Texans turn to Case Keenum, who's no stranger to long odds
When Chicago's Josh McCown faces the Packers on Sunday, he'll become the 11th quarterback who played high school football in Texas to start an NFL game this season. Over the summer I spent time in Houston, College Station and Austin for a Sports Illustrated feature on why so many quarterbacks are coming from the Lone Star state. Spread offenses, seven-on-seven, state of the art facilities and training jumped out. But Texas football has also gained a reputation for producing quarterbacks with a certain mindset.
From Drew Brees to Matthew Stafford to Andrew Luck, Texas QBs are gunslingers -- confident passers not afraid of big moments or throwing the ball to dangerous places. I expected people to talk about Johnny Manziel as the embodiment of this attitude ... and many did. But Case Keenum was another name that came up again and again as a great example of a true Texas quarterback. And this is when he was just a practice squad player for the Texans. Now Keenum is starting and hoping to become the latest in the line of successful Texas signal-callers.
Keenum and Manziel have a lot in common. Both played under Kevin Sumlin and then-offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury (Keenum at the University of Houston, Manziel at Texas A&M). Both are considered undersized and were probably under-recruited. And both had a major impact on the college game. Keenum is the NCAA all-time leader in passing yards while Manziel is the first freshman to win the Heisman.
"Johnny and Case may not play exactly the same way," Sumlin said. "But they both have that fire underneath. They both have real passion for football."
Despite his record-breaking college career, Keenum went undrafted in 2012. For some quarterbacks that would be a major blow, but if fits Keenum's narrative well. He was used to being underappreciated.
Keenum spent a July afternoon in Houston this summer speaking to 125 teenage QBs and receivers at the Air It Out Camp, a traveling crash course in passing fundamentals that he attended as a teenager. There he recounted his road to the NFL. "I got just one offer: University of Houston," he told the kids. "A lot of people told me what I couldn't do. I was too short, didn't have this, didn't have that. But I always believed in myself. You cannot let other people tell you what you can do."
The man who gave Keenum his one offer, Art Briles, only coached him for one season because he left Houston for Baylor (taking along prized QB recruit Robert Griffin III). Briles signed Keenum after watching him at the University of Houston summer camp -- not for his physical tools, which are not a primary concern for Briles.
"What you're looking for is a mentality," said Briles. "A guy who won't back down. .... It's easy to get caught up in measurables. But those are easy to overestimate."
Briles has had success with all types of quarterbacks at Houston and Baylor. The accurate passer in Kevin Kolb at Houston, the athletic Griffin, the non-athletic, undersized Nick Florence at Baylor, and the 6-foot-3 NFL prototype Bryce Petty, who is currently moving up Heisman Watch lists at Baylor. Obviously their success has a lot to do with Briles' spread system, but he says he needs the right kind of quarterback to run it and a special player to win with it.
"Sometimes people can't see how good a quarterback like Keenum is," says Briles. "You have to dig deeper to see the things that make him a winner."
The NFL didn't see it and he landed on the Texans' practice squad. He was behind Matt Schaub, who had surpassed 4,000 passing yards two of the previous three seasons, and T.J. Yates, a second-year player who had filled in for Schaub the previous season, giving the Texans' their first ever postseason victory.
Some NFL teams may have thought Keenum was too short, but his ego seems to be exactly the right size. Keenum exudes humility without faltering in confidence -- a combination that seems to be present in many winning quarterbacks. That's especially so in quarterbacks who overcame some kind of adversity, like the quarterback Keenum is most often compared to, Russell Wilson.
Keenum's first major dose of adversity came in 2010, when he tore his ACL against UCLA in the third game of his senior season. For some time his college career appeared to be over, but the NCAA granted him another season of eligibility. He took advantage, throwing for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Overcoming injury and getting overlooked is only part of Keenum's inspiration. He said growing up playing at Wylie High in Abilene also helped form his personality as a quarterback. For such a nice, clean-cut kid, Keenum has more of an edge on the field. He said you have to in Texas or you won't make it.
"A lot of quarterbacks out of Texas play with chips on their shoulder," Keenum said. "It's how you grow up and how you approach the game of football. You make it so important to give yourself an edge. You have to compete."
Keenum already displayed aggressiveness in his one start against Kansas City -- a 17-16 loss. At that point, Schaub was hurt and Yates had performed poorly the week before. The Texans coaching staff had to try something, even though Arrowhead Stadium isn't an ideal setting for a player's first appearance. Nevertheless, Keenum stood up against K.C.'s vaunted pass rush and attacked the Chiefs down the field repeatedly, finishing with 271 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions on 15-of-25 passing.
Even though Keenum didn't come up with the win, the entire population of Houston seems to have decided he deserves a shot.
"Keenum has easily been the choice of the fans since camp," said Houston radio host Lance Zierlein [Sports Talk 790]. "As soon as Schaub showed signs of failing, they wanted to go past Yates. They were especially excited by the big plays. He had six passes over 25 yards. Schaub had six in the previous five games."
Indeed, defenses seemed to stop respecting Schaub's ability to burn them long. The defining play for Schaub's season was the late-game pick-six against Seattle in Week 4 -- Seattle's Richard Sherman clearly had no fear of jumping the route against what was becoming a conservative passing game.
Even with Schaub healthy again, head coach Gary Kubiak named Keenum the starter in Week 9 against an Indianapolis defense that has caused problems for several quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning.
Keenum's lack of experience showed late against K.C. when he couldn't pick up blitzes that a veteran might have easily recognized and exploited. But Keenum has said he's working hard this week to avoid those pitfalls. Texans left tackle Duane Brown told reporters that Keenum "was very passionate about the mistakes and very vocal to us about how he could improve."
The Texans have lost five straight and will be challenged to keep their run of three straight playoff appearances going this season. But the schedule gives them a shot. They play four of their next five games in Reliant Stadium and face the Jags twice over the next six weeks.
"There is a large contingent of fans who want Keenum to be the starting QB," said Zierlien, "not just this year but for his career."
Keenum faces long odds as an undrafted quarterback coming in midseason for a coach that could soon be on the hot seat. Kubiak didn't rule out reinserting Schaub at any point this season. But Keenum isn't the type to back down.
"I meant what I said to those kids out there," Keenum said back at Air it Out over the summer. "I don't care if you're playing football or doing whatever in life. You can't let other people define you."
On Sunday, Keenum will take the next step to try to define his role as a starting NFL quarterback. It's one that he, and a lot of folks in Houston, hope will last a long time.