Two games ago, the Houston Texans were floundering offensively, and QB Matt Schaub was in the midst of a fall from grace that rivals former New York Gubernatorial candidate Anthony Weiner’s. Just a few years ago, Schaub was considered an elite QB for a perennial Super Bowl contender. At least, fans and media pundits believed in Schaub and Houston enough to always mention the Texans as potential Lombardi winners.
You can’t really blame them. Although most considered him a level below Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, Schaub’s numbers were similar. He was as good as a head crack in Cilo to throw for over 4,000 yards. He did it in his last three full seasons, including a whopping 4,770 yards in 2009.
Something was missing though, and HC Gary Kubiak seems to have found it in third-stringer Case Keenum.
After another killer performance in his second career start on Sunday night— a heart-wrenching 27-24 loss to the “Comeback Colts” —it’s safe to say Keenum is living proof that if you can ball, those physical attributes that scouts so often egregiously live and die by really don’t mean a thing.
In the NFL’s New World Offense, where spread packages, option reads and pistol formations—designed for QBs who run like Randal Cunningham and gun like John Elway—are all the rave, Keenum has gone from the type of QB that NFL franchises have been reluctant to give shine to in the past, to a hot commodity.
Something had to give, and when Schuab sat out with an ankle and foot injury, Kubiak had his excuse. After winning their first two games, the Texans dropped four in a row, and the season was spiraling out of control. Kubiak knew he needed to force the action. Why not the homegrown gun slinger from Abilene, Texas?
"We're struggling, and we're looking for a spark," Kubiak told ESPN.com before Keenum’s first start—a wicked draw against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. "I think he deserves an opportunity to go out there. It's a tough place to get your first start and all that good stuff. But I'm not sending him out there by himself. I'm sending him out there with his football team, and the guys understand that."
The Texans lost a 17-16 heart-breaker at Arrowhead Stadium, but Keenum did damage in his debut. It was the same thing on Sunday night at Reliant Stadium, but he raised the bar for the home crowd. Keenum passed for 350 yards, three TDs and no interceptions as the Texans built an early 21-3 halftime cushion. Colts QB Andrew Luck was missing Reggie Wayne and stuck on fizzle. Keenum was tossing missiles to Andre Johnson and ripping up the turf with his fleet footwork.
The way Keenum has blindsided the game and body-tackled Houston’s starting QB gig reminds us of the Alex Smith execution. Like Schuab, Smith was a super solid QB on a pretty dope San Francisco 49ers team that failed to reach its playoff potential. When Smith went down with a concussion, 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh inserted Colin Kaepernick as the signal caller. Kaepernick’s dynamic running and passing elevated the potency of San Francisco’s spread offense and he tossed and dashed the 49ers to the Super Bowl, before falling victim to Baltimore legend Ray Lewis’ farewell tour.
Smith and Schuab are like eating Oreo cookies with organic milk. The milk may be good for you, but every time you drink it, it’s quite obvious the taste lacks something.
Cats like Keenum and Kaepernick are the new strawberry-flavored syrup on that same old vanilla ice cream you’ve been eating. They have some kick to them, and are the type of guys you summon when desperate teams and ambitious coaches need a spark. Remember how Doug Flutie got on back in the 80s? How about what publicly worshipped and internally-maligned QB Tim Tebow did for Denver in 2011. His dual abilities and fiery competitiveness sparked Denver to an improbably playoff run.
Five years ago, Keenum probably never gets this shot. Despite compiling a mythical college career, befitting of a No.1 pick, Keenum went undrafted in 2012 and spent last season on the Texan’s practice squad. Keenum is the NCAA's all-time leader in passing yards (19,217), touchdown passes (155), and completions. He’s one of two QBs to ever throw for 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
In other words, son can air it out.
The biggest knock on Keenum was that he never really took snaps under center at the shot-gun happy University of Houston. Back in the days, that used to be a major red flag for QBs leaping from college to the pros. When they are also barely 6-2 and posted those numbers in weak-ass Conference USA, they can be discarded as “Fool’s Gold.” The University of Houston, in particular, has had some of these gaudy-number cats come out and flake out. Andre Ware is one QB that comes to mind.
Getting busy and then getting overlooked is something Keenum has dealt with his entire football career. He rose from the ashes in college after redshirting as a freshman and watching Kevin Kolb get drafted by Philly. Patiently laying the cut, he was finally named the starter late in his sophomore campaign. Keenum began smashing records until he tore his ACL three games into the 2010 season. The NCAA granted him a sixth-year of eligibility and he threw for nearly 5,700 yards in 2011.You can’t make a case any greater than that as to your viability as an NFL QB.
Keenum hasn’t been able to secure a NFL win yet, but it’s definitely not his fault. Schaub, on the other hand was throwing picks left and right and quickly sucking the life out of the NFL’s top defense in the process. Keenum’s leadership is undeniable and he flails his hands wildly, and plays to the crowd after big moments in the game.
NBC football analysts Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth couldn’t stop raving about him. After one ridiculous scramble towards the end of the third-quarter, Collinsworth said, “No wonder he broke all those college passing records. No one can tackle him. He’s like a ghost.”
It’s all coming together for Keenum now. He even has a nickname. The dream that out-dated thinking almost shattered is becoming a reality. If not for Kubiak being rushed to the hospital at halftime, and “drive-killer” Wade Phillips taking over and leading the Texans to just three second-half points, Keenum’s hometown pro debut may have ended fairytale style. The three missed field goals didn’t help either.
Keenum’s not complaining though. And if he keeps balling like this, the wins will come. Even in defeat, he’s worth mentioning because he was always supposed to be here, and almost wasn’t. It’s strange how certain players get handed the world and squander it like drug money. Others get scraps and build empires with it.
Keenum’s a builder, not a pilferer. Sometimes scouts are so caught up in the rapture of the measurements and miss what’s obvious to the human eye.
“I wish I could say I was impressed, but I’m not because I’ve seen him do it," Houston running back Ben Tate told HoustonTexans.com after the game. "I’ve seen him do it in practice. I’ve seen him do it in camp. So that’s just Case to me. I think if you weren’t around then, you’re impressed by him, but I always have said he’s a baller and he’s a natural leader.”
Keenum brings an electricity to the building that might be enough to keep Reliant Stadium open during the playoffs, if not this year then next. Maybe Schuab can use some of those volts to get his resume up on the web.