From third string to north star: the unlikely rise of the Vikings' Case Keenum

Croak

  • Published in Sports
  • Read 9054 times

Authors: Rio Sports

Pop quiz: which NFL player finished second to Carson Wentz in total quarterback rating during the regular season? Tom Brady? Nope, he was third. Dak Prescott? Guess again, he was fourth. Matt Ryan? Uh-uh, only fifth. Then it must be Drew Brees or Russell Wilson, right? Not even close. They were ninth and 10th.

OK, to all those in Minnesota with their hands up, the answer is, of course, Casey Austin Keenum, signal-caller for the Vikings in 15 of their 16 games this season. Yes, the same Case Keenum who had already bounced around three teams in five years before arriving in Minneapolis as the epitome of a journeyman last March.

The same Keenum who boasted a career record of just nine wins in 26 games with the Houston Texans, then-St Louis Rams and then the Texans again, including eight defeats out of eight for Houston in 2013 and nine of 16 after returning to the Rams in 2015 and ‘16.

And the same undrafted quarterback with a less-than-stellar line of 24 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in his 26 outings prior to this year, and who finished the 2016 campaign dead last in total quarterback rating, as measured by ESPN, at a miserable 37.5.

This year? His rating is a whopping 69.8, ahead of Brady (67.4), Prescott (66.3) and Ryan (63.7), or, to put it another way, the best of any quarterback left in the playoffs, including New Orleans veteran Brees (59.1), who will be on the opposite sideline at US Bank Stadium for Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game with the Saints. His 22-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio is also better than each of Wilson, Prescott, Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger.

Yet he arrived in Minnesota as the third-choice passer, the emergency back-up to Sam Bradford if Teddy Bridgewater didn’t recover in time from his off-season knee surgery. He looked like it, too, as he completed just 33 of 48 passes, with two touchdowns, in three pre-season games and then lost two of three starts when Bradford’s knee problems sidelined him after the opening week win over New Orleans.

It seemed the 2-2 Vikings’ promising season was well and truly doomed in Week 5 when the gimpy Bradford was pressed back into service for the game at Chicago and lasted just the first half, forcing Keenum back under center. A fan base held its breath, crossed its fingers – and watched the unprepossessing back-up lead a fourth-quarter comeback en route to a 20-17 win.

Seven games later Mike Zimmer’s men were 10-2, firmly on the way to the NFC’s second seed, and Keenum was the undisputed starter, even when Bridgewater returned to fitness.

The journeyman had become simply The Man as far as the Vikings were concerned, and head coach Zimmer looked positively prescient for the one-year, $2m deal he signed Keenum to in the off-season.

So what, exactly, did Zimmer see in the sixth-year pro that no one had seen much sign of since the Houston Cougar had completed his college career as the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leader in total offense (20,114 yards) and touchdown passes (155), but with zero offers from NFL teams?

Exactly that, according to Zimmer. A quarterback with terrific potential who had yet to find his feet in the league. Someone who just needed the right situation, with the right level of understanding, to light the blue touch-paper of quarterback pyrotechnics.

“Our guys upstairs do a great job of finding the right kind of guys to bring in here,” the head coach insists. “I think we have a great locker room, a great bunch of guys that know how to be team guys, play together, work together. I think that’s really important. Case is really no different. He’s a kid that is smart, understands his ability and where he’s at and understands the offense. He’s quick, he’s energetic, he’s got excitement to him when he comes in there. He calls the plays well, he see things. He’s been through it before.”

There was one surprise, though. “[The one thing] I didn’t know was that he could move around like he does,” Zimmer says. “I think that’s part of the things opposition teams have started to have to prepare for now, the possibility of him running.”

True, Keenum had been improving steadily, if unspectacularly, in his four full seasons, going from 5.6 yards per attempt in 2014 to 6.8 last year, and winning four games for a Rams team that looked hopeless for most of the season, but there was little sign of the meteoric jump from career back-up to commanding starter prior to that watershed game in Chicago in early October. Since then he has won shootouts (38-30 at Washington), dogfights (14-9 at Atlanta) and marquee matchups (24-7 against the Rams and both games against Green Bay).

The one difference: he has had time to learn under inventive first-year offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who has looked increasingly confident of his own abilities after shedding the interim tag from 2016.

Under Shurmur, Keenum has averaged a career-best 7.4 yards per attempt and failed to throw a touchdown only once. He has committed just eight turnovers in the 12 games since regaining the reins full time, and, more importantly, he has earned the respect of his team-mates.

The Vikings’ only defeat in the final 12 games was on the road at Carolina, where Keenum was sacked a season-high six times (he is the sixth-best protected QB otherwise), but they are unlikely to have to travel again during these playoffs, unless Philadelphia somehow find some offensive mojo without the injured Wentz.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph is in no doubt about who has been the key to the team’s scorching run into the playoffs. “[Case] has been huge. Our team is built with an incredible offensive line, two running backs that can run the football and a bunch of playmakers on the outside, and Case just kind of lit that fire for us. He makes plays happen [both] with his legs and throwing the ball.”

Indeed, Keenum has added 160 yards on the ground, and a touchdown, to go with his career-best 3,547 passing yards and 68% pass completion rate, which is behind only the metronomic Brees of all 32 league starters this season. He is also second in passer rating against the blitz, staying light on his feet to take advantage of Shurmur’s schemes.

“Number one, people [now] think of his ability to extend plays,” Shurmur explains. “I think it’s super important that you move the pocket for the quarterback. There are various ways to do that and we try to employ many of them. I think he moves in the pocket well, where he clears his sight lines, where he can make a throw. Those are all the elements of mobility. At some point when it breaks down and he has to take off, he’s done a good job of getting positive yardage. Typically, if you’re going to drive the ball against good defenses, a quarterback has got to do something with his feet. He’s been able to do that.”

It is that running dimension to Keenum’s game that is the X-factor to Minnesota’s Super Bowl hopes, a fact acknowledged by guard Joe Berger. “It’s great to have a quarterback who’s mobile back there, who can extend the play and get the ball down the field,” he insists. “A lot of times he’s extending the play because something broke down. He’s making it right by fixing something you screwed up.”

Zimmer has seen enough to know his quarterback’s value is underpinned by other attributes, too. After the 24-7 Week 11 triumph over the in-form Rams, the head coach made headlines with his comment, “The thing I like the most about Case is he’s got big balls. He’s not afraid. He’s going to pull the trigger and he’s going to play like that, so, you know, that’s a good thing.” By the same token – albeit with less colorful language – Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn praised Keenum for his “fearlessness” ahead of the Week 13 defeat of his Falcons.

The 29-year-old himself remains on the same level-headed plane as his stats. Nothing too gaudy, nothing too extravagant, and plenty of down-to-earth realism. “13-3 has a nice ring to it,” he says. “At the same time, we have a lot ahead of us and we’re really excited about what’s coming up.”

This season has definitely been a magic carpet ride, though, and he doesn’t mind admitting it. “It’s been a blast,” Keenum adds. “I don’t know if I can put into words how much fun it’s been. I always try to have passion. I always try to be in attack mode, and I always try to trust – my offensive line, my receivers, the play call, my preparation.

“I like to think quarterback play is a craft that different people have. I think there’s a lot of different ways to play quarterback. You see it every Sunday from game to game. There are a lot of different skill sets, a lot of different ways to get first downs, to get touchdowns and to win games. So for me, I’ve worked on that craft my entire life. And it’s worked well.”

He is still quick to deflect praise for the second-best season in franchise history. “I think it’s [down to] every guy in the locker room right now, every coach that’s in there. It’s all those people put together and we not only respect each other, but we like each other, too, and that goes a long way. Outside of the Xs and Os, we fight for each other. You go up and down the row in there and everybody feels the same. I think that’s pretty rare.”

Rare or not, the ultimate irony is that Keenum could help Minnesota become the first team to play a Super Bowl on their own turf, and then depart for pastures new. He is a free agent come March and there will be no room on the roster for three highly-paid quarterbacks.

The journeyman will command top dollar in free agency and, while the Vikings could still open up their coffers to keep him, the likes of Cleveland, Denver, Arizona and both New York teams will all be looking for a reliable signal-caller this year, and will have the money to back up their need.

So, Keenum may not necessarily be back in purple come the start of the 2018 season. But he will be starting somewhere.

Tagged under nfl , Sports , the , to , and , of , in , a , he , his , that , is , for , has , keenum , with , he’s , quarterback , was , on , think , who , i , games , have , season , there , been , be , it , play , at , as , same , had , game , just , like , from , right , we , will , by , then , different , that’s , their , one , all , back , lot , when ,