No one in the jubilant Rams locker room Sunday in Indianapolis could’ve been happier about the team’s 38-8 victory than quarterback Kellen Clemens. Not Tavon Ausin. Not Jeff Fisher. No one.
Clemens has waited a long time between victories as a starting NFL quarterback. In fact, one must go all the way back to Dec. 13, 2009, when as a member of the New York Jets, Clemens started and led the Jets to a 26-3 triumph over Tampa Bay.
Most of his eight-year NFL career has been as a backup. He did start eight games for the Jets as a second-year player in 2007. But over the next five seasons, from 2008 through 2012, he started only four times and threw only 127 passes.
“Well, it’s fun to play,” Clemens said. “You don’t generally sign up just for practice. It’s fun to be out there, but again, the circumstances aren’t what anybody wants because obviously Sam’s (Bradford) the man. But, I’m enjoying the opportunity.”
When Bradford went down with a season-ending knee injury Oct. 20 at Carolina, the Rams added a couple of quarterbacks off the street in Austin Davis and Brady Quinn. In doing so, Fisher basically decided that Clemens would be the guy to get them through the final nine games of this season.
“That means a lot, there’s no question about that,” Clemens said. “It means a lot to have him believe in me, and I think that this locker room believes in me. So, that certainly makes the transition easier for a guy in my position.”
In his three starts since Bradford’s injury, Clemens has gotten better each time out. After close, wrenching losses to Seattle and Tennessee, the Rams registered one of the biggest upsets of the 2013 NFL season in demolishing the Colts.
Clemens threw only 16 passes, but they were good for 247 yards, a career-high two touchdowns and a career-high passer rating of 140.6.
“Continuity’s huge,” said Rams general manager Les Snead. “You can talk about physical skills all you want. But this guy, he knows our players, he knows our scheme, and he’s helped teach it to those players backwards and forwards.”
That continuity was one of the big reasons the Rams decided to go to Clemens midway through the season.
“If you go with somebody off the street, now you just throw away all the offense — all the reps everybody else on the team has taken,” Snead said. “So for one guy, you’re gonna basically come up with a 25-play package.”
At least for the first few games, while the quarterback off the streets is learning your system.
“That doesn’t seem sound at all,” Snead said. “It’s not like there’s somebody on the street that’s your savior. He’s on the streets.”
Clemens doesn’t have the accuracy or arm strength that Bradford possesses, although he’s better in some ways as a scrambler. But when it comes to intangibles such as leadership, toughness, dedication, Clemens gets high marks.
“Kellen, he’s always focused,” wide receiver Brian Quick said. “He’s always dialed in.”
“He’s one of those guys that expects you — if you’re working or you’re meeting or you’re practicing — to do the best you possibly can,” Fisher said. “And he’s got a subtle way of going about that.”
Following Bradford’s injury, Fisher asked the team to raise its level of play, rededicate themselves. It’s clear the players have responded, both to Fisher’s challenge and their new starting quarterback.
“That’s the team part of it,” Les Snead. “It’s not just the video game part of it. We’ve had some heartbreakers (Seattle, Tennessee), but we’ve all felt the fight.”
Obviously, there were some “video game” plays in the victory over Indy, including both of Clemens’ long TD passes to Tavon Austin. On the 57-yard TD, Clemens made a quick read of one-on-one coverage, releasing the ball before Austin had shot past Colts cornerback Vontae Davis on a go-route.
It was about as good a deep ball as you can throw, with Clemens making sure there was plenty of air under it to give Austin time to get there. A week earlier against Tennessee, Clemens just missed connecting on what would’ve been about a 62-yard touchdown because the trajectory of the throw was flatter.
On the 81-yard TD pass to Austin in the third quarter, Austin did most of the work after catching the ball on a shallow crossing route. The play was notable on Clemens’ standpoint because he stood firm in the pocket and hit Austin in stride despite having an Indy linebacker bearing down on him on a delayed blitz.
Clemens is improving, Fisher said. “You can see our third-down efficiency is getting better. Both of Tavon’s touchdowns were third-down plays. He’s keeping drives alive, and he’s doing a good job in the run game too with the checks — has a really good understanding.”
He’s done all that, and now he’s got another win under his belt as a starting quarterback.
“I get more and more comfortable with each game,” Clemens said. “Hopefully that continues.”