Here’s the problem with that inevitability: It’s the right choice. It’s also the boring choice.
The future of this franchise, whatever it holds, belongs to Dwayne Haskins, the first-round selection out of Ohio State. Haskins has the better arm. Haskins has the better body. Haskins has the higher ceiling. Haskins is more intriguing and more electric — and isn’t ready.
Given how limited this offense is both by personnel and circumstance — and we will get to that — it only makes sense for Keenum, the journeyman, to start the opener. The cruel way to think of it: If Case Keenum gets killed because the offensive line is leaky, the future of the franchise isn’t affected. If Case Keenum’s confidence suffers because the offense sputters, the future of the franchise is standing on the sideline learning, unaffected.
Here’s what Gruden, the head coach, said leading into the Atlanta game: “There’s no rush to name a starter right now.” Shoot, Gruden opened training camp by saying the battle could go down to the Saturday before the Philadelphia game — a tongue-in-cheek remark designed to let everyone know there should be no preconceptions.
Coming out of the last preseason game in which anyone remotely important is likely to play, Gruden remained coy.
“We’re just going to go back and watch the film and critique it like we always do,” Gruden told reporters in Atlanta late Thursday night.
And yet if Gruden doesn’t name a starter Sunday — the first day the team reports for practice before the final preseason game, Thursday against Baltimore — color me shocked. There was a benefit to having an open competition when camp started. But there’s a benefit to having clarity now.
“There’s always a great benefit to know who your quarterback’s going to be,” veteran tight end Vernon Davis said, “because without a quarterback, you can’t do anything.”
There are, of course, questions about what this Washington offense can do regardless of who the quarterback is. But Davis’s point is well taken. Tell us who we’re playing with, so we know what to expect.
They should know by now. Not because Keenum, 31, was brilliant against Atlanta — 9 for 14 for 101 yards with an ugly turnover that set up a Falcons touchdown. Rather, they should know by what has and hasn’t happened with the other guys.
If you’re examining film, it’s this simple: In the third quarter Thursday, Haskins had the Washington offense in a third-and-goal situation. He had rookie wide receiver Steven Sims open in the flat for a touchdown — and he led him too far. The ball fell incomplete.
I’m not saying that if he makes that throw, Haskins wins the job. I’m saying that because he didn’t make that throw, he can’t have it. Yet.
There’s more that points to Keenum in the short term. Because Gruden declared the entire thing wide open to start camp, Colt McCoy — Gruden’s pet backup who has spent five years in his system — was eliminated from the competition because he hasn’t fully recovered from last year’s leg injury. Tough way to whittle the field, but this is the NFL. He’s hurt? Who’s left?
Who’s left is a veteran who has never stuck anywhere but has attempted 1,844 NFL passes and a rookie whose next regular season attempt will be his first. The evidence that the decision already has been made: Keenum played the entire first half against Atlanta. Haskins (7 for 13 for 74 yards with, importantly, no interceptions) mopped up in the second half. That shows you where the team stands. Plus, in this kind of situation, context — which in this case means the talent around whoever starts — matters.
Regardless of who takes the first snap against Philadelphia or whether that’s the same person taking the first snap in, say, Week 5 against New England, this isn’t going to be some sort of offensive juggernaut. This is a limited unit, made more so by the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, who remains a holdout. When and if Williams returns is likely a more important question for the future of the franchise than who starts at quarterback Week 1. But it’s becoming increasingly likely that regardless of who takes that initial snap, he won’t have Williams protecting his blind side.
That’s significant because it further limits an already limited offense. Keenum never completed a higher percentage of his passes or posted a higher quarterback rating than in 2017 with Minnesota, when he had Stefon Diggs (with whom he hooked up on the Minnesota Miracle) on the outside, Adam Thielen underneath and a three-headed running back situation that made the Vikings versatile.
Washington may have something in second-year back Derrius Guice, who carried 11 times for 44 yards. But tight end Jordan Reed exited the game with a concussion, reemphasizing his perennial fragility. The slot guy is new. Even if Williams returns — a big if — the offensive line isn’t to be confused with the Hogs. And if Paul Richardson Jr., who has never caught more than 44 balls, is regarded as the best downfield threat . . . well, that seems like an offense with parameters around what’s possible.
That’s why Keenum will be the starter against Philadelphia. It’s not a sexy choice. But this isn’t a sexy offense. Haskins’s time will come. But in the interest of his development — not to mention his health and safety — it can’t be now.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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