The Button Benjamin of a Curious Case

What's the deal with the new Denver Broncos QB struggling in 2018?

Case Keenum leads the Denver Broncos offense at training camp. Credit: Ryan Koenigsberg/BSN Denver

Yeah, even old man-baby Brad Pitt thinks that’s a stupid headline but you can’t pass up a backward intro about a cinematic backward life with an awesome pun about a quarterback having a backward season.

Keep in mind I didn’t say a backward QB, I said a backward season, and I want that to be very clear before we delve into what could be as confusing an article as the movie mentioned above.

Case Keenum was brought to Denver on a two-season contract for what could be $18 million a year and was lauded as a guy who would at the very least be a step up from the 2017 disaster of Trevor Siemien, Paxton Lynch, and Brock Osweiler.

The six-year veteran journeyman was coming off a career year in Minnesota where he passed for 3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions, had the second-best QBR in all of football at 72.8, and led the Vikings to an NFC Championship. Sadly, that success has not transferred over to the 2018 Broncos.

The question is, why? And, most importantly, is he likely to get better?

Let’s discuss the five possible reasons for the struggles through the first six games where Case has looked more like a bad backup risk taker than a veteran playmaker who makes few mistakes as he was in Minnesota:

  1. Last season was an aberration and he is not a good QB; 
  2. The Broncos coaches have not put him in the position to succeed;
  3. He doesn’t trust his offensive line and is scared in the pocket; 
  4. His knee is more injured than we think and it is affecting his play;
  5. He is mentally weak and can’t handle being “the guy”.

A few of these options can only be speculated on and we can and likely never will know the full truth.

Let’s start with #5 because it’s a backward type of day.

Case Keenum is mentally weak and can’t handle being “the guy”

It’s no secret that there is less pressure on a player, especially at QB, when there are little to no expectations of him succeeding. Everywhere he went until 2018 he was not the guy but rather the backup who could ball a bit. It was a role he thrived on and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The big question is if the spotlight or being a QB to follow in the footsteps of Trevor Siemien, Brock Osweiler and John Elway is too much for him. Sorry, I felt like we were getting too serious here.

Is he a man, a player, a quarterback who can succeed when he is the face of a franchise? So far, the proof says that the answer is no. The pressure, the spotlight, and the tough Denver fans have proven to be too much for many an athlete and Keenum would not be the first.

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His knee is more injured than we think and it is affecting his play

This is a point that has been rarely brought up by the Denver media but it’s something that should absolutely be considered before the fan mob throws him under the bus.

The leg was apparently injured in the week two victory over the Raiders and Keenum himself said he needs to be smarter about sliding and not bouncing off tacklers.

Since he played the next four games it’s been assumed that the injury was nothing major and people quickly moved on. Except, the Broncos haven’t won a game since this presumed injury.

Now, Keenum wasn’t lighting the world on fire in the first two games anyway with an average of 275 yards per game, three touchdowns, and four interceptions but if you watch the tape he did then seem to be more fluid with his footwork.

When you watch him “sprint” for a first down in the last few games he has seemed to be a reincarnation of the glory years of Peyton Manning when number 18 was just flying by linebackers /sarcasm.

If you check out his footwork you will see a problem with not stepping up in the pocket and many passes are thrown while his weight is on his back foot. That’s a major issue and it has gotten plenty of guys booted from the NFL — unless your name is Nathan Peterman.

The problem with being seemingly reluctant to step up in the pocket fits in well with #3 on our list.

He doesn’t trust his offensive line and is scared in the pocket

The words “eye test” mean that many hours have been spent pouring over film and watching in perfect detail every single play of each game.

When you watch this line pass block you don’t need a subscription to Pro Football Focus to see that the line is not very good.

There is seemingly always a push up the middle. Garett Bolles is the laughing stock of the NFL in pass protection at left tackle and Billy Turner at right tackle is just okay. We are not discussing their run blocking because they are quite good at that.

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Often when Keenum steps back after the snap you see his eyes leave his receivers downfield and a panicked look come into them as he runs for his life. On other plays, he stands in the pocket and gets hammered because he didn’t have the pocket awareness to feel the pressure coming.

These different issues go hand in hand and it points to the simple answer that he is not comfortable in the pocket.

One reason for that would be something that Keenum was very successful doing in Minnesota last season and has been barely seen this year: the play action pass, which Denver has run on only 16 per cent of pass plays.

This glaring mistake in play calling brings us to our #2 possibility for why the Denver QB has struggled this season.

Case Keenum isn’t getting the chance to play to his strengths in Denver. Credit: Pro Football Focus

The Broncos coaches have not put him in the position to succeed

The lack of play action is just one example of how the coaches have not played to Keenum’s strengths and have struggled mightily in finding an offensive identity.

Other stats that stick out:

  • Keenum an average of 39 pass attempts per game in 2018. In 2017 he averaged 32.
  • The Broncos have averaged 23 running plays in 2018. The 2017 Vikings averaged 31.

As we can’t ever really say a player quit or what goes on in their heads, we also can’t really guess what coaches have planned for their offensive or defensive scheme.

These are smart football people and they clearly spend many hours working together to try and put their players in the best position to win.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work. If it is because the players aren’t good enough or because the coaches aren’t smart enough we can’t always say.

Still, when you have a QB who passed for 3,500 yards with only seven picks and 22 TDs, you have to go to that 2017 tape and see what worked. It seems like the Broncos staff has refused to do that and it has cost them dearly.

Keenum, like Benjamin Button, seems to have gone from a wise old man to a naive little boy in only one season. Is that the coaching, or:

2017 was an aberration and he is not a good QB

Trent Dilfer has more Super Bowl victories than Dan Marino.

  • Marino — 147 wins 93 losses, 61,361 yards, 420 TD, 252 Int
  • Dilfer — 58 wins 55 losses, 20,518 yards, 113 TD, 129 Int

Dilfer, the ex-journeyman quarterback, is the perfect example of a team winning it all with not-so-good talent under center when the backup QB — seen as a game manager QB supported by a dominant defense — halted a sluggish offensive start to the 2000 season to lead the Baltimore Ravens on a 7-1 rip down the stretch to finish 12-4.

From there, the Ravens went all the way to Super Bowl XXXV, where they defeated the New York Giants 34-7. The world champions didn’t resign Dilfer, who wound up in Seattle, Cleveland and San Francisco in the final seven years of his career.

Unlike Dilfer and his uninspiring numbers, Keenum is a bit different in that he had a good statistical year and made some nice plays in the regular season and in the playoffs.

That’s when the good old eye test comes in handy. If you have 30 minutes of your valuable time to spare, go watch this YouTube video of 2017 Keenum highlights and you won’t be too surprised by what you see.

Case Keenum celebrates against Washington in 2017. Credit: Keith Allison

You’ll see some very good passes on occasion, a ton of play action but — most importantly — you’ll see Keenum getting the ball to his playmakers with easy passes.

So many of the highlights are on screens or slants where the receivers did most of the work. The offensive line gave him time in the pocket and Keenum used his legs when necessary to make a big play outside of the pocket.

To wrap up, when you watch the games this season and look at tape from 2017, you’ll now see a guy who looks stressed and has a lot to prove, is lacking his previous mobility likely due to a bum knee, is short on confidence while in the pocket because of a below average pass-blocking O-line, a gameplan that doesn’t work with his or the team’s strengths, and  a QB who is good enough to be part of a great team but not good enough to lead one.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and there are plenty of ways that Keenum can improve this season and next.

The knee can heal, his coaches can put him, and his O-line in a good spot by feeding the run game and giving the ball to playmakers, his confidence and ability to be the face of the Denver Broncos could come with time, and if he and the team catch a few breaks they could be headed quickly in the right direction instead of backward like our poor dear Mr. Button.

What do you think the reason is for Case Keenum ongoing struggles in 2018?

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