RENTON – Kellen Clemens has never allowed himself to stop believing he was a starting quarterback in the NFL, even though his role for much of the last five seasons was anything but.
The former Oregon Ducks standout isn’t lost in a delusional folly.
Clemens understands the reality of what he is and who he is for the St. Louis Rams — a backup that only plays if something has gone wrong.
But if he is to have any success on the field when called upon, he needs to approach every day with the belief of a starter.
“You never really stop viewing yourself that way,” he said. “You can’t.”
Clemens said he learned that from Chicago Bears quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh when they were both with the New York Jets.
“He said: ‘Once you start viewing yourself as a backup, you’ll never be a starter again,” Clemens said. “I’ve really held on to that.”
With Sam Bradford lost for the season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Clemens has been elevated from backup to starter thanks to one fateful and hurried quarterback scramble last Sunday, and will face the Seattle Seahawks this week on Monday night.
“I understood that when I came back here that Sam is the franchise guy,” he said. “It’s not a competition of any sort, but at the same time you have to go into a game, each practice understanding that there is the possibility that you are in the position that we find ourselves in today.”
Clemens is prepared for that position. He has been in the league since being taken in the second round by the Jets in the 2006 draft. He’s appeared in 31 NFL games and started 12, compiling a 4-8 record.
Eight of those starts came in 2007 for the Jets.
“That’s an eternity,” Clemens said. “I’m definitely different. There’s a maturity and the experience of being around this league since then. There have been limited starts since then.”
The last time Clemens started a game was on Nov. 25, 2011 for the Rams against the Arizona Cardinals after Bradford suffered a knee injury. He started three games that season, going 0-3. But he’s capable of handling an NFL game without looking lost.
“He has a real good understanding of what we’re doing,” head coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s been in the system for a long time, he was in the system at New York with Brian Schottenheimer, and he has a real good command of the offense. He’s been great in the building, on the practice field with the young guys, he expects a lot from the younger players, and he’ll get it from them.”
Clemens has the benefit of a whole week to prepare as the starter.
“Everything just changes a little bit,” he said. “Your responsibility as a backup is to be ready with very few reps and do your thing to help the other guys. Now as a starter, it’s nice because I get more reps so I’m going to be more prepared.”
From the outside, the Rams seem to be in an untenable position. They haven’t played particularly well this season, going 3-4 and showing no signs of consistency. With a cadre of unproven skill players, Bradford was the team’s best playmaker. His absence for the rest of the season has made the rest of the Rams’ season look bleak.
But Clemens said players have tried to remain upbeat. In football, the mantra of “next man up” is always applied even it is a guy replacing the franchise quarterback.
“Everybody has been great,” Clemens said. “Everybody knows they are going to have to up their game just a little bit because I can’t fill those shoes completely. At the same time, everyone has been supportive of me.”
He will need their support. His first start this season will come against a vicious Seahawks defense featuring a ball-hawking, turnover-inducing secondary.
“Richard Sherman has said multiple times about how talented they are and he’s absolutely right,” Clemens said of Seattle’s secondary. “Earl Thomas plays everywhere. He plays deep. He plays shallow. Sometimes he’ll start deep and then steal something shallow. Kam Chancellor, have mercy, do not be standing on the tracks when that freight train is coming down the tunnel. He’s put some plays on tape that have been really special. Sherman and Brandon Browner are probably one of the best cornerback combos in the NFL.”
Fisher knows its something that Clemens is going to have to deal with.
“A few weeks ago we played Houston and they were the number one rated defense, last week we played the number three ranked defense, and now we’re playing the number two ranked defense,” he said. “So we have another challenge on our hands.”