A good quarterback is hard to find, but the Houston Texans just might have found one in Case Keenum.
Keenum has acquitted himself very well since stepping in for injured veteran Matt Schaub in Week 7, though the casual fan would be forgiven for wondering just who the heck he is. With that in mind, I've put together a "getting to know you" primer on the Texans' third-stringer-turned-starter.
I've known Keenum's father, Steve, for some time, and I'm very familiar with Case. The elder Keenum -- a longtime coach himself -- describes his son as a competitive football junkie who has been a quick learner from an early age. While he might not look the part of an NFL quarterback -- he's not thick like Drew Brees or Steve Young -- Keenum has the skills and football know-how to succeed as a pro.
Keenum is a system-type quarterback who is perfect for the play-action passes and rollouts that the Texans like to use. He's athletic, has great ball-handling skills and really knows how to execute the play-fake. Thus, it's easy to see him being successful in Houston. After all, his head coach, Gary Kubiak, put together a solid nine-year career as John Elway's backup in Denver, and he had many of the same traits.
I've always valued a player's ability to produce, plain and simple. Keenum definitely has a history of production, from high school (he led Wylie High in Abilene, Texas, to the state quarterfinals) to college (at the University of Houston, he threw for 19,217 yards and recorded a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 48:5 as a senior). He has good feet and a quick release, and he is very accurate, completing more than 70 percent of his passes in two different collegiate campaigns with the Cougars.
In September 2011, I went with Highland Park (Dallas) coach Randy Allen, who has worked with Keenum's father, to watch Keenum play against North Texas, and the youngster did something that caught my attention during pregame warmups. While most quarterbacks start off throwing with the wind at their back, Keenum went the other way, throwing into the wind. In that game, Keenum showed that, while he might not have Matthew Stafford-type arm strength, he is strong enough to get the ball 55 yards downfield.
Keenum made good on that ability Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts. On the third offensive play of the game, Keenum connected with Andre Johnson on a 62-yard scoring strike. By the end of the first half, Keenum had racked up 208 yards and three touchdown passes.
If Keenum had to play in a different system (say, one that does not lean as heavily on the play-action pass) or in a different setting (like outdoors in Cleveland, where inclement weather can make it tricky for a guy like him to spin the ball well), he might not be as effective. But he doesn't have to worry about that, because he's in exactly the right place with the exact right team.
In fact, given Keenum's suitability for Houston's offense and sharp football sense, I think the second-year pro gives the Texans a better chance to win than Schaub. Keenum just knows when and where to throw it and when to hold on to the ball. He's more of a "win the game for you" quarterback than Schaub. I'd also imagine that, as an underdog who's had to scrap to get to where he is, Keenum has gained the respect of the locker room.
With eight games left, the Texans still have a slim shot to grab an AFC wild-card berth, and I think it would make sense for them to give it their all with Keenum. After this week's trip to Arizona, Houston has three consecutive home games, and I'm sure the crowd and city will be in his corner.
Here's a look at some other young quarterbacks out to prove they have a future in the NFL:
Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
When the Eagles visited the Cowboys in December 2012, I talked with Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman about Foles. We both noted that Foles is a much better athlete than he looks to be. He's no Andrew Luck, but he's no stiff either, and he's able to make guys miss. The former high school basketball star has good feet, which is one of the qualities Bill Walsh once told me a quarterback must have to be successful. Foles also has big hands, which is important when playing in a place like Philadelphia, where it's windy and you must be able to spin the ball. His seven-touchdown performance Sunday at Oakland makes his recent stinker against the Cowboys that much harder to understand.
Josh Freeman, Minnesota Vikings
I've always liked Freeman as a player and a person. I had the chance to spend some time with him and his parents Sunday when the Vikings came to Dallas (Freeman was inactive). He neither griped nor complained about the Buccaneers. Instead, he praised the Vikings for treating him well and telling him how important he is to their future plans. I really like Minnesota's ownership, and I think Freeman and this team are right for each other.
Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Watching Glennon nearly spark the Bucs to an upset of the Seahawks on Sunday was like watching Ichabod Crane become a dance-contest winner. Glennon prompted myriad opinions coming out of N.C. State -- one person whom I believe is a very good evaluator thought Glennon was the best quarterback in the draft. Personally, I was not encouraged by the numbers Glennon posted at the NFL Scouting Combine. However, in his past two games, Glennon has three touchdown passes and zero interceptions, moving much better than he had before (especially going to his left, which had been a weakness). I'm still not quite convinced he's the long-term answer for the Bucs, though if he continues to play well, he has a chance to stick.
Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
Long known for his raw talent and upside, Locker has started to make good on the promise he showed as a prospect out of Washington, playing well for the better part of this season, his third in the NFL. Having made a name for himself in high school on a team that ran the wing-T, Locker didn't get much of a chance to hone his skills as a drop-back passer and seemed to lack the feel needed to play quarterback at Washington. Therefore, he entered the league needing a lot of work. This season, however, it appears offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains has done a great job developing Locker, especially with regard to reading defenses and changing plays. At the moment, this dark-horse Titans team is in a good place at 4-4.
EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills
I've known Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett for many years. And when I called him before the season to ask about Manuel, Hackett about jumped through the phone -- he was that excited about the rookie. Hackett raved about Manuel's ability to make all the throws and command the huddle, an especially rare skill among first-year pros. Manuel showed promise before going down with an injury in Week 5, and now he appears ready to return to action against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. He's a quality individual who will have the support of Buffalo's success-starved fans as he works through the inevitable rookie mistakes. Between Manuel and the leadership in place in Buffalo, the Bills should end their long playoff drought next season.
Harrison: Week 10 Power Rankings
Terrelle Pryor, Oakland Raiders
I spent a lot of time at Raiders training camp the past three years, and while I didn't notice much improvement in Pryor from 2011 to 2012, I did see him make a significant jump from last year to this year. His decision-making is better, along with his passing mechanics, which helps his accuracy. He still needs work in that latter area, but he continues to ascend under new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who seems to do a good job motivating his players. Pryor always has possessed outstanding arm strength and mobility; his issue has been a lack of experience working in the pocket in an NFL system. He is a talented guy who should, with Olson's help, be able to get his game to where it needs to be. With the right players around him, Pryor can get a team to the playoffs.
Geno Smith, New York Jets
Smith certainly has grown up this season under Marty Mornhinweg, improving in all phases of the game while exceeding the expectations of everyone outside the Jets' organization. He's become a much better decision-maker, though he has trouble with coverage reads. (But then again, so do a lot of guys.) It's encouraging to see that when Smith comes off the field after making a mistake, the first thing he does is seek out Mornhinweg for feedback. I also like that he tends to be one of the first guys to congratulate a teammate -- on offense or defense -- who scores a touchdown. It's worth noting that when Smith gets instruction, it's from Mornhinweg alone -- there aren't two or three guys rushing up to him.