USA TODAY Sports
The hierarchy at the most critical position on the team was established back in June when Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the starter. This was shortly followed by the trade of T.J. Yates to the Atlanta Falcons for linebacker Akeem Dent.
These moves made Case Keenum the obvious backup, since no head coach in his right mind is going to hand the No. 2 quarterback job to a fourth-round draft pick like Tom Savage. Although Bill O’Brien had insisted a few weeks earlier that the competition would be “wide open,” it looked as if the die had been cast.
At the same time, the competition must be allowed to play itself out to see how each contestant responds to the pressure.
The stock NFL script for the first two preseason games is to play the starting quarterback for a large portion of the first quarter. The backup takes over for quarters two and three, while the No. 3 QB completes the closing stanza.
This will give Keenum ample time to keep Savage entrenched as the third-string quarterback. To stoke the fires of this rivalry, O’Brien took advantage of an interview by Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com to inject a measure of uncertainty into their battle.
"Right now I’d still say Case is a little bit ahead of Tom. I’d say Tom’s improving. I think Tom’s definitely improving. It’s a battle, it’s definitely a competitive battle, but Case is still slightly ahead of Tom," he said.
When Ganguli checked with O’Brien to confirm if he was certain whether Keenum, Savage or some other player could be brought in to fill the position, the answer was, "Right now I see it, as we stand here right now, I’d say one of those two will back up.”
For Keenum to maintain his edge, he must display more accuracy, better touch and the ability to work through his progressions before abandoning the pocket.
His only game in 2013 with a 60 percent completion percentage was the very first one versus the Kansas City Chiefs. He was great getting the ball downfield early on, with an adjusted yards per pass attempt average of over 10 yards in his first two games. But after throwing seven touchdowns in his first three games, he could only manage one in the next five before being benched.
Passes of less than 10 yards are a quarterback’s best friend when nothing else is available. Keenum’s completion percentage in this range was 58.3 and his passer rating 61.3, according to Pro Football Focus (aka PFF, subscription required for premium stats). Compare this to Tom Brady, the prototype passer for O’Brien’s offense, who completed 70 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 91.3 in what was an off year for him.
Keenum was at his best throwing on the run, where he could get a better view of the field and improvise. This tendency was a remnant of his days at the University of Houston. His college coach, Kevin Sumlin, does not believe in a hard-copy playbook full of set plays and an abundance of clever formations.
To emphasize the visual aspect college coaches like Sumlin and Art Briles rely on, virtually the entire league has uploaded their playbooks to iPads and utilize video replays as much as X-and-O schematics. Keenum has absorbed most of the new playbook, but will he be able to make his second and third read before rolling out in a desperate attempt to create a play out of the seeming chaos?
What O’Brien would like to see out of Keenum is a concerted effort to maintain pocket discipline and scan the whole field before deciding which option would yield the best result. But he does not have to completely forsake running play action.
As measured by PFF, in 2013, Keenum ran play action at a rate of 26.3 percent, while Brady did it at 24.9 percent. He does not have to do less of it, just do it within the structure of the offense.
Savage will not be held to as strict a standard. With only one full season of college football on his resume, the most that can be hoped for are some decent mechanics, not too much reliance on his cannon arm and no reckless turnovers.
Players with his velocity think they can put the ball into tight windows that close a lot faster in the pros. Savage can leapfrog Keenum if he can keep mistakes to a minimum and show he has more upside that would be revealed with more playing time.