Bill O'Brien finally makes what he indicated all along clear enough for a doubting Houston media to believe. Yes, there's a real race for the Houston Texans' starting quarterback job.
"It's wide open," O'Brien declares after the Texans' first session of organized team activities (unofficial spring practices) on Tuesday.
Anything less than a real open competition between Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tom Savage and T.J. Yates would be an affront to the Patriots way O'Brien came up in. It'd also fly in the face of the NFL's new wisdom: A free agent contract guarantees nothing.
Anyone who assumes Fitzpatrick is automatically the starter because the Texans signed him to a two-year, $7.5 million deal simply hasn't been paying attention. Ask Matt Flynn (the once $10 Million Guarantee Man) what even major money assures one of.
Keenum showed more than enough promise under impossible circumstances. He still has yet to play a full game with the Texans' most important offensive player.
The smarter, more progressive organizations in football no longer let contracts dictate playing time. If the third round rookie quarterback outplays the $10 Million Man, you start the rookie. Gary Kubiak may have found what Pete Carroll did with Matt Flynn and Russell Wilson a few years ago shocking, but it's a safe bet that O'Brien didn't.
That's just one of the reasons no one should be surprised if Case Keenum emerges as the starting quarterback.
This idea that Keenum's already flamed out after eight games of being yo-yoed around in his first year playing never held much basis in reality. Keenum showed more than enough promise under impossible circumstances to warrant a real chance. Keenum still has yet to play even one full game with the Texans' most important offensive player.
Plenty would have been different for Keenum and the Texans if the University of Houston star had Arian Foster in the backfield last season. There's no way Keenum finishes winless as a starter with a healthy Foster for one. That 0-8 easily would have been two to three wins better. At minimum.
If Foster doesn't hobble to the sidelines just a few plays into Keenum's first start, the Texans likely win at Arrowhead. Then, who knows? Maybe everything changes.
Arian Foster Going Deep
One of the most intriguing things about the Texans under O'Brien is how the new coach figures to use Foster. The dynamic tailback is one of the few certain game changers the offensive-minded O'Brien has to work with in his first season (arguably the only sure game changer until veteran receiver Andre Johnson ends his unofficial sit out).
The new coach is more than inventive enough to come up with game plans that turn Foster into a difference-making crutch for whoever wins the starting quarterback job. Both Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick have marveled at Foster's talent in the past. You can bet that O'Brien noticed.
The Patriots don't just throw their good-hand running backs vanilla screens. They unleash them on routes down field, creating mismatches.
This idea — advanced on sports radio — that the Texans will become a completely run dependent team in O'Brien's first season rings farfetched though. The former Patriots offensive coordinator is too creative and forward thinking to limit his offense in such a manner. No matter how limited some think the Texans quarterbacks are.
Oh, O'Brien will make sure Foster gets plenty of touches, plenty of chances to make those game shifting plays. But they'll come in more inventive ways than just simple handoffs. Foster figures to become more involved in the passing game than ever, bringing back a skill of his that Kubiak inexplicably put in mothballs.
Foster caught 66 passes in his breakout 2,000-plus yard 2010 season, but that number plunged to 53 catches in 2011 and then again to 40 in 2012. This despite Foster flashing some near Calvin Johnson-level skills on a few grabs, including that game-winning touchdown reception in a Chicago rainstorm during a Sunday Night Football showcase.
Expect the length of some of Foster's routes to change too. The Patriots don't just throw their good-hand running backs vanilla screens. They unleash them on routes down field, creating mismatches.
Keenum will be able to do something with that type of a threat. Put a fully unleashed Arian Foster and Case Keenum on the field together and it's easy to see everything looking different for the 26-year-old quarterback. Keenum played in a creative offense at UH, one that gave him plenty of receiving options coming from unexpected places. He excelled in that Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury's system. He knows how to pick out the right option when he's given choices that go beyond the simple A or B selections often favored by Kubiak.
Case Keenum never had many choices in his impossible debut season. He never had a real running attack. He never had Arian Foster.
Don't be surprised if O'Brien sees that as this wide open QB battle morphs into a tighter, more focused — and likely less crowded — competition.
"In this part of the year, you have to make sure that the reps are equal," O'Brien says. "You’ve also got to make sure that each guy gets a chance to rep with the starters or the guys that are running with the first team. I think that’s important too. So we try to do that.
"We try to make sure that we have equal reps and then at some point — whether it’s two weeks from now, three weeks from now or two months from now when we get to training camp — we’ll make a determination on who gets the most reps to get them ready for the game."
Arian Foster makes any quarterback getting reps better. Including the guy who's been too quickly dismissed. Case not closed.