The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Case Keenum is part of the solution, but the Redskins’ problem might be too big

Case Keenum has been a steady positive force amid the Redskins’ 0-2 start. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Case Keenum gives the Washington Redskins something they haven’t had in a long time: trust. The chronic weirdness and deformities in the organization have kept them in such murky mediocrity for so long that it’s often hard to know what you’re looking at and who’s responsible for it. But Keenum’s play has been so clean and sound that he has answered at least one question. There’s no blaming the quarterback this time.

It’s probably time to stop calling Keenum a “journeyman.” Journeymen don’t throw for 601 yards and five touchdowns to no interceptions against the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles to keep their team competitive with almost no help from the running game and a patently magnanimous defense. They don’t sling the ball from every arm position, in all kinds of ducking, on-the-run emergencies, and still connect on 69 percent of their passes like this cowboy does. The 1-1 Minnesota Vikings and 0-2 Denver Broncos may wish they had such a journeyman, one who is performing like a top-10 quarterback even as his team falls to 0-2.

Keenum’s play is so good, in fact, that it has shifted the spotlight elsewhere: squarely onto imperiled coach Jay Gruden and the untrustworthy front office, with its long history of sabotaging its own team. Gruden is undoubtedly a creative offensive coach and a likable man whose squads have clawed to remain competitive, but it’s hard to judge his true quality, to know how many of the team’s problems are his, or whether he’s just doing the best he can with what he has been handed.

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And there’s an indication he has been interfered with by owner Daniel Snyder and his henchman, Bruce Allen. It was more than a little unsettling to hear Gruden on Monday call his assistant Greg Manusky’s defensive scheme against the Cowboys “too vanilla.” Remember that Snyder, early in his tenure as owner, tore apart Norv Turner’s staff by complaining that then-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s schemes were “too vanilla” and sending gallons of ice cream with notes that said, “I’m not kidding.” No coach has been able to defeat Snyder’s toxic undertow in 20 years.

Are the Redskins 30th in the league in total defense because of “vanilla” schemes, or are they suffering from a telltale lack of fight from untrusting players who don’t want to make extreme sacrifices to dysfunction? Here is a truly damning statistic: This is the worst defense in the NFL when it counts most, giving opponents a success rate of 64 percent on third down.

“Our third-down percentage is not good enough — in any league,” Gruden said frankly.

Is there a souring of loyalty after the release of D.J. Swearinger to end last season and the revolt of linchpin lineman Trent Williams to start this one ? Is it a function of the suspicion that Gruden and Manusky aren’t really calling the shots or are already lame ducks? And then what to make of the strange decision to leave Adrian Peterson in street clothes in favor of young Derrius Guice?

Then there are the penalties. The Redskins have been flagged 18 times in two games. They’re the league leaders in offensive holding, with eight calls, and throw in three false starts. All of that is looking very much like a repeat of last year, when they finished second in the league in both holding and false starts. Is that a function of sloppy coaching, or is it a reaction to being overwhelmed and manhandled up front because Williams refuses to play and Allen knows jack-all about building a good team?

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These are the sort of circular questions the Redskins always entertain, because the managerial water is never quite clear.

That makes Keenum’s play all the more valuable for Gruden or for the next man who gets hired to clean up this mess. It liberates them to focus on the real problems. With Robert Griffin III, you wondered if his owner’s-pet ego and failure to learn were corroding the team from the inside; with Kirk Cousins, you worried that his productiveness came with a fool’s-gold propensity to turn the ball over; with Alex Smith, you wondered if he was truly a good fit for the offense or just a desperate hire. With Keenum, you know he is going to fire good throws, make right decisions and commit few mistakes. It’s fun to watch him sling, and his hard-punching mentality has been the Redskins’ still-beating heart, the reason they had brief leads in two games.

“We traded blows with ’em,” he said after the loss to the Cowboys.

If this season deteriorates the way it’s threatening to, watch: The calls will come to start the prized new toy, rookie Dwayne Haskins, to throw him out there to see what he’s got. The New York Giants already have gone to rookie Daniel Jones. But the Giants have a legitimate question as to whether Eli Manning’s play has been a large part of their problem, with just two touchdowns to two interceptions. Keenum has been the best and only thing going for the Redskins. A good team with sound management would resist the pressure and temptation and understand that the best thing for everyone is to let Haskins, who looks far less mature than Jones, learn slowly behind a consummate pro in Keenum. But this isn’t a team with sound management.

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In fact, every young quarterback in the league should study Keenum if only for one quality: how to handle the varieties of pressure and the vagaries of the league. Over the past few years, the 31-year-old has become one of the best pressure players in the game. In 2017, while guiding Minnesota to an 11-3 mark, he was a league leader in quarterback rating while pressured, according to Football Outsiders. He is a supreme evader who seldom gets sacked — he took a sack on just 13.3 percent of his pressures with the Vikings — and he never fumbles. He just delivers.

Still, Minnesota let him go despite reaching the conference championship game — “I don’t even know where I’m going to be in two weeks,” he said at the time — and then the Denver Broncos traded him away, too, because teams always are looking for someone more electric. Another thing Haskins can learn from watching Keenum is just how quickly front offices become disenchanted with good quarterbacks.

Quarterback play is a matter of a thousand unseen nuances as well as dependencies on other players. But ultimately it comes down to this: being a consistently positive difference-maker. Keenum is that. It’s one of the few positions on this team you can say so about right now.

“Once we get everybody healthy, I think we can compete and go toe to toe with anybody,” Gruden said.

If that’s true, and not just silly optimism, if there’s indeed a chance for the Redskins to turn things around, it’s because they’ve got at least one guy they can trust, and he’s under center.

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