Case Keenum and The Dumbening of the Texans

Posted: December 16, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I once saw Case Keenum’s existence as a blight upon the Texans. Not because I didn’t enjoy his work (I went to the University of Houston), and not because I thought he was untalented — but because his background inevitably meant that radio callers would wonder why he wasn’t starting yet. It’s the Tim Tebow Jacksonville syndrome taken to a much smaller scale — a loud minority that stakes a claim on a bandwagon that seems kind of ridiculous.

But after this season, I am thrilled with Case Keenum, because his play has illustrated a core problem that the Texans have. The people involved in this organization are not dumb men, but they are men that are married to the ideas that got them to where they are today. There is no learning on the Houston Texans. Keenum’s development shows exactly why that is. Here is what we know about Keenum’s short time as a starter:

– Keenum started off by hitting the deep balls that Matt Schaub could not. Through Week 15, Keenum’s average deep pass has gone 26.9 yards in the air — only Ryan Tannehill and Jason Campbell have thrown deeper among quarterbacks with more than 30 attempts. With no time to prepare Keenum for the intimate details of the offense, Gary Kubiak adjusted his scheme to fit the player. They ran plenty of play-action. They mostly kept him in shotgun or pistol looks. And through his first three starts, he had 231 DYAR against two of the three best defenses in the league — Arizona and Kansas City (with Justin Houston) — and a Colts pass defense that has yo-yoed between good and bad throughout the season.

– Kubiak benched him for Schaub, twice, late in games. The original reason given was that he does not know the proper protection schemes. My (admittedly unchecked) observation is that Kubiak did not trust Keenum without a running back in the backfield, and moving to Schaub would presumably avoid hot read confusion, which has been an issue for Keenum. Of course, Keenum ran a no-huddle spread offense pretty well in college, but okay, sure, the protection scheme is an issue. Not an undying belief in an obsolete quarterback. Got it.

– Bob McNair, at the press conference firing Kubiak, praised Kubiak to the rafters. He also explained to the remaining coaching staff in no uncertain terms that Case Keenum was the starting quarterback of the Houston Texans for the rest of the season.

– And then, this week, Texans fans were treated to a completely inept offensive display, where Keenum mostly stayed in the pocket and checked down, the Texans barely ran any play-action, and deep passes were almost non-existent in the game plan. This is the kind of game plan you’d put in if you were intentionally tanking  a season. But the Texans have been so adamant that they’re putting full effort in and trying their best down the stretch that they couldn’t even give us that sliver of hope that somebody upstairs decided it was time to throw in the towel. No, it’s the fact that this was a game plan they intentionally came up with that is the saddest thing of all.

In those first three weeks, Keenum threw 20 deep balls and garnered 176 DYAR on them. Practically all of his positive value as a quarterback was coming from his ability to make the deep throw. In five weeks since, his DYAR on deep balls has dropped to -8, and his average deep ball is going just 25.4 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage. It was nearly 29 in the first three games.

Is it possible that Keenum just rode a hot start and wasn’t really that talented at all? Sure. I think there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of an undrafted quarterback. But the fact that he did it against fairly good competition stands out to me. My evaluation of Keenum right now is, to steal a Matt Waldman trope, that he’s on the Titans quarterback scale. He’s somewhere behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jake Locker, with a ceiling in between the two. It’s funny to picture him as Locker because of the obvious physical differences, but that’s how they play: inconsistent on short passes, can run around all day, and can make any throw on the field even if they often won’t. I think he’s got a career as a backup, and with a little development he’s got a chance to be more.

Well, here’s the problem, then: when you shift from using a player the way he’s best used to trying to make him fit your system, it’s obviously going to destroy his value to some extent. Most players are not as extreme as Keenum — as we just went over, almost all Keenum’s value comes from throwing deep — but to me that points to a failure of coaching. A failure of properly utilizing the parts you have in the best possible way.

My problem with the Texans is that word-for-word, you will never find an organization that swears to work harder than this one. Tremendous dedication is a requirement to work with them. I’m not trying to make light of this when I bring this up: Kubiak literally collapsed and had a mini-stroke from putting as much work into this as he did. McNair said Kubiak “put his whole being” into the job. Nobody has ever outworked J.J. Watt, and nobody ever will if you listen to him speak after losses. The refrain when the Texans lose isn’t “well we might need to make a few changes,” it’s “we’ll work on that, get it corrected.”

The blue-collar ethos is awesome to have, as is the fact that McNair insists on getting good character guys. I understand that coaches can’t give away all their thoughts or feelings to the media, and I expect some general and generic themes to emerge, so that’s not a huge shock.

But the Texans need to take a step back and consider that working smarter, not harder, is the way to get back to the winning path they desire. They fielded one of the most talented teams in the NFL in 2011 and 2012, and didn’t even make it to a conference championship game. Some of that is poor luck — nobody could have foreseen that Schaub would crater as quickly as he could, or that he’d be lost for the season in 2011 — but Wade Phillips’ defense had no schematic answer for a good spread run by a good quarterback, whether it was Green Bay or New England. Even with one of the greatest individual seasons by a defensive lineman in NFL history.

All the hard work the Texans have put in this year has moved McNair’s metaphorical ox in the ditch into a deeper ditch. Putting Phillips in charge of Kubiak’s old troops is like leading a rebellion to the tune of “Uptown Girl,” because he’s exactly the same kind of coach Kubiak is.

Keenum probably is not the long-term answer at quarterback — you didn’t need a football analyst to figure that out. But he deserves to be used better than he was last night. (And, frankly, how he has been treated ever since the system was fully implemented around him.)

And what of the ditch-bound? The ox is bleeding, Bob. You need someone that can operate, not tell you how hard they can operate.

  1. Lee King says:

    I feel that Coach Kubiak lost many veterans last year when they were out-played and badly out-coached in NE, in spite of the new letter jackets. To me, the jackets were a symbol of a coaching staff being sophomoric, and out of touch with what the team needed for a game plan to beat NE. After the vets saw the lack of coaching depth and inability to adapt the game plan to beat other teams. Late last year, I think many vets lost faith in the coach. This year, the whole team quit.

    Now the team has the same coaches, minus one, being asked to change and adapt to get better team play. I think they are unable to adapt. The staff were chosen for their Kubiak buy-in and loyalty. Coach Kubiak is a great guy but could not change or adapt well. I do not think the other coaches can either. Just look at the offensive coordinator game plan this week as an example.

    Time for a new head coach and staff that can evaluate the players, can develop a young quarterback, plug holes in the o-line and defense, and can adapt to NFL forces.

    • David says:

      “Time for a new head coach and staff that can evaluate the players, can develop a young quarterback, plug holes in the o-line and defense, and can adapt to NFL forces.”

      Good luck in finding that. They don’t grow on trees.

    • Henry Saucier says:

      Adaptation and utilization of resources is what we should do – and we’re not doing it. The article says it best when it mentions our problems will be worked on rather than evaluated and adjusted, even changed, if needed. When you have a mobile quarterback, you should work with it and call plays designed around him (only one play in the past 4 games). When you can complete the deep pass, you call more plays in the deep secondary(decreased play calling in recent games). Instead, we call the same plays as if this wasn’t in our arsenal.
      At this point, we have nothing to lose. Let’s see a double reverse, or Johnson in the shotgun, or Watt in the backfield as fullback on 3rd and 1. This will have other teams on their toes and the fans in their seats. As of now, our competitors have a copy of our conservative playbook and have figured out exactly what we are going to do next.

  2. […] Rivers McCown (Football Outsiders) on Case Keenum and the dumbening of the Texans. […]

  3. Excellent insight into a broken team. Unfortunately the problems start at the top and won’t easily change. Plus believe there is a chance they purposely tanked. Example the lack of play action in the last game, AJ drops easy passes, Case under center. Change starts at the top and I don’t see that happening. Again excellent article

  4. larry evans says:

    Against a bad Indianapolis defense to manage 3 points and have your top receiver go 4-18
    illustrates the point entirely.

  5. I think some of this critique is just being sick of the hard work talk. They do try to make adjustments to deal with stuff that they don’t talk about publicly, but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

    Ultimately, the Texans story is one that is seen a lot in the NFL…they couldn’t replace decent NFL starters with younger guys. That the drop was so catastrophic is a combo of the unpredictable Pick 6 oddness, and then responding to that by going with a popular local noob QB and not getting the Tebow result.

    Pointing blame is hard when looking at the Texans roster composition because of the collaborative nature of the GM/HC in Houston between 06-13. I have heard that the offensive line coach was surprised about the Winston cut.

    Should it be surprising that the o-line coach had difficulty replacing an every down starter at RT with an inexperienced 7th round, small school pick? Particularly when they were also replacing RG? Yeah, they’ve been able to do a lot with lower round guys with this line, but when they fail, is that all on the coaching?

    Next man up was the mantra of 2011, but I thought it was an impressive coaching job making it as far as they did with a backup, backup 5th round pick as your end of year starter. In 2012, they had to training wheel the offense some with the issues they had with QB/oline and quarterback hits, hurries, sacks. You could see how hard it was to scheme around some of the issues they were having on offense.

    It’s difficult to completely judge Wade when he looked like he got coal in his stocking both times Brian Cushing got hurt. He allowed a ton of flexibility for the defense. The Texans didn’t want to spend the money on DeMeco Ryans but couldn’t replace his production, or his ability to help out if Cushing got hurt.

    The Texans took a risk going all in on Cushing, and then not really having a plan B at ILB. Last year’s top snap linebackers were Connor Barwin and Bradie James. Maybe you don’t want to pay those guys (particularly James) but they went forward with Cushing and a bunch of unproven/injury history guys. When that fails, particularly after Cushing gets hurt, is that all on Wade?

    Is it all on Wade that somebody decided that Ed Reed was what his defense needed at safety without him being a part of the process of deciding if Reed had anything left, or would be a good fit?

    As for Keenum, if McNair really wanted to properly evaluate/develop him, he wouldn’t have done a head coaching change in the middle of the season and dictate that 7 remains in the game even if he can’t protect himself with his reads. You fire the (undisputed) best player caller on the team, put more responsibilities on other coaches and expect things to get better on offense?

    This isn’t meant to be a commentary that regime change shouldn’t have happened. Not a huge fan of in-season coaching changes without better staff options, but it allowed them to perhaps talk to candidates who would not talk to them if they had a coach in place. Just don’t expect the team to look better after you do it.

    As for the Wade awkwardness, I say be careful what you wish for if you want him gone as DC. I don’t see him as The Savior of the Texans, but there’s a bleepload of terrible defensive coordinators out there that play musical chairs from getting fired place to place. Many more worse options then him than better ones. Personally, I think it would be easier getting a offensive minded head coach to retool the offense, and then get some more bodies for Wade. Not sure Wade would want to stay on board in that scenario, but easier to switch schemes on one side of the ball than all at once.

    I’m already on record for saying that I think the Texans need a new GM. The team needs to rebuild trust and hope, and nobody with a lick of sense ever says, “Thank goodness Rick Smith is managing this draft.”

    Who knows what a stronger GM position will look like for the Texans, but there’s nothing in his background that suggests that he would be any good at all with more control. But everybody is sick of me talking about this, so I guess we just have to hope for a miracle worker head coach that is able to stop the Texans from Ed Reeding or over-reacting to Ed Reeding.

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