66 yards per attempt is not only potentially eschatological, but more importantly, his worst posting in that category since his rookie year in Atlanta. (You know, when it was his turn to be the most popular man there.)
The Texans offense can't be stymied with just a low yards per attempt; a dink-and-dunk offense doesn't jive with what head coach Gary Kubiak wants to do in the run game. More importantly, it doesn't properly utilize wide receivers Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins.
With weapons like that, it's insane to have such a low yards per attempt. It's damning for Matt Schaub's inclusion in any list of "core" players that the Texans should be building around.
Yates stepped in for Schaub against St. Louis and promptly threw a pick-six of his own, but the game got even worse for him. He didn't throw a touchdown. His rating of 45.3 was Gabbert-esque. His yards per attempt was 5.8, or "even less than the pedestrian number I just chided Schaub for."
So, following an ankle injury to Schaub and Yates' ineffectiveness, the QB carousel landed on the kid, for his chance to take the reins of the Texans' potentially explosive offense. The degree of difficulty couldn't have been much higher against the 7-0 Kansas City Chiefs, a team which has one of the most potent pass rushes in the NFL.
Good first game for Case Keenum. Arrowhead isn't an easy place to play, and that #Chiefs defense is legit.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 20, 2013
Keenum did...alright (15-of-25, 271 yards, 1 TD).
If a Texans fan wants to look for a light at the end of the tunnel, that's fine. If the argument needs to be that Keenum, 25, represents a better long-term option than 32-year-old Schaub, that's OK, too. If Keenum finishes out the year because his arm, a truncated playbook, and a happy Johnson and Hopkins are the ingredients for a few extra wins, great.
That doesn't mean Case Keenum is anything more than the sum of the same parts that left him undrafted last year. Let's take a look at his scouting report, via Russ Lande, who was writing for Sporting News at the time, but currently serves as the College Scouting Director for the Montreal Alouettes:
One of the big knocks on Keenum is his lack of arm strength, which came into full focus during drills. His passes lacked zip and were too slow getting to receivers...Too often his passes would dip before getting to the target. Receivers often had to slow up and wait for the ball...While we believe arm strength is the most overrated piece of the quarterback evaluation process, it's necessary to be at a minimum level. Keenum’s lack of zip affected his accuracy, which is a big issue.
Happy for Case Keenum. I watched him at UH in person a few times and he definitely showed promise. Has improved his core strength a lot.— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) October 20, 2013
One of the positives for Keenum is that arm strength is one of the things quarterbacks can work on, and it does appear that the NFL lifestyle as well as an emphasis on his shortcomings has led to a marginal increase in velocity.
The rest of his skills he showcased were, frankly, par for the course for Keenum, who has always been poised, collected and willing, ready and able to spread the ball around in a pass-heavy/spread attack. Against the Chiefs, the Texans relied on many of the same concepts that made Keenum successful at Houston with the Cougars.
Big pass from Case Keenum to DeVier Posey came on an old Kevin Sumlin packaged play of Y-stick with inside zone. Keenum read OLB for throw— Smart Football (@smartfootball) October 20, 2013
They also relied on the run with an almost 50-50 run/pass ratio. Had they had a healthy Arian Foster for the entire game, things could have easily gone differently. Had they been playing any other defense in the NFL, things may have gone even better, as opposed to the 17-16 loss.
The entire situation is reminiscent of former NFL quarterback Tyler Thigpen, who caught the NFL by storm in 2008 for the then-atrocious Chiefs. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey installed an offensive set straight out of the Coastal Carolina playbook, and Thigpen outperformed expectations because he was a good athlete for whom the game slowed down when he was comfortable.
Eventually, however, Thigpen's schtick was over because it wasn't sustainable. Teams watch tape—you can only surprise people so many times. Eventually, when all the wrinkles and gimmicks fade, a quarterback has to be able to make the throws. Thigpen couldn't do that on a consistent basis. Keenum can't either.
At the end of the game Sunday, Kansas City was able to speed the game back up for Keenum in crunch time and lit him up on third downs.
When the pressure really ramped up on a potential game-winning drive, Keenum froze. Fans may want to blame the offensive line for those sacks toward the end of the game, but they are almost entirely on Keenum, who wasn't identifying blitzers, making hot reads or getting rid of the ball.
There's a lot of season left for the 2-5 Texans. Schaub could come back and go on a run. Or, Keenum could stay in and continue his Tyler Thigpen impersonation. Either way, the story for 2013 hasn't been written yet, and the denouement should be enjoyable to watch—even if the defense isn't playing up to snuff.
As of right now, however, it is looking more and more like the Texans' long-term quarterback situation may need to be rectified in the 2014 NFL draft. Case Keenum may be the most exciting thing about the Texans today, but he's still just another question mark at this point on a team still searching for answers.