Houston Texans quarterback Case Keenum has worn the hat of the accomplished underdog so well that accepting another narrative almost as improbable requires suspension of disbelief.
Yet on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Matt McGloin stood in opposition of Keenum with a tale even more farfetched, a story worth lionizing. Like Keenum, McGloin is an undrafted free agent, dismissed by NFL personnel types as unfit for a seven-round draft that allows drug addicts and malingers access to potential millions.
Like Keenum, McGloin rewrote a collegiate record book, setting a slew of new passing standards at Penn State despite arriving at Happy Valley as a walk-on. He was a 10-letter, three-sport standout at West Scranton High School yet was deemed unworthy of a college scholarship, so he proved the initial wave of talent evaluators wrong by passing for 6,390 yards and 45 touchdowns with the Nittany Lions. That he reached such statistical benchmarks in the face of adversity as the Penn State program crumbled under a horrific child sex abuse scandal and against wave after wave of ballyhooed recruits foisted as more legitimate stewards for the Nittany Lions' offense made for an apropos back story to his triumphant performance at Reliant Stadium.
Given the past exploits of his backup, Pryor should familiarize himself with Wally Pipp.
Unlike Keenum, McGloin did not earn an invite to the NFL Combine. Also unlike Keenum: McGloin now has a victory as an NFL starter on his ledger, leading the Raiders to a 28-23 victory that included his passing for three touchdowns, the most by any undrafted free agent since 1970. In a noteworthy showcase of two undrafted quarterbacks, the first in the league since Tyler Palko and Caleb Hanie crossed paths at Soldier Field on Dec. 4, 2011, McGloin proved the more steady of the two and, in a shocking twist, the last man standing after Keenum was pulled.
"I've kind of been mentally prepared for a while now and, as a backup quarterback the last couple weeks, it's kind of something you're always ready for because you never know what's going to happen," McGloin says. "I think physically getting ready was more of my mindset this week and I was grateful for getting reps from Wednesday when we started practice. I think that was a big factor in today's game."
Like Keenum, McGloin came by his starting assignment thanks to an injury to the starter. In this case Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor was slowed by knee woes, opening the door for McGloin to continue building on a feel-good story several years in the making. McGloin has made a habit of overcoming stacked odds, with his showing on Sunday offering another example of why combine measurements don't reflect the measure of a man. For more than a month Keenum has served as the case study for teams misdiagnosing measurables. McGloin tossed his name on that pile against the Texans, showcasing a level of poise many would find surprising for someone with only a handful of live game reps under his professional belt.
But McGloin had already beaten out fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson for the third quarterback slot behind Pryor and Matt Flynn during the preseason. Later he bypassed Flynn and was elevated on the depth chart. That set the stage for McGloin to start with Pryor sidelined, and given the past exploits of his backup, Pryor should familiarize himself with Wally Pipp.
So there was McGloin taking full advantage of the Texans' usual benevolence, turning two short fields courtesy of Texans turnovers into two touchdown passes and a 14-0 lead. And, after the Texans settled in defensively and limited the Raiders to one first down over their final six possessions of the first half, McGloin did something Keenum has struggled to manage over his four starts as the presumed successor to the embattled Matt Schaub. McGloin engineered a second-half touchdown drive that enabled Oakland to reclaim a lead it would not relinquish.
Keenum's Not Equal
McGloin was precise and decisive, comfortable and confident. He was not easily flustered in the face of occasional pressure and brushed aside dropped passes by his receivers. When discussing narrative it's easy to lose sight of the skill required to quarterback a professional team, yet there was no discounting how adroitly McGloin handled his responsibilities Sunday.
It surely felt cosmic that McGloin claimed his first opportunity against Keenum and in Texas.
"That's one of the things we really like about him," Oakland coach Dennis Allen says. "As far as playing the quarterback position, he throws the ball with timing, he throws the ball with accuracy, he's really smart.
"Obviously, again, not everything was perfect. He made his mistakes in the game, but overall, I was really pleased with the way he went in there and played."
It surely felt cosmic that McGloin claimed his first opportunity against Keenum and in Texas. The two were set to square off in the 2012 TicketCity Bowl at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas before McGloin was concussed and subsequently disciplined for a fight with Penn State receiver Curtis Drake. McGloin was contrite in the aftermath for his failure to display leadership, and the Nittany Lions missed his presence as Keenum passed for 532 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Houston Cougars to a 30-14 victory in his swan song as a collegian.
Their careers have traversed parallel paths since. Granted, Keenum was a participant at the combine, but he too went undrafted despite closing his career as the NCAA career passing leader in numerous categories. Keenum languished on the Texans practice squad as a rookie, unwanted by the other 31 teams in the NFL. He needed Schaub to succumb to injury and T.J. Yates to continue his steady regression in order to warrant an opportunity.
Keenum appeared set to keep learning on the job for the woebegone Texans, but then coach Gary Kubiak pulled the rug out from under him and reinserted Schaub back into the mix despite the fact Schaub has lost all semblance of fan support and, in all likelihood, his role as leader in the locker room.
Perhaps eventually the Texans will relent to the realization that moxie and savvy will carry Keenum long enough until he learns the minutiae of succeeding as a starter in the NFL. For all of his missteps Keenum has done enough to start the final six games of this season without Schaub hovering over his shoulder. That isn't to suggest that Keenum has been without blemish during his four starts, but he clearly has performed admirably enough to get a length of rope to prove whether or not he can handle the job full-time. Even his detractors acknowledge that.
Keenum has done enough to start the final six games of this season without Schaub hovering over his shoulder.
McGloin took a huge leap toward doing the same. Allen steered clear of declaring McGloin the starter moving forward, but he couldn't contain his effusive praise. And part of his lauding extended beyond the nuts and bolts of playing the position and ventured into the gray area of intangibles, attributes ardent Keenum supporters recognized in Keenum many moons ago.
"You know what? Some of these guys just have it," Allen says. "You know what I mean? Some of them just, there's something deep down inside of them that they don't pay attention to the fact that people say they can't do it. He's really done that ever since we brought him in."
That assessment was parroted in the visiting locker room Sunday. It doesn't take familiarity with his back story to recognize that McGloin has that engendering "it" factor, but those who watched him overcome doubters previously have developed an appreciation for what McGloin has accomplished and how this might be the start of another chapter in his underdog tale.
"His story is unbelievable," says Raiders center Stefen Wisniewski, a Penn State product. "I've known him since he came to Penn State as a walk-on, beat out three or four scholarship kids to take that job and comes here as an undrafted free agent and beats out a quarterback, beats out another quarterback. He here's got his first opportunity to start, goes and wins it, throws three touchdowns and no picks.
"Great job. I'm really happy for the kid and really proud of him."