Case Keenum is an okay stopgap. He will put up okay stats for the Washington Redskins next season, and if they remain in quarterback purgatory in 2020, he can duplicate his okay-ness. The team will continue to have an okay record — seven or eight wins again — and continue to try to sell the mysterious, intangible notion that okay indicates it is “close.” In this state of perpetual mediocrity, everything is going to be okay.
On its own, there is nothing wrong with Washington acquiring Keenum in a low-risk trade with the Broncos. To make the deal, it had to swap late picks in the 2020 draft with Denver, a sixth-rounder for a seventh. The Broncos also restructured Keenum’s contract, and they essentially paid $4 million for him to go away. Washington will pay Keenum $3.5 million next season, which is an extremely low cost for a starting quarterback. It’s about what the franchise could afford after being thrust into a difficult situation because of the freak leg injury to Alex Smith, who will be in the first year of a four-year contract that includes $71 million in guaranteed money.
Ignore the talk of a Keenum-Colt McCoy competition. McCoy will push Keenum, but he won’t win the job. McCoy can’t stay healthy; Keenum has thrown for at least 3,500 yards the past two seasons. This is Keenum’s plain, average team.
In the context of a Washington franchise that has gone 31-32-1 over the past four seasons and made just one playoff appearance, it’s a concerning move because the franchise keeps sentencing itself to mediocrity without sufficiently pursuing options that might improve its future. The Redskins are afraid to start over, at quarterback and in general.
They have convinced themselves that they are a few lucky breaks, a few healthier players and a few smart moves from being a playoff team. But they’re focusing their eyes on the illusion of NFL parity. All teams can talk themselves into the idea that they’re close in a league of small margins. But when a franchise comes up short for three straight seasons, it is more of a high-end bad team than one at the doorstep of good. The real contenders are not the ones imagining ways they could have been 10-6. The real contenders are the ones confident that 10-6 is merely their floor.
Washington has a bad habit of overvaluing its talent and getting too excited about making basic moves. Keenum is fine, for now. He makes Washington less desperate. He gives the organization extra time to figure out its quarterback conundrum. Now it doesn’t have to commit to any player long term before knowing whether Smith can make a miraculous comeback. It doesn’t have to guess. It also could delay the hunt for a young signal caller until next offseason and address more immediate needs this spring.
Bruce Allen, Doug Williams and the rest of the front office have done an okay job here. It’s textbook roster management. The team has options that it didn’t previously have. That’s all wonderful. But the fear is that Washington gets too comfortable, too optimistic or too cocky about what can be accomplished with Keenum and a few more roster upgrades. When that happens, complacency sets in, and reality tends to slap this team.
This should be the mentality: Allow a sigh of relief because, if not for this Keenum trade, the Redskins would have been shopping in the Ryan Fitzpatrick/Tyrod Taylor/Blake Bortles aisle of uninspiring veteran quarterbacks and asking themselves, “Do you think they will cost too much?” But after that sigh, they must realize the search for a long-term quarterback is an urgent matter. Keenum should ensure they don’t fall apart, but he’s a 31-year-old who didn’t prove he could be a starter until two years ago.
Keenum has led one team to a winning record. In 2017, he went 11-3 in Minnesota and led the Vikings to the NFC title game, enjoying a fairy-tale season as an injury replacement. He was terrific that year (3,547 yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 98.3 rating), but he was supported by a good running game, very good receivers and a great defense. After the season, the Vikings believed in Keenum so much that they gave Kirk Cousins $84 million to replace him. Keenum landed in Denver and put up decent numbers (3,890 yards but only 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions). Nevertheless, the Broncos went 6-10, and now they view Joe Flacco as a better option.
Washington needs to draft or trade for a promising young quarterback. Acquiring Keenum means it doesn’t have to use its first-round pick to do so, but the search must continue. If there is a quarterback the scouts love in the second or third round in this draft, the franchise shouldn’t hesitate to take him. If Arizona drafts Kyler Murray No. 1 overall and decides to trade Josh Rosen, Washington should pursue a deal, especially since it’s no longer so desperate for a starter that the Cardinals can use it as leverage to demand the No. 15 pick. If Arizona picks Murray, Rosen is likely to net a second-rounder, no matter how much the Cardinals will want a first. A potential Washington-Arizona conversation could be more fair and honest now that there is no urgent need.
Washington also could wait and look to the 2020 draft. If many highly regarded college quarterbacks continue to progress, that class will be loaded with prospects. Whatever the franchise decides on timing, it must prioritize having a quality young quarterback within the next two offseasons. Otherwise, the Redskins’ refusal to take a risk will undermine their building efforts and elongate this mediocrity sentence.
They should have started over at quarterback a year ago after deciding not to overpay Cousins. Instead, they went all-in on Smith. For 10 games, he did okay despite his limitations and a lack of talent around him. Washington started the season 6-3. But then a gruesome leg injury changed everything.
So Coach Jay Gruden has another veteran project in Keenum. He can be productive, especially if Washington signs a couple of quality receivers and builds upon last season’s commitment to the run. But Keenum can’t carry a team. Similar to Smith, he’s going to reflect the talent around him, not elevate it. Unlike Smith, he’s going to take more chances and commit more turnovers.
Ultimately, the 2019 season figures to end with Washington in the same place it has been for four years. Okay. Just okay. Not a disaster but not a team moving in any direction.
Considering that Smith shattered his leg, perhaps we should consider the franchise fortunate to be in such a position. But after four years of mediocrity, it’s getting harder and harder for this team to sell close, without any tangible hope for a payoff. It will feel like settling. At quarterback and in everything the Redskins do, they need to prove they haven’t lost their ambition.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.