As the quarterback goes, so goes the NFL offense. The two are intertwined at the hip and the best systems manage to fully maximize the strength of the signal caller’s talents while masking weaknesses and holes in their games. No quarterback comes without warts, even Peyton Manning had issues that could crop up from time to time, but when an offensive coordinator does his job right, the quarterback and offense come to seem like a hand-in-glove fit.
Few players in recent memory serve to remind a viewer of this quite like Case Keenum can. The NCAA career passing leader, Keenum was pegged a spread guy and became a draft afterthought. While all collegiate stats should be held at some distance when projecting a prospect’s pro aspirations, it’s hard to believe that no GM gave so much as a seventh round flier on the same guy who holds the collegiate records for most completions, yards, touchdowns, and games with 300+ passing yards.
Keenum eventually wound up in Houston, which proved to be a mixed blessing. On the better side of things, Gary Kubiak believed in him and his offense proved to be an ideal fit. The Texans also provided Keenum with an opportunity to showcase his talents early in his career.
Unfortunately, the 2013 Houston Texans were a bit of a train wreck. Everyone remembers Matt Schaub and his turnover streak, but the defense fell off badly after top 10 performances the two previous seasons and they lost their star running back Arian Foster after a game against the Colts in November.
The O’Brien Year: A Tale of Two Picks
Following the 2013 season Kubiak and his entire coaching staff was replaced by Bill O’Brien, who would bring with him a system more akin to what Tom Brady and the New England Patriots run. On its head this seems like a godsend for Keenum, as he excels in the short game where his accuracy and decision-making can mask his arm limitations.
The reality, however is that Keenum was waived in August to make room for Ryan Mallet, who was still considered promising. After a stint on the Rams practice squad, Keenum found his way back to Houston where he was a bit of a lame duck in the quarterback room with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallet and Tom Savage — all of whom strive to stretch the field vertically.
Keenum never really looks beyond his primary read here and forces a throw into double coverage, hoping that an aging Andre Johnson can beat back the clock and bail him out. There’s only one problem, of course: Keenum threw it directly to the safety rotating over from centerfield.
An older, wiser Keenum probably would have looked from Andre Johnson to dump the ball off underneath, where he had an open out route. Maybe the throw doesn’t get a first, but it’s the open throw.
Outside of the pick where he was behind Hopkins, Keenum looked liked a starting quarterback against the Jaguars, completing 70% of his passes. Why? O’Brien gave him a lot more crossing routes, slants, and dumpoffs. The 3rd year pro rewarded his rookie coach with 250 yards and 2 touchdowns to propel the Texans to a 23-17 season-ending win.
The game did just enough for O’Brien to trade Keenum back to the Rams for a 7th round pick.
Passing Purgatory: The Fisher Years
A lot of ink has been thrown around blaming all that went wrong with Jared Goff, Nick Foles, and Case Keenum on Jeff Fisher. Some of it is definitely deserved, as I found an alarming lack of adaptability in the scheme as I studied Keenum’s 2015 and ‘16 seasons. Far too few plays that offered adjustments to blitz looks, far too many 3 vertical route, max protection concepts.
Some, but not all. Believe it or not, in the game above Keenum completed 82% of his passes and earned a passer rating of 158, a number he doesn’t come close to reaching until his year with the Vikings when they faced off against the Buccaneers.
It actually goes a ways in showing how the league can fail in evaluating quarterback play to watch Keenum’s tape with the Rams and Vikings back to back, as he’s basically the same guy. While he definitely improved at play recognition as he’s aged, he never makes some sort of overnight change into a good quarterback.
During his years with the Rams, Case completed 60% of his passes for 3029 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in 16 games. Hardly set the world on fire, but given all the other problems on the roster it’s pretty respectable.
For context: in 11 games with the 2015 Rams, Nick Foles had 2052 yards, 7 touchdowns, and 10 picks while completing 57% of his passes. Jared Goff completed 54% of his passes for 1089 yards, 5 touchdowns, and 7 picks in his 8 games for the 2016 Rams.
Which brings us to the big question:
What does Case Keenum bring to the Denver Broncos?
While Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders have both focused on Keenum a bit in recent weeks, I want to add a little context to the numbers, as I see it. While obviously he isn’t the magician that Russell Wilson is, littered throughout Keenum’s tape he displays the same kind of craftiness to make something out of a broken play. Mobility is a part of his game in a way that it simply never has been for Tom Brady or even Peyton Manning.
At the same time, there’s no way to paint this in an orange light: fumbles are a concern. Keenum has 16 fumbles over 41 games in the NFL, though it was hardly a blip on the map last year.
Keenum has something closer to an “okay” arm than a cannon. This isn’t a death knell by any means but was definitely an issue in his first game with the Bill O’Brien Texans. Deep outs, comebacks, and long bombs simply are’t a strength of Keenum’s game, as he uses anticipation to throw far more than power.
Earlier in the game there’s a play that properly shows the limits to Keenum’s arm. Unfortunately it translates horribly to a GIF; all three angles lose the ball, receiver or throw. To summarize, Keenum throws what looks like a laser to Kenny Britt deep downfield. It dies about 3 yards before him. Keenum can’t really throw a 50 yard bomb in a live situation. It’s just too much for him. What he can do is hit in the 30-35 range accurately, like this here:
If Elway and the Broncos coaching staff are smart, they’ll build a roster that emphasizes short passes and utilizes yards after the catch to maximize their new starting quarterback’s talents. Keenum is happy to dump down to an open guy and let him do the work if it’s there.
As Jeff Essary pointed out for MHR a couple weeks ago, the early signs are encouraging.
While they’re obviously two different players and his Broncos career has already been etched in stone, I can’t help but think the Keenum years will be similar to Jake Plummer’s for Broncos fans. There will be highs and lows, but Keenum will bring a similar brand of veteran stability Plummer did to the quarterback position. If Elway can successfully build up the roster around him, the sky’s the limit, but wheels could fall off just as easily if things like the offensive line go unaddressed.
Still Grazin’? Three for the road
- A fun tidbit: the 2016 Rams were the only team Keenum played on to finish out of the top 10 in FO’s adjusted sack rate metric. The Broncos were a bottom 5 team in 2017.
- That 2015 Baltimore Ravens game? It may be the ugliest Keenum start I watched. There are some serious air balls. Baltimore routinely has given Keenum trouble, even when their D isn’t all that great. It’s because they mix in a large variety of pressure packages to try to confuse him. This, combined with the Rams lack of adjustments put a serious damper on Case. He was running around all day and throwing under pressure. While this is a strength of his game, if he’s doing it every game for Denver it will be a long season.
- Honestly, there may have been no better place for Keenum to land in 2017 than the Minnesota Vikings. While working on a piece during my time in Korea, I discovered that the Viking’s OC Pat Shurmur routinely built his offenses for yards after the catch throughout his NFL career as a playcaller, I just didn’t realize Keenum would be the signal caller.