The Case for Keenum

He went undrafted in 2012 and spent a year on the practice squad—but he looks like the future of the Texans. What’s right, and what still needs work, for Houston’s new starting quarterback
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HOUSTON — Get excited, Texans. You may just have a quarterback.

He has arrived in the form of Case Keenum, a sparkplug in stature and mood, the pride of the University of Houston and the new envy of every 6-foot-and-under college quarterback in America. Keenum went undrafted in 2012 and signed with the Texans’ practice squad after taking five years to become the NCAA's all-time leader in completions, passing yards and touchdowns. How does such a player go undrafted? We’ll get to that.

What matters right now is this: The Texans are 2-6 after winning the AFC South a year ago. If the season isn’t lost, it’s heading that way fast. Yet in Week 9 they discovered an offense so potent it had one of the top teams in the AFC—one that bested Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Russell Wilson’s Seahawks—grasping at straws. It started when Keenum entered the huddle on the first play of his second NFL start with these words: “Let’s get this thing turned around.”

That’s big talk from a guy who played some cornerback on the practice squad last season and began 2013 as third quarterback on the depth chart behind 2012 Pro Bowler Matt Schaub and 2011 playoff starter T.J. Yates.

But Keenum delivered. Schaub’s replacement went yard to star receiver Andre Johnson on the third play from scrimmage for a 62-yard touchdown, Johnson’s first of the season. Keenum screamed and fist-pumped. He threw off his back foot, falling away, side-armed and overhanded. He threw a couple of near-picks that slipped through defenders’ hands, and two more touchdowns to Johnson, including a five-yard jump ball at the close of the first half after sprinting down the field and motioning for a clock-stopping spike. It wasn’t quite as important as Marino in ’94, or Stafford against the Cowboys earlier this season, but it was no less extraordinary.

“That was my favorite moment,” said Texans wide receiver DeVier Posey. “That was pretty cool. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I kind of jogged off and I was like, Oh, what??”

It was the highlight of the night just before the lowlight of the season—coach Gary Kubiak collapsed from a transient ischemic attack (a mini-stroke) on the way to the halftime locker room. Kubiak’s fall took the wind out of the stadium and the Texans offense as the Colts came back to win 27-24.

Understandably overshadowed by Kubiak’s hospital visit was the play of Keenum in defeat—20 of 34 for 350 yards and three touchdowns, to go with 271 yards and a touchdown two weeks back in Kansas City, just before the bye. The Texans ran almost exclusively shotgun and pistol formations in that start, an adjustment made for Keenum, the Abilene native who played in a spread offense in college and was so unready to contribute at quarterback as a rookie that the Texans put him on the practice squad and asked him to chip in all over the field. Posey roomed with Keenum through 2012 OTAs and remembers him quietly accepting his hodgepodge role on the scout team when the season started.

“He got here last year, ran routes, played corner, ran down the field on kickoff,” Posey said. “He always prepared like a starter, and I just felt the past two weeks was our first chance to meet the guy who threw the nine touchdowns in a college game.”

That guy? That guy was too short, and his arm was too weak to convert all that success in college—including a nine-touchdown game vs. Rice in 2011—into a successful pro career. He was supposed to be a system quarterback who thrived in the spread and didn’t know how to read defenses back then. Plus he had torn his ACL in his fourth season, and escapability was the only way he could see over those offensive linemen, being 6-1 and all. (Texans running Ben Tate says he’s “more like 5-11.”)

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me I can't do a lot of things,” Keenum said before his first start, in Kansas City. “I’m too short or this or that, but you can't believe a lot of that stuff… I've tried to grow, but I think I’m done.”

Still, University of Houston coach Tony Levine figured he was a lock to get picked by somebody, anybody.

“Every scout I talked to fell in love with him,” Levine says. “I guess between then and draft day something changed. Maybe they felt like the most yards and touchdowns in Division I history was an accident.”

The 32-team slight failed to shake Keenum’s confidence, and when Schaub went down with a leg injury during a stretch of four straight losses and Yates struggled as well, Keenum finally got the opportunity to open up.

“He plays like he has nothing to lose,” Posey says. “And he doesn’t, so why not? When he gets in the huddle and he gets down on one knee you believe any play can work. He just has that good old Texas country boy swagger. It’s more like a cowboy, like he’s riding a high horse.”

Says offensive tackle Duane Brown: “It’s very contagious.”

He’s done well enough to keep a healthy Schaub on the bench, raising questions about the veteran’s future in Houston after the season. Despite signing the two-time Pro Bowler to a long term deal in September, the Texans left themselves an out that would save them $11 million by cutting him in June.

It’s undoubtedly tough to stomach for Schaub, who has lately declined to speak with media, and for his teammates and coaches who saw him at his best a year ago. Quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell predicted a breakout season for Schaub over the summer but found himself endorsing Keenum in November.

“It looks good on paper before the season starts,” Dorrell says, “but as things start to take their course, a lot can go wrong, not just for Matt but for the whole team, with injuries and other issues.”

The holes in Houston’s roster, particularly along the offensive line, have been part of the reason Keenum’s impressive stats haven’t yet translated into wins. Yet the offense is clearly improving under him, and it’s only a matter of time before the W’s start accumulating. Here are the reasons for quarterback optimism in Houston, and factors that could temper that hope.

Reasons for optimism

1. Buying time, making the deep throws

Twice now, in two separate games, Keenum has bought time with his feet and unloaded for huge gains to Andre Johnson after Johnson had given up on a route. The first example came in Kansas City on a first down during the third quarter, when Keenum sensed pressure, escaped right, wove back across the field and unloaded off-balance 45 yards downfield to Johnson for a 42-yard gain, after Johnson had given up on his route and resumed running downfield once Keenum came back his way.

The next example was less risky but no less impressive. Keenum rolled right out of play action, located the oncoming rusher, cut the roll short and bought a split second—enough time to step into a bomb to Johnson. It was a thing of beauty, as Johnson had stopped running once he hit double coverage, then looked up and saw Keenum throwing him open deep over Colts safety Antoine Bethea. Johnson leaped to catch a 41-yard touchdown pass. The play revealed Keenum’s mobility—and also demonstrated the fallacy of the pre-draft “weak arm” diagnosis in the scouting community.

2. Offensive line improvement?

Texans right tackle Ryan Harris received more pass blocking opportunities than did season-long starter Derek Newton for the first time since this time-share began in Week 5, which was not surprising given that Newton has allowed 35 sacks, hits or hurries in 310 pass blocking opportunities, fifth-most among NFL offensive tackles according to Pro Football Focus. And just as he had in four previous opportunities, Harris performed slightly better than Newton in that capacity. Expect this trend to continue, and for the quarterback play to improve as Harris gets settled in the role.

3. Acclimating quickly to offense

Dorrell says Keenum is still working on the finer points of dropping back from under center, which explains why Houston ran passing plays nearly exclusively from shotgun or pistol formations in the narrow loss to Kansas City. And after Keenum threw from under center just twice in his first start, Kubiak opened the playbook to a degree against Indianapolis, calling for six passes from under center in that prolific three-touchdown first half alone. It bodes well that Keenum is progressing in this regard, given the steady performance of fullback Greg Jones in run-blocking out of traditional two-back sets. Jones logged a season-low 11 snaps against the Chiefs, then rebounded with a season-high 32 versus Indianapolis. Regardless, Houston has worked an effective play action game, with Keenum completing more than 60% of his passes, for a 145.8 passer rating, after faking handoffs, the majority out of pistol. Says Dorrell: “It’ll take more time to work on his drop mechanics, his play action movements, but he’s moving fast.”

Reasons for concern

1. Reliance on Johnson

There were occasions in both starts when Keenum stared down Johnson and threw into solid single coverage or double coverage while other receivers were open downfield. During the third quarter in Kansas City, Keenum forced a short pass to Johnson with time in the pocket while his No. 1 receiver was fighting through traffic for an ultimate drop. Meanwhile, tight end Garrett Graham had passed a linebacker in zone coverage and was a lock to beat the single-high safety if Keenum had noticed him. A touchdown would have put Houston over the hump in a one-score game. Against the Colts, Keenum forced a handful of throws to Johnson with open receivers in several spots, beginning with a second-quarter incompletion on a Johnson curl route with Graham and rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins both open on the left side (see below). In total, Johnson has caught 13 of Keenum’s 19 targets to him, a ratio on par with the Schaub era.

2. Throws off back foot, falling away

Keenum’s mechanical flaws manifest themselves in pressure situations. In both games, while leading Houston drives at the end of the first half or in the game’s final minutes, the second-year pro tends to lean away from throws rather than step into them. It affected his accuracy at the close of the first half and twice nearly resulted in interceptions against Indianapolis. “That’s the inexperience. He’s doing the things he always did having success his whole life,” Dorrell says. “It’s an ongoing process. He’s worked hard over the course of the year to clean up his fundamentals.”

3. Easy to read

Both the Chiefs and Colts got away with ramping up pressure and leaving a single safety to defend the deep half of the field more often than the Texans would like. Though Keenum says he’s modeled parts of his game after Saints quarterback Drew Brees, he doesn’t yet have the ability to lie with his eyes, making it easy on so-so cover safeties like the Colts’ LaRon Landry. Keenum’s been getting away with it so far, but it’s only a matter of time before a more instinctual safety or an athletic defensive back take advantage of Keenum’s tendency to stare down his favorite targets. Watch Cardinals rookie safety Tyrann Mathieu and veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson on Sunday.

The future

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. Keenum’s immediate success will be contingent on the production of running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate, each of whom has been sidelined with injuries in recent weeks. The Texans still have two games against the winless Jaguars and one with Oakland, so Keenum will have some suspect teams against which to keep the numbers going. 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.

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