ST. LOUIS — The Austin Davis experiment came to an abrupt end Wednesday morning, leaving the Rams’ long-term quarterback situation just as muddled as when the season began.
Even 34-year-old veteran Shaun Hill admitted to a little bit of surprise when he saw a missed call and text message from coach Jeff Fisher on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after his coach had told the media Davis would remain the starter during Monday’s weekly press conference. Certainly, the timing of Fisher’s quarterback decisions have been a bit bizarre all season, but it’s not hard to see the logic with no obvious choices available.
"It’s never an easy decision when you make a change in the middle part of the season," Fisher says. "But we looked at things Monday night and had lengthy discussions with the offensive staff and just felt that the best thing to do at this point moving forward was to lean on the experienced quarterback."
He declined to discuss specific reasons for the change, and Davis deserves all the praise he has received and continues to get from Fisher, Hill and others for taking advantage of an unlikely opportunity. Few would have thought the undrafted, 2013 practice squad quarterback from Southern Miss could throw six touchdowns and two interceptions and average 312 yards in his first three starts.
That surely gave some hope that Davis could be a reliable option in the future, something that must be considered with Sam Bradford attempting to come back from a second ACL surgery, among other injuries. Hill never figured to be part of those plans, considering his status as an aging career backup with a defined ceiling.
A variety of factors combined to keep Davis from sustaining that success, despite perhaps his best job of managing the offense when he completed 17 of 20 passes for an efficient 155 yards in a 28-26 win over Seattle. Too often, though, Davis looked rattled by pressure or simply tried to do too much against some of the NFL’s best defenses.
His numbers dropped to an average of just 174.4 yards and a completion percentage well below 60 percent, even with the win against Seattle. To make matters worse, he threw six interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.
"He understands," says Fisher, noting he talked with Davis in the quarterback room Tuesday night. "He actually talked about the respect factor that he has for those guys that are playing this game really well week after week after week because of how hard that position is to play."
Things won’t be any easier for Hill at home against an underrated Broncos defense this Sunday and at San Diego next week. If Davis or anyone else on the roster had a reasonable chance of being the quarterback of the future, it might be worth it for the 3-6 Rams to take a couple lumps with the playoffs essentially out of reach.
As it stands, though, Fisher’s insistence to start the best quarterback available makes sense, and Hill looks to be the man for the job. After all, that’s where he stood from the time Bradford went down in the third preseason game to the moment Hill injured his thigh late in the first half of a season-opening loss to Minnesota.
It’s fair to wonder if Fisher had the team’s future in mind when he changed his mind following the bye week, deciding to start Davis at Philadelphia. The numbers before that game and after a 375-yard performance by Davis backed up that choice, but that hardly made it any easier or fair to Hill, who had waited three full seasons for another start.
"You just kind of have to dust yourself off and go do what you’re asked to do," Hill says. "So yeah, it was hard, but still at the same time, it’s not like getting cut and you’re out of here."
His experience figures to offer some much-needed leadership for an offense that has turned primarily to rookie running back Tre Mason and lost top wide receiver Brian Quick to a season-ending shoulder injury. Don’t expect Hill to make any spectacular plays or significantly raise the production of an offense ranked dead last in the NFC with 310.2 yards and 18.1 yards per game, but he should at least limit mistakes.
Fisher emphasized this won’t be a "week-to-week" change, a welcome relief for a team that has already dealt with more than its fair share of roster changes thanks to a barrage of injuries. Few quarterbacks are more prepared to step in at a moment’s notice than Hill, who has made a career out of doing just that.