Why Case Keenum May Absolutely Be Long Term Answer for Houston Texans

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Why Case Keenum May Absolutely Be Long Term Answer for Houston Texans
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If you’re to believe most media pundits, then you shouldn’t think first-year quarterback Case Keenum will have a successful career as a starter in the NFL.

Of course, the reasoning used most often in support of this argument seems faulty at its very core. In fact, it’s downright rotten.

It goes something like this: this undrafted player can’t possibly be any good because no one was smart enough to project it beforehand.

Now try this: read that last sentence out loud and ask yourself if it passes the logic test. No? Good, because that kind of thinking is absurd.

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But if you agree? Congrats! You might consider changing your profession to a sports media person!

A case in point: sports radio jockeys in Keenum’s adopted hometown of Houston have been absurdly unwelcoming to the player during his first year as a starter.

The print media hasn’t been any kinder. In fact, with the exception of Culture Map’s Chris Baldwin, Houston’s local media pundits have been almost unanimous in declaring first year quarterback Keenum dead in the water when it comes to the beleaguered Houston Texans' long-term solution at the NFL’s most critical position.

Unfortunately, it isn’t localized to Houston.

That very same sentiment has been has circulated by many national pundits, perhaps most well-represented by Bleacher Report’s own Lead NFL Writer Michael Schottey, who was bold enough to declare Keenum inept after his very first start:

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.

What, dude? Don’t blame the offensive line, which as a unit played more like a tennis racket trying to hold back a cold rush of water? And Keenum should be prepared for every version of blitz the NFL has to offer after less than a week of practice with the first-team offense? Really?

And never mind it being Keenum’s first ever action in the NFL. Never mind it was on the road against one of the toughest defenses in the league in what is considered by many the best home-field advantage in the NFL. Never mind that up to that point in his career, Keenum had only received the very few practice reps reserved for practice team and third-string quarterbacks.

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Keenum was the most prolific passer in NCAA history at UH.

Never mind all of that. Because for Schottey and the many others who share his view, Keenum is a lame duck with no hope of becoming an accomplished professional simply for having been passed over by NFL scouts after college and being thought smart by the media for having done so.

But does this line of thinking even make sense? The numbers suggest otherwise.

Keenum went undefeated in 2012 after finishing his career at the University of Houston as the most prolific passer in NCAA history. Keenum holds collegiate records for total offense, passing yards, touchdowns and completions. He won numerous postseason awards, was 31-11 as a starter at Houston and led the Cougars to one of their most successful runs in recent history, including two bowl game wins in four appearances.

So why was Keenum undrafted? The answer is twofold. First, scouts graded Keenum low in a few key areas. More notably, they believed Keenum did not have the physical tools to complete throws in the NFL. In short, he was too slow, too short and had too weak an arm.

NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Dane Brugler recently compiled a succinct list of the prevailing viewpoint on draft day after Keenum was vaulted in the spotlight this season as the new Texans starter:

Below average size (6-1, 208), average-at-best arm strength and limited mobility to do much with his legs. His ball appears to flutter, especially when he doesn't have a chance to wind up and step into his throws. Keenum holds several NCAA passing records, but those numbers came in an offense that inflated his statistics and allowed him to take advantage of a quick passing attack where he didn't need to make extensive pocket reads. He wasn't asked to consistently make NFL throws as the Cougars quarterback and at the end of the day, his lack of ideal physical tools were enough for teams to pass.

Second, Keenum’s prolific collegiate numbers were compiled against what many consider subpar competition. During Keenum’s time in Houston, the Cougars competed in Conference USA against the likes of Tulsa, SMU and Rice.

The argument is that Keenum didn’t compete against defenses filled with SEC-caliber players, a motif used almost every year during the run up to the Heisman trophy presentation. What’s lost in the discussion too frequently, though, is that the exact same would hold true for the players Keenum competed with.

Look, if you knock a player like Keenum for not being able to compete against the very best, then you also have to give him credit for not having that kind of talent around him either.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Tony Romo also went undrafted.

The point? The argument is not sound. The bottom line is that Keenum excelled against the highest-level competition he was offered. The same holds true for numerous other NFL players all throughout the league. 

Is Tony Romo any less a professional for having attended Eastern Illinois? Going a bit further, was Jerry Rice worse off for having played college ball at Mississippi Valley State?

And what of the times Keenum led his teams to wins over programs with supposed superior athletes like Oklahoma State, UCLA and Penn State? Should that be factored out as well?

It does not make a lick of sense.

Regardless, most NFL evaluators didn’t buy in to Keenum on draft day. But that day has passed. It is no longer about the draft. It’s about the now, or at least it should be. But instead of looking objectively at the data in the here and now, data Keenum has compiled in actual NFL games, many are still obsessively tied to previous notions.

So where Keenum has now made some exceptional plays against the highest level of opposition in the world, those who keep doubting his ability do so with a blind eye. Their position is erroneous because it is entirely and hopelessly devoted to false constructs and previous assumptions.

Thankfully, a small minority of knowledgeable experts don’t fall victim to what boils down to media groupthink. In fact, according to NFL.com's Gil Brandt, there was a lot to like about Keenum in the first place:

I've always valued a player's ability to produce, plain and simple. Keenum definitely has a history of production, from high school (he led Wylie High in Abilene, Texas, to the state quarterfinals) to college (at the University of Houston, he threw for 19,217 yards and recorded a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 48:5 as a senior). He has good feet and a quick release, and he is very accurate, completing more than 70 percent of his passes in two different collegiate campaigns with the Cougars.

MMQB’s Robert Klemko also gave Keenum praise:

Keenum has several qualities you can’t teach, not the least of which is moxie. He is well-liked in the Houston locker room, and some inside that room quietly predicted his promotion when Schaub began to struggle in the first month of the season… But rough patches during the second half of the season should be no surprise. Provided he can shake some bad habits in the offseason, the future for Keenum looks bright.

Klemko is right.

Keenum has started a total of seven games since replacing Matt Schaub in October against the Chiefs. In two of the games, a 28-23 loss to the Oakland Raiders and a 27-20 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Keenum was absurdly replaced by Schaub during the third quarter, a move that may have ultimately led to the demise of recently fired coach Gary Kubiak. 

In the seven total games, Keenum has thrown for 1,433 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s run for another one to bring his total TD mark up to 9 and has thrown 4 interceptions.

Divided over the seven games, Keenum has thrown for 227 yards per game in 2013.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Has Keenum played better than he's given credit for?

Extrapolating his per-game averages over the entire length of a season yields a 16-game projection that compares quite favorably to other first year QBs. At the current pace, Keenum would throw for 3,632 yards, 21 TDs, 9 INTs and have an 83.7 quarterback rating.

Using the last full season (2012) data set as a barometer, Keenum would have ranked No. 17 in total yards (ahead of 2012 Rookie of the Year Russell Wilson) and No. 18 in total TDs (ahead of media darling Robert Griffin III).

Moreover, he’d have thrown for fewer INTs than Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning and only one more than Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.

Not bad for a first-year player.

Need more convincing? Keenum’s 227 yards per game ranks him No. 21 in the NFL this season, better than the likes of Russell Wilson, Alex Smith, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Nick Foles.

Keenum’s 83.7 quarterback rating currently ranks him No. 25 in the NFL ahead of Griffin III as well as last year’s Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco. He’s less than two points behind oft-celebrated and highly drafted peers Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill.

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High draft pick Luck is celebrated for similar numbers.

About the only fact-based knock on Keenum with  merit to date is his 54.3 completion percentage. Keenum ranks next to last on the list of qualified candidates who have attempted at least 14 passes per the team's games played.

Still, Keenum’s best statistical category goes part of the way to make up for it. Keenum’s yards per attempt ranks No. 13, higher than notable stars Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Andrew Luck.

While none of the overall numbers are jaw-dropping or spectacular, a fair-minded analysis would seem to indicate Keenum has shown real potential in his young career. Moreover, he’s done it under incredibly difficult circumstances.

The Texans are in the midst of one of their worst seasons in franchise history. A preseason Super Bowl favorite, the Texans are now in position for the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL draft. They’ve lost numerous high-profile players for the season due to injury, including running back Arian Foster and linebacker Brian Cushing, and Kubiak did such an inept job of stopping the team’s tailspin that owner Bob McNair decided against letting him finish the season. 

And was it also because of his dubious quick hook of Keenum in two of his seven starts? Maybe.

According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Wilkening, McNair hasn’t bought into the prevailing media sentiment on Keenum. Perhaps more telling is that during the announcement of Kubiak’s firing the owner made it a point to confirm the QB would start for the rest of the season:

I think the jury is still out, and he’s got a lot of ability, and he’s shown some flashes of brilliance, and he’s shown some rookie mistakes. We’ve got to see if we can improve or eliminate those mistakes, minimize those mistakes, and continue some of the outstanding play that we’ve seen, and see whether we think he can be a starting quarterback in the NFL. At this point, we really don’t know.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? We really don’t know how Keenum will fare through the rest of his playing career. He’s only made seven starts in his career.

But what we do know suggests he might really be something special. Keenum has excelled at every level of football he’s played, and he’s done so without the ballyhoo or hype of players like Griffin III and Luck.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Owner McNair sees something in Keenum.

In fact, Keenum had exactly one Bowl Subdivision college scholarship offer coming out of high school, and that was with Cougars. The data there speaks for itself.

After college, Keenum was offered exactly one spot in the NFL, and that was with the Texans. His numbers there are starting to say something, too. And while it’s completely fair to suggest that he, like any other first year player, has much to improve on as he moves forward in his career, the cold hard facts point more to a successful career than what most talking heads are currently willing to admit.

Keenum may absolutely be the long-term answer at quarterback for the Texans. 

 

Follow @KelseyMcCarson on Twitter. All statistics for this article were compiled via ESPN and NFL.com. 

 

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