O'Brien: Keenum slightly ahead of Savage

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
2:00
PM ET
Texans coach Bill O'Brien has long held that the team would take its time sorting out the backup quarterback battle. It's a competition between Case Keenum, a former University of Houston star who had a record-setting college career and is still finding his footing in the NFL, and Tom Savage, a raw rookie fourth-round pick who had little chance to develop as he bounced between college programs.

Tuesday, I caught up with O'Brien for an update about that and a few other things. The Texans' schedule this training camp has made it impossible for a one-woman band like myself to attend O'Brien's news conferences, so I appreciated his giving me a few minutes.

"Right now I’d still say Case is a little bit ahead of Tom," O'Brien said. "I’d say Tom’s improving. I think Tom’s definitely improving. It’s a battle, it’s definitely a competitive battle, but Case is still slightly ahead of Tom."

That's reflected in the Texans' first depth chart of the season, where Keenum is listed as Ryan Fitzpatrick's backup and Savage third. How they play in the preseason games will be a major factor in where they finish the preseason on the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesHouston Texans coach Bill O'Brien would like to see a little less scrambling from Case Keenum.
I asked O'Brien if he was 100 percent sure the Texans' backup quarterback will be Keenum or Savage, or if there's a chance he could bring in a different player.

"Right now I see it, as we stand here right now, I’d say one of those two will back up," he said.

It's wise that he keeps an open mind there. That competition has been discussed in terms of two players all offseason because that's who the Texans have on the roster. But they certainly aren't the only two options the Texans will have if they believe they need an upgrade at backup quarterback before the season starts. Some players will be released from teams that only keep two; some will be available by trade.

It's the most important backup on the team (and veteran backup quarterbacks are paid like it). Without someone capable at the position, an injured starter can send a team tumbling off a cliff quickly.

One of Keenum's biggest problems last season was his decision-making under fire. He said Tuesday the coaches are working to make the quarterbacks as uncomfortable as possible in practice in order to help them improve in those situations. Another major issue for him has been an overdependence on scrambling. It's a problem a lot of successful college quarterbacks have in the transition to the NFL.

"A lot of our offense in the passing game is based on timing," O'Brien said. "What they see pre-snap and knowing where to go with the ball when they hit their third step or their fifth step, a lot of it’s based on timing."

There's a balance, though, because swinging too far in the other direction isn't especially productive, either.

"Sometimes he has to take advantage of his ability to run around and make plays," O'Brien said. "He did that (Tuesday). He kept a play alive on a fourth-down play at the end of practice, which I thought was a good play. He didn’t end up completing the pass, but he kept the play alive. There’s times when he’s done a good job of using his feet. He’s got decent command of the offense."

Savage's play during practice has shown both how far he's come and how far he has to go. They're what O'Brien calls developmental reps, along with a group of players in need of development. O'Brien wants to him avoid mental mistakes during the preseason and play efficiently. That won't necessarily show in his statistics, but the coaches will be watching the way he's thinking during the next month.

"I think his head’s spinning less," O'Brien said. "I just was looking at it this morning. In 11 practices, he has about 130 reps in 7-on-7 and team periods. I think the more reps you get in practice, the less your head will be spinning."

Tania Ganguli

ESPN Houston Texans reporter

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