Kellen Clemens has never allowed himself stop believing he was capable of being a starting quarterback in the NFL.
The former Oregon Ducks standout is not delusional. Clemens understands what he is and who he is for the St. Louis Rams – a backup who plays only if something has gone wrong.
But to have any success, he needs to approach every day as if he’s the starter.
“You never really stop viewing yourself that way,” he said. “You can’t.”
Clemens said he learned that
from quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh, himself a longtime backup with four teams from 1979-1991, when they were both with 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 because of a torn knee ligament, Clemens has been elevated to starter thanks to one fateful quarterback scramble last Sunday.
“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 it. He has been in the league since being taken in the second round by the Jets in the 2006 draft. He has 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.”
Clemens last started a game on Nov. 25, 2011, for the Rams against the 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,” Rams 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.”
As much as you can tell yourself you are the starter, it helps to get starter’s repetitions during practice, Clemens said.
“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.”
The Rams appear to be in a difficult position. They haven’t played particularly well, going 3-4 with 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 severely hampers the Rams’ ability to succeed.
But Clemens said players have tried to remain upbeat.
“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 comes against a vicious Seahawks defense featuring a ball-hawking, turnover-forcing secondary.
“Richard Sherman has said multiple times about how talented they are, and he’s absolutely right,” Clemens said. “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 it’s something that Clemens is going to have to deal with.
“A few weeks ago we played Houston and they were the No. 1-rated defense, last week we played the No. 3-ranked defense, and now we’re playing the No. 2-ranked defense,” Fisher said. “So we have another challenge on our hands.”