Rams-Texans: Null and the Little Offense that Might

Keith Null’s debut as a starting quarterback opened up a can of worms that we seldom see in football, but one that has so thoroughly infested baseball that is has changed — ruined? — the very language of the sport. I’m speaking of the clash between “Stats vs Scouts” as an evaluation of talent.

AP/Tom Gannam

The kings of the world of football stats, Football Outsiders, devoted their Week 14 “Quick Reads” column to Null’s debut, and had this to say (emphasis mine):

On Sunday, Null put on a performance reminiscent of Leaf at his worst. Against a middling Tennessee pass defense, Null went 27-of-43 for 157 yards, with only one touchdown against a whopping five interceptions. In what may be his first and last NFL start, Null accrued -188 passing DYAR….

During the DVOA Era (1994-2009), from what we can tell, Null had the second-worst debut of any quarterback….

Interestingly, though, the two quarterbacks whose debuts fell just short of Null’s total on Sunday have something in common. Both John Navarre (-181 DYAR in Week 13 of the 2004 season) and Jim Druckenmiller (-179 DYAR, Week 2 of the 1997 campaign) never started another NFL game. Null may very well end up being the next one-and-done quarterback of the DVOA Era.

Even more disgusting to the stat-minded crowd than the five interceptions (a feat already accomplished by Sanchez, Stafford, Cutler and Delhomme this season), or his puny 37.8 passer rating (better than three of Derek Anderson’s starts in Cleveland), was his abysmal yards-per-pass mark. 43 throws for only 157 yards yields an awful 3.7 in this count.

These statistics tell you that this is a player without a future, a risk with no reward. What it doesn’t tell you, though, is how severely he was handicapped by the ultra-conservative gameplan. Spagnuolo’s and Pat Shurmur’s response to the rookie and the 8- and 9-man fronts being lined up against him was to call an endless array of sideline screen passes and 3-yard slants. It was as though Null was being forced to read the playbook upside down — starting with the hot reads and outlet passes, and progressing up to his primary reads.

As Null himself said, when asked what went right, replied “I made some good throws. Good reads. I threw the ball to the right read most of the time.” Unfortunately, the “right reads” in this case encouraged the defense to keep nine or ten players in a ten-yard swarm around the line of scrimmage, creating perfect conditions for easy interceptions and pass breakups. The only thing it prevented was sacks — only one by Tennessee.

Whether it was this performance, or this reaction from the stat-based media, we see exactly what Coach Spagnuolo was hoping to shield Null from. But there was more to look at than pure numbers in this game. And this week against the Texans, we saw what the scouting eye saw last week against Tennessee: a gritty, stand-up performance with untapped talent inside.

When opportunity was given to him, Null did grab hold of it with a confidence that was noticeable. Several writers and viewers, including commenter CoachConnors, took note of his self-assurance and played down the five picks:

His presence in the pocket — especially when you consider he was very unaccustomed to being under center — was actually pretty impressive. Overall, I like him as a QB project but I worry that the Rams might not have time to wait for him to develop. Hopefully he’ll be getting regualr reps with the starters in practice now.

Cameron Holloway at the St Louis Beacon, long a proponent of giving Null a chance, offered this take:

So much talk over the last month has been about the danger inherent in playing Null, that somehow he was too fragile to handle adversity. It wouldn’t be fair, the Null naysayers clamored.

We learned different. Null never hung his head.

Jim Thomas captured the coach’s sentiments in this quote:

“You look for that when you send a rookie out there in that situation at any position,” Spagnuolo said. “You always want to see the look in their eye. And I thought he had a good look. He wasn’t frazzled by anything, really.”

Null earned a second try almost by default this week against the Houston Texans, as Kyle Boller and most of Rams Park fell victim to the biological warfare of the H1N1 virus (which similarly afflicted the Texans a week earlier). But this time, he practiced all week as the starter, and it was obvious from the gameplan that he had not only earned the start, but a great deal more confidence from his coaches, as well.

Houston, like Tennessee last week, lined up nine in the box to stuff the run and clog the short passing lanes. Goal one was successful: Jackson’s first six carries totaled five painful yards. Goal two, however, came apart as Null was given a more realistic playbook to work with — moving the pocket, targeting players downfield, and even a gutsy outlet pass to Jackson (good for 16) on 4th and inches on the Rams’ first drive of the game.

The playbook demanded more time in the pocket, leaving Null in to make his reads and take his punishment if his line let him down. Null was sacked three times in this game, and made his only throwing mistake — a Favre-esque sidearmed interception — escaping from a fourth.

As Null and the passing game got more aggressive — notably after a deep try down the sideline to Donnie Avery, who had a step on his man — the naturally conservative Cover 2 defense of the Texans backed out of their 8- and 9-man fronts and were forced to play the Rams honest. Hallelujah! A Christmas miracle!

Unfortunately, the herniated-disk Steven Jackson couldn’t do much against the Texans, even when they were playing straight up. He finished with 123 yards from scrimmage (including 41 receiving yards), but couldn’t do much real running behind the Rams’ makeshift offensive line. Almost half of his rushing yards came against an early 9-man front that couldn’t contain the outside edge, leading to a 35-yard gainer. Time and again he slammed into the line, exhorting his blockers to push forward, but could gain no ground. Jackson had 12 runs for 1 yard or less in the game … a staggeringly high total for him.

With a healthy Jackson, the poised quarterbacking that Null showed today, and full use of the playbook, the Rams’ offense just might be capable of taking a big step forward in the coming year. Bring back Jason Smith, add some hungry new talent at guard to take Richie’s place, and give Null a tall target (like Missouri’s Danario Alexander?) to worry defenses, and I could just about see it.

The question is whether Pat Shurmur is still around to see it, too.