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.