NFL Nation: Case Keenum

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- When the St. Louis Rams travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles this Sunday, Austin Davis should be the starter at quarterback.

I wrote as much after Davis' performance against the Dallas Cowboys, and obviously nothing has happened in the time since that has made me change my mind. Many of you feel the same way. And, for what it's worth, I still believe coach Jeff Fisher will give Davis another shot against the Eagles. I know he has repeatedly said a healthy Shaun Hill will take the job back when he returns from an injured calf, but Davis has earned the shot.

Either way, it's important to put what Davis did in starts against Tampa Bay and Dallas in perspective. In Davis' two starts, he is 52-of-71 for 562 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 98.4 and a QBR of 77.5. His completion percentage of 72.3 is the best in the NFL, and he is eighth in the league in yards per attempt at 8.02.

Against the Cowboys, Davis was 30-of-42 for 327 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions as the Rams came up short.

Let's take a look at a couple of former or current Rams who got their first opportunity in circumstances similar to Davis and how they fared in their first two starts and what happened after:

Ryan Fitzpatrick: The Rams used a seventh-round pick on Fitzpatrick in 2005. Like Davis, Fitzpatrick began the season as the third-string quarterback behind Marc Bulger and Jamie Martin. On Nov. 27 against the Houston Texans, Fitzpatrick entered the game in place of Martin and went on to energize the team, completing 19-of-30 for 310 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. The effort was similar to Davis' work against the Cowboys in that it came against a fledgling defense and the numbers appeared the same. A week later, Fitzpatrick was 21-of-36 for 136 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Doubts began to creep in about whether he should continue to start, and those doubts came to fruition later when he threw five interceptions in a loss to Minnesota. Fitzpatrick has gone on to a nice career that has seen him bounce from Cincinnati to Buffalo to Houston, where he is currently the starter.

Case Keenum: Like Davis, Keenum entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Texans. After the Rams destroyed the Texans in Week 6 last season, Houston turned to the hometown favorite to take over for Matt Schaub. Also like Davis, Keenum offered immediate results. In his first two starts, Keenum was 35-of-59 for 621 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 118.0 and a QBR of 74.8. Those numbers even exceeded what Davis has done in his first two starts, but the Texans were unable to win either game. From there, Keenum went on to get six more starts, and though he sprinkled in some strong outings (particularly against New England), the Texans were 0-8 with Keenum starting. Now, Keenum is on the Rams' roster providing depth behind Davis.

Of course, Fitzpatrick and Keenum are just two examples of backup quarterbacks who made a splash when they first got starting opportunities but then came back to Earth a bit after. Some backups have gone on to greater success, some have gone on to worse. Davis does have the advantage of being in his third NFL season as opposed to Fitzpatrick and Keenum, who were rookies when they got their first opportunities.

Really, what happens with Davis from here is simple. If he keeps producing, he should keep starting. If he doesn't, the Rams can go back to Hill. Assuming Davis gets the next start, we will learn a lot more about him as the Rams get into the teeth of their schedule.

In the meantime, there is little reason to make a big announcement to declare Davis the starter for the rest of the season. To borrow the cliché from coaches and players all over the league, Davis' position as starter should be taken one game at a time.

Rams' quarterback situation unresolved

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- The St. Louis Rams wrapped up their work week Friday afternoon but coach Jeff Fisher isn't ready to make a call on who his starting quarterback will be against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

That's because presumptive starter Shaun Hill did not practice most of the week and was extremely limited in Friday's practice because of a quad/thigh injury. The choice between Hill and Austin Davis might not be made until hours before kickoff.

"(Hill is) probably a game-time decision," Fisher said. "We got Austin some reps and Austin is much better suited to play this game this week because of the starter reps he took this week, so we’ll see what happens."

[+] EnlargeAustin Davis
AP Photo/David RichardThe Ram are confident in QB Austin Davis should starter Shaun Hill be unable to play.
Fisher indicated Friday that Hill had made progress on his injured leg throughout the week, but there wasn't enough to go on to make a decision at this point. Hill was at least in uniform for Friday's practice, but he really didn't participate much as Davis took the bulk of the reps.

Based on the week of practice, one would assume Davis is primed to make his first NFL start, but Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said Hill is far enough along in the offense that he could start without any meaningful practice reps during the week.

"He’s been dialed in, doing everything," Schottenheimer said. "We actually make him call the plays of the quarterbacks in a lot of the walk-thrus that we do. No, if he’s ready to go, we have no problems that he’d go out there and perform well."

And if Hill is not ready to go, Davis will take his long-awaited turn as the starter. Davis got his first NFL game experience last week against Minnesota, going 16-of-23 for 192 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Those numbers weren't too bad on the surface, but a closer look at the performance revealed plenty of rough patches.

Looking back at his debut, Davis pointed to communication and basic operation as "spotty," pointing out he simply had not had a chance to huddle with the first-team offense before. He also took four sacks, some of which were the product of his inability to get rid of the ball or throw it away. Davis is hopeful that having a week's worth of practice and his three years of knowledge in the offense should allow him to clean up some of those areas.

"There's not a play call that I don't know exactly what the read is and exactly where the ball is supposed to go," Davis said. "It's really just getting game experience. It was great last week to get in and play ball, but I feel very, very comfortable with what we're doing."

The Rams apparently share that sentiment. Schottenheimer said Davis' knowledge of the scheme is such that he wouldn't need to scale the offense back for him.

"He’s really grown, he’s really developed," Schottenheimer said. "Coming from Southern Miss, it’s been a long process, he’s worked really, really hard. Very comfortable calling the game with him. Trust that he’s going to know what to do, do the right things. Again, I think that’s a credit to him."

The other part of the equation is whether to keep two or three quarterbacks active against the Bucs. Third-team signal caller Case Keenum now has a total of six practices with the Rams, but has impressed coaches with his work ethic and desire to get up to speed as fast as possible.

If Keenum is active and does have to play, the Rams will have a much smaller set of plays to work with.

"He beats the coaches in here most days," Schottenheimer said. "He really does. We’re here later than he is, but he’s here early working hard. By the looks of that he’s obviously got ability, and if he has to go for some reason, we’ll keep it simple."
The St. Louis Rams waited patiently to make an addition at quarterback after losing starter Sam Bradford for the season. On Monday, they made their move by claiming quarterback Case Keenum off waivers from the Houston Texans. Rams reporter Nick Wagoner and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss what the Rams are getting in Keenum and what Keenum's role will be in St. Louis.

Wagoner: Tania, I remember chatting with you before the Rams and Texans played last year and you mentioned the local push for hometown favorite Case Keenum to be the starter. Coincidentally, he took over that job after the Rams beat up on the Texans and went on to start eight more games. Now he's a Ram after they claimed him on waivers Monday afternoon. You saw every one of Keenum's starts. What are the Rams getting in their new backup quarterback?

[+] EnlargeCase Keenum
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriCase Keenum has had problems facing defensive pressure as an NFL quarterback.
Ganguli: They are getting a quarterback who knows what he needs to do but struggles to do it.

Keenum’s remarkable college career made him a lot of fans locally, but he spent all of his rookie year on the Texans’ practice squad before making the roster last season. The Texans’ quarterback situation was incredibly strange last season. By the time Keenum became the starter, the Texans' season was in such a spiral then-coach Gary Kubiak wanted something to spark his team.

That’s the positive with Keenum. He has moxie (Wade Phillips’ word, and I liked it). He was probably the best natural leader in the Texans’ quarterback room last season. He can lift a team emotionally. The problem is a lot of the rest of the responsibilities. In his early starts, it took opposing defensive coordinators until halftime to decipher Keenum. In his second start, he threw three touchdown passes to Andre Johnson to give the Texans an astonishing 21-3 lead over the Indianapolis Colts at halftime. They lost that game 27-24. By his later starts, opponents had enough film to shut him down from the start.

His main issue is handling pressure. His first instinct is to run away from it. He went backward for sacks more than any other quarterback in the NFL last season. In college he was very successful improvising and using his legs, but he hasn’t adjusted to the idea that it doesn’t work the same way in the pros. Don’t get me wrong -- every so often his improvisation led to a terrific play. He just expects it too often.

He doesn’t have trouble reading defenses; he has trouble reacting and making the right decisions once he has. A few times last season, a dejected Keenum noted that he knew what he was supposed to do, he just didn’t think to do it in time. His internal clock also needs work and he holds on to the ball too long when he tries to make plays.

Keenum’s fan base in Houston still exists, though it has begun to acknowledge that he’s struggled. The Rams’ situation is an interesting one for him, with starter Sam Bradford out with a torn ACL. What kind of situation do you see this being for him?

NW: The Rams mean it when they say they are committed to Shaun Hill as the starter. I think it would take something pretty drastic in terms of his performance or an injury for that to change. That means Keenum is coming in to serve in a backup role behind Hill. The Rams are keeping Austin Davis on the roster as well, bringing the total quarterbacks on the 53 to three. Davis has been around for three years and knows the system, so there's no reason to rush Keenum into trying to become the primary backup right away. After Keenum settles in, perhaps he pushes Davis for the No. 2 job behind Hill. But that's unlikely to happen right away. The Rams don't view Keenum as any sort of long-term replacement for Bradford, but they'd certainly welcome a young quarterback who could provide some depth beyond just this season.
If the Baltimore Ravens want to add a quarterback who is familiar with Gary Kubiak's offense, they will likely have a chance to do so very soon.

Case Keenum, who started eight games for Kubiak last season in Houston, has been informed that he will be waived by the Houston Texans, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. Keenum became expendable after the Texans traded for Ryan Mallett.

The Ravens may see Keenum as a better fit in Kubiak's system than current backup Tyrod Taylor. Keenum's familiarity comes from spending two years with Kubiak, who is now in his first season as the Ravens' offensive coordinator.

How much did Kubiak like Keenum? In Week 7 last season, Kubiak went with Keenum as his starter over backup T.J. Yates when Matt Schaub was injured.

In eight starts, Keenum completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,760 yards (average of 220 yards). He threw nine touchdowns and six interceptions for a 78.2 passer rating.

The Ravens are currently going with Taylor as their backup for a fourth straight season, and they are expected to sign rookie sixth-round pick Keith Wenning to the practice squad.

Taylor had a solid preseason, producing points on 12 (four touchdowns, eight field goals) of 21 drives. But he's considered more of a scrambler than a pocket passer. His lack of patience in the pocket and questionable decision-making has frustrated the Ravens in the past.

In the spring, coach John Harbaugh expressed disappointment with Taylor's recent performances. This may have been the reason the Ravens tried to sign Brandon Weeden in free agency. The Ravens then presumably drafted Wenning as the eventual No. 2 quarterback because Taylor is entering the final year of his contract.

How comfortable are the Ravens with Taylor as their backup now? The Ravens' level of interest in Keenum will let everyone know.

Texans Camp Report: Day 11

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
HOUSTON -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Houston Texans training camp.
  • When practice began, coach Bill O'Brien didn't like how it was going, so he stopped the script and threw the team into something different. A grind-it-out, high-energy, live tackling goal-line drill. "I just put the ball at the 10-yard line and let’s play football, you know," O'Brien said. Immediately the energy at practice jumped. Jonathan Grimes took a handoff from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and scored. A few plays later, nose tackle Jerrell Powe blew up a running play, tackling running back Andre Brown behind the line of scrimmage. "It ended up being a goal-line situation. I thought that got the guys going a little bit and we ended up having a decent practice."
  • Early in practice, the second-team offense incurred O'Brien's wrath after a sloppy series. The entire unit had to run a lap together.
  • Rookie quarterback Tom Savage's reps have increased throughout camp. O'Brien said he is taking developmental reps and has had 130 7-on-7 or team drill reps in 11 practices. Savage's throws in practice have been a mixed bag. But his head is spinning less than it was when he arrived in Houston and that is evident. On one play, undrafted rookie defensive end Julius Warmsley arrived in the backfield in what might have been a sack if he was allowed to touch Savage. Savage coolly found receiver Travis Labhart in the end zone.
  • Backup quarterback Case Keenum is working on feeling more comfortable being uncomfortable. "Does that make sense? Just pushing the limits and trying to find some continuity with the guys you’re playing with. So, it’s getting better. It’s getting better every day. Still making mistakes every day, which you know I don’t like. But I think that’s what makes you better; not making the same mistakes."
  • The Texans have Wednesday off before returning to practice on Thursday and Friday. They'll face the Arizona Cardinals on the road on Saturday.

Texans Camp Report: Day 8

August, 2, 2014
Aug 2
HOUSTON -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Houston Texans' training camp.

  • On the field it was DeAndre Hopkins day at Texans' training camp this morning. Every time I looked up, Hopkins was making another leaping catch. One particularly impressive one came during a red-zone drill in which quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick found Hopkins in the end zone. Hopkins caught the ball with cornerback Brandon Harris draped on him, then held onto it as Harris tried to wrestle it out of Hopkins' gigantic hands as the two of them fell to the ground.
  • And by the way, that red-zone drill was great to watch. Actual hitting! In training camp! "That's how it's supposed to be every day," Kareem Jackson said. "We're supposed to be out here competing as a team. The more we can go full speed and live and compete against each other in game-type situations, it'll only make us better when game time comes."
  • The winner for most entertaining moment of practice goes to an interception by D.J. Swearinger (swag with three g's). He picked off Fitzpatrick during a drill where a line of offensive players stood just behind watching. Swearinger went forward full speed, moved aside the onlookers in his way and ran toward the end zone, high-stepping into it once he got there. By the time he got back to the drill, the offense was already well on its way to its next play.
  • The winner for biggest cheer of the day goes to a Shane Lechler punt that Jadeveon Clowney blocked.
  • Backup quarterback Case Keenum has had good moments during camp, but one thing that's obvious is his first instinct is still to run out of trouble. That's something the Texans' current staff and previous staff tried to fix in his game.
  • Sunday morning's practice will be open to the media but closed to the public. The Texans will start at 8:30 a.m. and wrap up around 11 a.m. They'll do their usual afternoon walk-through, too, and that will be closed to fans and media.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- This morning's agenda at the NFL meetings included a media breakfast for the AFC coaches. I sat in on Bill O'Brien's hour with local and national media in which he discussed a lot of things but mostly the draft.

I'll get a little more in depth on what he talked about later, but first a few nuggets:
  • O'Brien, general manager Rick Smith and quarterbacks coach George Godsey will all be at Johnny Manziel's Pro Day on Thursday. This is separate from Texas A&M's Pro Day, one O'Brien called his "Johnny Day." While O'Brien likes having private workouts with quarterback prospects, when I asked if he has one with Manziel he said he doesn't think so.

  • Despite all the talk about what a bad Pro Day Teddy Bridgewater had, O'Brien thought he had "a decent day." He liked seeing the work Bridgewater had done to improve footwork and mechanics.

  • He'll meet several times with various prospects and what he's looking for from meeting to meeting is improvement. Did the guy learn something in the time between?

  • The plan right now is to take backup quarterbacks Case Keenum and T.J. Yates to training camp.

  • Asked about Jadeveon Clowney's work ethic, O'Brien said what's important is how he plays when it counts. "When the game's on the line, Jadeveon plays hard."

  • O'Brien loves watching J.J. Watt on film.

  • He values the ability to think quickly in a quarterback. O'Brien will ask for a lot of pre-snap decision-making.

  • Derek Carr's brother will have no impact on the Texans' evaluation of Derek Carr. "When we're thinking about a player, we're thinking about that individual player." The expansion Texans selected David Carr with the top overall pick of the 2002 draft and lasted five seasons before being waived.

    - O'Brien had dinner with Bills coach Doug Marrone last night. They laughed about how far they'd come together since their days at the bottom of Georgia Tech's totem pole. "We were laughing about, can you believe this?"
You knew when the Houston Texans signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a capable veteran who started last season in Tennessee.

But really, you knew long before that.

As soon as Matt Schaub threw his last pass of the season -- his last interception of the season -- the end to his story in Houston was written. The Matt Schaub era, once brimming with the promise of a fresh, young franchise hoping to establish itself, had ended.

There was just too much baggage between the Texans and Matt Schaub. It was time.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Matt Schaub signed a four-year extension worth $62 million in 2012, but was unable to keep his starting job with the Texans.
This morning, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported that the Texans are expected to trade Schaub to the Raiders for a late-round pick in this year's draft. The Schaub era ended with 46 wins and 42 losses, 124 touchdown passes and 78 interceptions that included a haunting streak of picks that were returned for touchdowns -- a pick-six in an NFL record four consecutive games. His arm strength showed signs of having weakened at that point, and the psychological impact of those plays was clear. You could see it in the way he pounded his fists on the grass after one pick-six, you could see it in the slump in his shoulders as bad turned to worse in inexplicable fashion. There was no reason to expect the issues Schaub had last season, and yet there they were.

Just two years ago, the Texans anointed Schaub with a four-year extension worth $62 million with $24.75 million guaranteed. The deal became final the day before the 2012 season began and preceded an 11-1 start that made the Texans the hottest team in the NFL for a while.

Schaub was coming off a 2011 season during which he had his lowest completion percentage as a Texan, but he also helped lead the Texans to their first of two division titles. He missed the 2011 playoff run after fracturing his foot but returned healthy enough to inspire the organization's confidence.

When the problems began, things got ugly.

There were cheers at Reliant Stadium as Schaub lay on the grass when he suffered an ankle injury against the St. Louis Rams, the injury that ultimately led to Case Keenum replacing him as the starter. A grocery store near Schaub's neighborhood made a Halloween cake in the shape of a gravestone, marking the death of Schaub's arm. One photo circulated of a car in Houston with a mannequin in a No. 8 jersey protruding out of the trunk, meant to look like Schaub's body stuffed in the back. And, in one of the more bizarre stories from last season, Schaub's family reported trespassers to the police in an incident that was initially reported by a local radio station as having involved angry fans.

The most damning result of the ugliness came on the field the next time the Texans dared play Schaub at home. The boos got so loud the home team had to go to a silent count. His teammates were furious, not just at the tactical disadvantage they faced, but also at the way a man they still respected and liked was being treated.

Schaub, who closed his Twitter account during the season, tried his best to seem unaffected. But he wasn't fooling anybody.

And so, it had to be done.

In the past few weeks, we've talked a lot about the Texans' options at quarterback and whether or not they could find someone better than Schaub. That depends entirely on your definition of better. If you're looking purely at ability and statistics, Schaub was comparable to the quarterbacks who were options for the Texans, including Fitzpatrick. But unemotional analysis isn't enough in this situation.

The Texans are taking Schaub's $10 million salary and roster bonuses off the books for 2014, but will only gain about $4 million in cap space.

What they'll really gain is a much needed fresh start.
Six months ago, many of us thought there was a decent chance the Texans would be preparing for the first Super Bowl in franchise history this week.

Instead, we continue to discuss what they might do with the top pick a little more than three months from now.

Let's get to it.

A few days ago a reader posed this question to me:

It's a reasonable thing to ask, and I promised an answer in a blog post. (As an aside, I'll do this more frequently during the offseason. Thoughtful questions that require more than 140-character responses might get posts.)

When Texans owner Bob McNair fired former head coach Gary Kubiak, part of his decision was influenced by Kubiak's seeming indecision with his quarterbacks.

The night before being fired, Kubiak had pulled Keenum from the Texans' loss in Jacksonville to try and win with Matt Schaub. It was the second time Kubiak had pulled Keenum during a game after declaring the first-year player his starter. Keenum had struggled in both of those games and wasn't seeming to get better, but Kubiak's waffling only seemed to make things worse. Upon firing Kubiak, McNair declared that Wade Phillips would be interim head coach and Keenum would start the rest of the season.

"We need to find out whether Case is capable of being a starter or whether he's capable of being a backup," McNair said that day. "And the way you find that out is by playing him."

What McNair saw in the next game, before a thumb injury ended his season, was a quarterback who had trouble adjusting to pressure and who tried to use his legs to get out of trouble far too often. Sure, when his improvisation succeeded the results were impressive, but those times were the exception. It wasn't that Keenum didn't know what to do. Both he and Phillips said he did. Keenum just didn't react in the ways he knew he should. He made the wrong decision repeatedly.

In my post about the Texans' offensive line, I noted that Keenum averaged about 3.7 seconds from snap to sack, which is a decent amount of time. One commenter suggested that time was because Keenum bought time for himself while under pressure. The problem is, if you're buying time and then getting sacked anyway, that's not good either. It's part of why he led the NFL in yards lost per sack last season, losing an average of 10.58 yards per sack.

Maybe Keenum stopped trusting himself. Maybe with the right coaches and a competition, he'll recover and improve. Sometimes a quarterback improves later in his career, though few are given the chance for that kind of growth these days.

The problem is you don't know. He's not there yet, at the point where he has established himself as a capable starting NFL quarterback. Sure, there would be unknowns with a drafted rookie, too. But in that case, the same thing that worked for Keenum in October could go against him now. The less a quarterback has had a chance to show, the greater his potential upside.
HOUSTON -- He suffered the sprained thumb during one of the four times the Indianapolis Colts sacked him. Texans quarterback Case Keenum isn't exactly sure when or how it happened, but he knows he finished the Dec. 15 game with his thumb not feeling right.

After missing one game, Keenum was back on the practice field on Thursday, able to grip and throw the ball again.

"I'm preparing to start," Keenum said. "I feel good. I'm ready to go. I just got through with some treatment. I want to win. That's my mindset."

In the grand scheme of this season, winning doesn't do a lot for you. But it's a good attitude for Keenum to have. The desire to win and stay motivated even when nothing can be gained from that is a good thing and will be part of how he's evaluated.

"I love playing," Keenum said. "I love competing. And I love winning. We all do. I have to give my team a better chance to win."

It's not something that would matter for everyone, but with a young player like Keenum, whose development is still in its early stages, attitude matters. It will matter for a few dozen other players on the roster.

Players like rookie Lestar Jean, whose rookie contract is up at the end of this year, cornerback Elbert Mack, who was signed to the active roster on Oct. 16, and linebacker Mike Mohamed, who has played in seven games, mostly on special teams.

Whether they're back with the Texans next season or not, they'll be evaluated in part on how they play Sunday.

Graham out for finale, Keenum possible

December, 26, 2013
HOUSTON -- Tight end Garrett Graham missed the past two games with a hamstring injury and Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips isn't expecting him to play this weekend in Nashville.

Quarterback Case Keenum, meanwhile, was able to grip and throw the football on Thursday. Keenum sprained his thumb in Indianapolis and suffered ligament damage, which kept him out of this past Sunday's game. Matt Schaub started in his place, and the Texans lost 37-13.

Phillips said if Keenum is healthy, he will start. Part of figuring out if he's healthy enough will lie in examining how he feels tomorrow after taking his normal Thursday reps today.

"He looked okay," offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said. "Missed some throws, but he looked okay. We'll let it rest at that. See how he responds."

Phillips is also pessimistic about the fate of running back Dennis Johnson, who made his first career start last weekend against the Denver Broncos. Johnson, an undrafted rookie who spent training camp with the Texans, suffered a hip injury. He was cut in September, then returned to the roster in October. It's not surprising he's pessimistic, given that he's been saying all week that Jonathan Grimes, a second-year player signed last week, is going to start in Nashville.

Phillips was asked if he's worried about his depth. He chuckled a bit as he answered.

"Well let's see, we're down to our fifth running back, our third tight end," he said. "Yes, I'm worried about it."

Friday Conversation: Matt Williamson

December, 20, 2013
Former NFL and college scout Matt Williamson isn't yet sold on Kirk Cousins for a simple reason: He needs to see more. Williamson is now ESPN's NFL scout, and provided insight into how someone in his position views Cousins and the Redskins. On Saturday, I'll post a story with his thoughts on Robert Griffin III.

What did you see from Kirk Cousins Sunday?

Williamson: There’s a lot to like. I don’t want to get too excited about him, because it’s such a limited amount of snaps so far. I feel like a quarterback is like a pitcher in baseball. Sometimes quarterbacks come into the league and get starts and look like Case Keenum did with the Texans. It’s like a pitcher in the first couple games going through the league, and then teams have tape on him and realize he doesn’t have a curveball. There isn’t enough yet of Cousins to where everyone knows how to defend him.

Do you like him?

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Nick WassESPN analyst Matt Williamson likes how Kirk Cousins has performed in his limited playing time.
Williamson: He’s talented. He has a good, not great, arm. He seems to have a good feel for reading defenses. He has some pocket presence. He will take risks. He’s not a checkdown specialist. He will throw picks in his time. He won’t be Alex Smith and have five or six interceptions a year if he’s a starter. I bet there’s a lot of interest in him around the league to see what he does the next couple games. But I’d have a hard time putting a true grade on him. It’s just not enough [of a sample].

How much is enough?

Williamson: That’s a tough call. With a quarterback you want to see more than you would with anyone else. I always felt when I was evaluating a college kid for the NFL that you’d want a minimum of four games and have them be spread out. At quarterback you want to see more. A rule of thumb was let’s see four college games from different points in the season. At quarterback you want to double that. These are the hardest to evaluate to begin with, because there are so many factors that can make it look better or worse. But I think he’s exceeding expectations every time he’s in there, and the offense seems to flow better with him in there.

What do you think of him in the pocket?

Williamson: He’s a decent enough athlete with his drops, and he’s light on his feet and feels pressure well. He’s not a statue back there. He’s not going to be confused with RG3 athletically, but I’d need to see more. It’s hard to say he has great pocket presence. There’s just not enough [games].

What do you remember thinking about Cousins before the draft?

Williamson: Nothing stood out in a good way and a bad way. I didn’t see a huge negative with the guy, and I didn’t see a massive positive with him. That’s a good thing. If you’re grading every attribute one through 10, he’d get a lot of sevens and eights and not a lot of fours and not a lot of 10s ... He doesn’t look overwhelmed [now]. He will push the ball down the field, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. That’s highly promising.

What are you still looking to see?

Williamson: I would like him to prove he can deliver the football accurately when his feet aren’t set. That’s a true test. Guys like Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco, when they can’t step into a throw can still throw strike on the sidelines because they’re a natural gifted thrower. RG3 can definitely do that. He can make throws like that even when conditions aren’t optimal. I don’t know if Cousins can. I’d like to see how he handles pressure, the blitz in particular, where you know this blitz is coming and will I make the right read and hit my hot receiver in stride and not flinch and not only make the right play mentally, but make the right play physically with big scary guys coming down on him. And the last thing would be consistency. Is he consistently getting better and is he doing something almost week to week? Andy Dalton is a great example. He’s still highly streaky. He’s not gifted enough to be highly streaky. I don’t want a roller-coaster quarterback who, when he’s down he’s too far down to win, or if he’s down in the playoffs we have no chance.

When you look at their defense, how much work needs to be done?

Williamson: A lot. They have a huge decision to make with Orakpo. He’s somebody I would like to keep. Kerrigan is a quality player, but I look at edge rushers like I look at wide receivers. Orakpo would be a No. 1. Kerrigan is a No. 2 pass-rusher, and if the No. 1 goes away, [Kerrigan] might go away, too. It’s imperative to keep [Orakpo], especially because of the state of the secondary. They used picks on guys, and not surprisingly none of those guys changed the course of the secondary in their rookie year. That doesn’t mean they won’t be decent players. You rarely see rookie corners play well, so I could see it being better in Year 2. But it’s still a bad secondary. You can’t ignore it. London is clearly done. Perry Riley is more like a No. 2. He’s fine, he’s a starter and he can play every snap. But he’ll probably never go to a Pro Bowl. I’m fine with him, but they have too many of those guys. I don’t think replacing Fletcher will be all that difficult. He’s a liability in coverage. They need more in the secondary, and I don’t think throwing another second-round pick at the problem is the best solution. They need to get a corner or safety coming off his first contract. That might cost a little, but at least you know he can play and isn’t over the hill.

What do you think of Barry Cofield?

Williamson: I’ve always been a fan, and I’m surprised he faded this season. But he’s not the problem. He’s capable of being very good. He’s not Vince Wilfork, but he’s an active nose guy and can play every snap and not embarrass you in pass situations. One more defensive end would be nice. They’re one of the few defensive lines with a three-man front that does not have a distinguished pass-rusher on the line, someone who when you go to your nickel you kick this guy down as a tackle with Rak and Kerrigan and he has a chance to make a play. If they had that and kept Orakpo, that pass rush would be a lot better.
Peyton Manning and Johnathan JosephUSA Today Sports, Icon SMIComing off an unexpected loss, will Peyton Manning's Broncos overlook Johnathan Joseph's Texans?

Quarterbacks tend to pull for each other. They know what it's like to shoulder so much of a team's fate, they understand the pressure better than outsiders could.

"I do think it’s a unique fraternity," Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "Matt’s an excellent quarterback. I think he’ll be fine."

This weekend Manning and his Broncos will visit the Houston Texans for a rematch of a game played last year under very different circumstances.

Fittingly, after a season of quarterback turmoil, the Texans are returning to the man they started with at the position. Because of an injury to Case Keenum, Matt Schaub will start Sunday at Reliant Stadium. The last time Schaub started, he entered the game to boos so hearty that the Texans had to go to a silent count on some of their plays.

On the opposite sideline will be one of the best to ever play the position. Manning has played against the Texans 19 times and lost only three times. Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli discuss.

Ganguli: Manning is very familiar with the Texans. Has his (soon-to-be) record-setting season been as impressive to watch up close as the stats suggest?

Legwold: No question the numbers have been staggering, even by Manning’s standards. But the intersection of Manning as a 37-year-old quarterback who was willing to sort of remake himself with a team ready to offer him the place to do that has lifted his play even more. The Broncos have constructed a playbook that is a mix of what they had on hand and what Manning has always done. They've added a warp-speed no-huddle portion and given him targets all over the formation, and Manning has played with the discipline of a veteran quarterback who understands what needs to be done. His coaches have said he forced just one pass in the team’s first eight games and his accuracy has been elite for much of the season. He isn't a power thrower now, and a windy day in the postseason could derail some of what the Broncos like to do, but he is an accomplished pitcher who knows his opponents and can hit all the spots.

Gary Kubiak is still well-liked around the Broncos’ complex, with many people who worked with him still in the building. What has been the reaction of players to his dismissal?

Ganguli: Kubiak was well-liked in the Texans' building, too, especially with, but not limited to, the players. After his dismissal, you heard a lot about how well he treated people, regardless of their role on the team. He’s always been known as a players’ coach, and that’s part of what has made Houston an attractive destination for free agents. Several players exchanged text messages with him after it happened. Some took public responsibility for it. They didn't like seeing him lose his job, but the firing wasn't a tremendous surprise given how the season had gone. The players’ reaction to Kubiak's health scare after suffering a "mini-stroke" on Nov. 3 said a lot about what he meant to them.

You covered another head coach's health scare this season. How did the Broncos weather John Fox’s absence?

Legwold: There have been seasons over the past decade or so when neither the locker room nor the coaching staff would have been as equipped as this year's group was to deal with something like Fox’s four-week absence following open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio stepped in as interim coach, and players often spoke of his composure and leadership during that time. Manning, Wesley Woodyard, Champ Bailey and others helped keep everyone in the locker room pointed in the right direction, while Adam Gase and rest of the offensive staff kept things humming on that side of the ball. The team went 3-1 in that stretch, with two wins over Kansas City and one against San Diego. The loss was an overtime defeat at New England, when the Broncos let a 24-point halftime lead get away. Through it all, the Broncos showed themselves to be a stable organization, able to overcome the most serious of issues.

An awful lot of folks believed when the season began that the Texans would be in the hunt for the Super Bowl title. What are some of the major issues that have prevented that from happening?

Ganguli: How much time do you have? It starts with the quarterback. The Texans don’t have the luxury the Broncos have of one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. Their situation at the position has been tenuous all season. Schaub’s costly turnovers early on put the Texans in a precarious position. He didn't play as poorly as some indicate until Week 5 against San Francisco. He just looked uncomfortable and out of sorts from start to finish, throwing three interceptions, including a pick-six on the first pass of the game. Schaub’s foot and ankle injuries the following week opened the door for Kubiak to make a switch to Keenum, who spent last season on the Texans’ practice squad. Keenum did well before opponents deciphered him, and since then he has struggled. I’m not ready to say he’ll never be a passable quarterback in the NFL, but his play over the past eight games has been a big factor in the losses. To be clear, quarterback is not the only factor in the Texans’ 12-game losing streak, but it’s been a big one. Further, the handling of the quarterback situation played a part in Kubiak’s firing. He benched Keenum for Schaub against Oakland and Jacksonville. That kind of uncertainty didn’t help matters.

That’s one question I get asked a lot. Another is this: Who will the Texans’ next head coach be? I covered Del Rio for his final season and a half as the Jaguars' coach. From what you've seen in Denver, do you think he gets another shot at being a head coach?

Legwold: I spoke with executives from around the league in recent weeks, and it seems Del Rio helped his cause with the way he conducted himself and led the Broncos during Fox’s absence. If the Broncos can snap out of their current defensive funk and go deep in the playoffs, it would help his cause even more. (He interviewed with USC during the bye week, the day before Fox suffered the dizziness and light-headedness on a golf course that led to his open-heart surgery.) Del Rio would need an owner/team president to look past the offense-first mentality everyone seems to be looking for these days, and he would have to present a clear, concise picture of what he would do on offense. But if the Broncos make the Super Bowl, or even win it, and the defense makes some plays along the way, Del Rio should be on some short lists.

How has Wade Phillips handled the interim job? He’s seen Manning plenty over the years, how do you think he’ll have the Texans go at the Broncos’ offense?

Ganguli: It wasn't a particularly good situation to come into, as tends to happen with interim jobs. The results have been similar to Kubiak's tenure, though Phillips has been more proactive in trying to curb the Texans' penalties. He's had Big 12 officials at practice several times, and puts players in timeouts if they commit a penalty. Not a lot has changed for the better, and the injury situation has gotten worse. The Texans now have their first- and second-string running backs on injured reserve, as well as their starting tight end, starting middle linebacker and starting strong safety. Phillips' defenses have always been very aggressive -- they blitz a lot. The play calling is being done by defensive-backs coach Vance Joseph now, but that doesn't change a lot. Manning's statistics against the Texans are better against a four-man rush than against blitzes.

Keenum has MRI on right thumb

December, 16, 2013
HOUSTON -- The line for MRIs was long this morning for the Houston Texans, and one of the players in it was quarterback Case Keenum.

Keenum suffered a sprained thumb against the Indianapolis Colts, Texans interim head coach Wade Phillips said. He said he would know more about Keenum's status for the game once he finds out the results of the MRI.

It wasn't the only way in which Keenum was beat up in that game, having played his worst game as a pro.

"Sometimes (young quarterbacks) have to hit rock bottom to bounce back up," Phillips said. "Some of them don't bounce back up, and don't end up good quarterbacks. We have to help him."

Phillips said Sunday that he wouldn't be sure exactly what went wrong for Keenum until seeing the film. His post-film assessment Monday afternoon was similar to his postgame assessment. It was just overall a rough day for the quarterback, who completed 18 of 34 passes for 168 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. He also fumbled in the end zone when Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis sacked him.

One issue for Keenum early on was recognizing blitzes. He's studying and learning how to do that.

"He saw the blitzes when they were coming," Phillips said. "But seeing blitzes and getting rid of the football is different than just seeing them. That and reading coverages. It's not an easy process, especially for a young quarterback to know. We've just gotta find the things that he really does well and we've gotta stick with those."



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