The Rams Got It Right With Austin Davis

Austin Davis actually is the best thing for the Rams since sliced bread.

You know how some days just start bad? You wake up, roll over, and didn’t realize you were already on the edge of your bed, so now you’re lying on the floor.

That kind of bad.

Those days start out pretty weird, but they usually get rapidly worse. Next thing you know, the bread you thought you put in the toaster was actually the piece of cheese you were going to melt into your eggs. You go to brush your teeth with toothpaste and realize that you left your IcyHot tube on the wrong shelf.

The St. Louis Rams’ 2014 season started like this, but surprisingly, it’s gone better than they possibly could have hoped.

When quarterback Sam Bradford re-tore his ACL in the preseason, all hopes that St. Louis could compete in the NFC West this year were crushed. Veteran Shaun Hill was pegged to step into Bradford’s place, and it was like the Rams found they had cereal but absolutely no milk in the house. Ineffectiveness and a leg injury sidelined Hill, and third-year third-stringer Austin Davis took the helm. He hasn’t let go since, winning against the Buccaneers in Week 2, and keeping the Rams within a field goal of beating the Cowboys in Week 3. Head coach Jeff Fisher announced yesterday that Davis would remain the starter, even when Hill returns.

Will Austin Davis be the cup of coffee the Rams needed to turn their nightmare season around, or will the Cheerios in St. Louis still go soggy before 2014 is over?

Eat Your Wheaties, Kid

First of all, who in the world is Austin Davis? In college, Davis was a walk-on to the University of Southern Mississippi’s football team, and redshirted his freshman season. In his time at Southern Miss, he broke nearly every passing mark in school history, surpassing Brett Favre in the record books. He also put up multiple bowl victories in his time at the school, as well as a C-USA conference championship.

Despite this success, Davis was still virtually unknown. He went undrafted in 2012’s NFL Draft, ranking only 13th among draft-eligible quarterbacks, and was signed to the Rams practice squad that year. The Rams cut him early in 2013, and he then signed to the Dolphins’ practice squad. A few weeks after this move, he was brought back to the Rams, and remained on the active roster through the 2013 season. In this span of time, he received no NFL experience, so his regular-season debut in Week 1 of 2014 was a complete crapshoot: Would the Rams see the athletic, record-setting quarterback from Southern Miss flourish, or would this undrafted former walk-on be a complete bust?

Sunny Side Up

Is Jeff Fisher’s confidence in his new quarterback warranted? Through three games, Austin Davis has accumulated 754 yards passing, a mind-bogglingly good 72.3% completion rate, and an acceptable 3-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. By most measures, this isn't a terrible start for a player a team picked up for free. Yet, his box score doesn’t tell the whole story.

We can measure Davis’ performance much more intricately with the signature metric of numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a way to go beyond basic statistical production and truly analyze the important thing about a player’s performance: how much they contributed to their team scoring. Simply put, if a player advances his team’s chance of scoring, he accumulates expected points for his contribution. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

We are going to look at Austin Davis through the lens of Passing NEP, which is the NEP accumulated solely on plays in which a quarterback drops back. Davis’ box score passing looks pretty remarkable, but how does his NEP score hold up? The table below shows Davis’ and Shaun Hill’s production this year, as well as their ranks among quarterbacks in 2014 in these metrics.

PlayerDrop BacksPass NEPRankPass NEP per Drop BackRank
Austin Davis10014.7519th0.1519th
Shaun Hill14-4.5533rd-0.3341st

If the eye test in Week 1 didn’t show enough, this certainly should. Hill looked atrocious in less than a half of game time against the Vikings defense, and Davis – while unable to spark a comeback – performed much better. It’s a bit unfair to compare the raw Passing NEP of the two, since Davis has dropped back about seven times as much as Hill has already, but there is no question when looking at the per drop back rates of the two. Leaving Hill in, at least based on his Week 1 performance, would result in nearly half a point less of production on every single drop back.

Hill has the NFL experience edge on Davis, but I consider the two to be generally a wash in that regard when the veteran hasn’t seen the regular-season field in four years. Add in that Davis has two years of experience learning the offensive system currently in place in St. Louis, and I believe he has the edge to retain the job throughout the rest of the regular season.

A Fresh Start

Davis may not have the college credentials or even the preseason plaudits of some other backups in the league, but he seems to be the right man for the job in St. Louis at the moment. Former Conference USA rival Case Keenum does loom on the Rams’ roster as well, but his unpalatable 2013 performance (-21.04 Passing NEP on 272 drop backs; -0.08 per drop back rate) is still a recent memory, and he likely isn’t up to speed quite yet with the Rams’ playbook.

In situations where a team has nothing to lose, my opinion is that they always take what might seem like a bigger risk. Austin Davis could wash out of the league, or he could provide the spark that the Rams need to stay afloat in a suddenly-mortal NFC West. Davis’ personal story also embodies the current devil-may-care, underdog nature of the 2014 Rams. He’s performed up to the task of a starting NFL quarterback to this point, and I see no reason why Davis and the Rams both shouldn’t continue to enjoy his cup of coffee call-up.