Case Keenum is the starting quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings — and it really isn’t much of a debate anymore. That said, whether or not one believes Keenum should be the team’s starter at the most important position in American sports is a completely different story.
The quarterback position has been a revolving door in Minnesota essentially since the moment that Daunte Culpepper tore up his knee back in 2005. Searching for a quarterback to lead an offense that has been pedestrian at best from a passing perspective (with exception to Brett Favre’s 2009 season) has been an excruciating task.
So, when general manager Rick Spielman selected Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater during the first round of the 2014 draft, Vikings fans instantly fell in love. And who could blame them? Beyond being an exceptional athlete, Bridgewater was — and likely always will be — the ultimate role model.
His smile lights up the world; he has an undying passion for the game and cares deeply for his teammates; he never complained despite being forced to play behind a turnstile of an offensive line; and, elephant in the room, he fought back from a life-threatening knee injury that — as it stands today — cost him his starting gig.
Honestly, there isn’t a good reason to dislike Bridgewater. But, loving Bridgewater doesn’t mean you can’t also love Keenum. And for as great as No. 5 may be once he ultimately makes his return to the field whether that is in Minnesota or elsewhere, it’s time for Vikings fans to put their trust in Keenum — he has earned it.
Keenum entered free agency this past offseason without knowing where he would be this year. He had spent the previous two seasons rotating in and out as the starting quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams franchise, but — as the Houston Texans did prior — Los Angeles never showed any interest in keeping the quarterback around long-term.
Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, was named the savior of the Rams seconds after Roger Goodell announced his selection, and while then-head coach Jeff Fisher openly stated his commitment to Keenum, we all knew what was going on — and so did Case. Keenum was relieved of his starting job midway through the 2016 season and, as a result, found himself searching for a new place to call home this offseason.
That place ultimately proved to be Minnesota, as Spielman signed Keenum to a one-year, $2 million contract on March 31st with the goal of improving depth at a position that had lost Bridgewater and Taylor Heinicke to injury the previous season and Shaun Hill to retirement.
This signing did not exactly go over well in Minnesota. Sure, Vikings fans were thrilled about the idea of no longer having a 74-year-old Hill keeling over in the pocket, but the vast majority either had harsh words for the former Houston signal-caller or ignored the transaction altogether.
Me? Well, let’s just say I wasn’t too thrilled about the signing. I don’t remember my exact words, but I likely said something along the lines of, “What in the absolute hell are you doing Rick? This dude is trash! Why sink $2 million into a younger version of Hill? What is the point? There’s no need. He’ll be cut before September.”
Now, to be fair, I didn’t react this way without doing my homework. I had watched each of Keenum’s starts prior to the signing in order to gauge whether or not he would be a good fit. As you may imagine, I came out the other end believing Keenum to be nothing more than a subpar backup with excellent intangibles.
Moreover, I was extremely confident in Heinicke after watching him perform at high level when given the opportunity as a rookie during both training camp and the preseason. I figured he would come into training camp with a chip on his shoulder after missing the previous year due to a dumb foot injury and that his knowledge of the system made him the perfect complement to Sam Bradford in Pat Shurmur’s offense.
And, to his credit, Heinicke came out slinging it in Mankato. He was lights out for the first couple of practices, and I felt so confident in my assessment of his play that I went on to Tweet what may ultimately go down in history as my worst take of all-time:
I am going to be so, so insufferable when Heinicke ends the QB2 competition by mid-August
— BJ Reidell (@RobertReidell) July 27, 2017
The Vikings, as we now know, would part ways with Heinicke during the final round of cuts, effectively naming Keenum the team’s backup quarterback for the 2017 season. By this point I had began to warm up to him a bit, however. I have always appreciated his personality and the way he approaches the game. Watching him handle a questionable situation in Los Angeles on Amazon’s All Or Nothing gave me some insight into the guy underneath the helmet. Passion oozed from every word he said, leaving no doubt in my mind that despite his limitations, Keenum was going to come into Minnesota and work his you-know-what off.
Then I had the opportunity to see it first-hand. I was standing on the sidelines in Mankato during Vikings training camp next to my colleague and friend Drew Mahowald watching Keenum work on his hard count with a mixed group of second- and third-string offensive linemen. It was just him and the five linemen standing near the middle of the field; everyone else — from Mike Zimmer to Reid Fragel — was watching the quarterback, as the horn had sounded moments prior signaling a drill change.
Part of me was wondering what was going on: “Did Keenum not hear the horn sound? Is he deaf? What’s going on here? It’s just a hard count drill; you can work on it later dude.” And part of me — the less vocal side, that is — was impressed, in a backhanded sort of way: “Man, this guy isn’t going to leave the field until he gets things just right. He might be out here for a while, ha ha ha.”
Then he did something that really struck me.
It wasn’t a big deal by any means, but watching Keenum that day gave me hope for his future. He showed me that despite being undrafted, despite his relatively limited skill set, despite Jeff Fisher’s 8-8 influence and despite everything else that had stood in his way of becoming a starting quarterback in the NFL, Keenum didn’t care. None of that mattered to him; all he truly cared about that day in Mankato was improving and developing a stronger bond with his teammates.
Keenum, struggling with the hard count, tapped his center on the shoulder multiple times, effectively hitting the reset button on the drill. As I stated before, he had reset the count enough times by this point that quite literally everyone — fans sitting in the seats at Blakeslee Stadium, the coaching staff, the remaining 84 players on the team’s summer roster — was watching him.
What exactly he was aiming to accomplish still remains a mystery to me, but when he finally got it right, he turned to his left, pumped his fist, let out a celebratory yelp and went down the line spanking each and every one of his offensive linemen. As they turned around and embraced him, many of the fans and players began cheering in support of the then-backup quarterback.
At that point, I knew my love for Heinicke had been compromised. I leaned over to Drew, the same guy who had been listening to me refer to Keenum as everything from trash to irrelevant on our podcast for multiple months and simply stated, “Damn it man, Keenum is making it very difficult to like Heinicke more than him.”
Next came the injury to Bradford — a scenario I had been both dreading and simultaneously using as a springboard to argue why Heinicke was the optimal choice to play second fiddle to the injury-prone former No. 1 overall pick. I held the belief that, in theory, losing Bradford to injury would effectively end the Vikings season — oh how wrong I was — so why waste time plugging in a limited journeyman when Shurmur could prep the 23-year-old Heinicke for a potentially greater role moving forward in the event that both Bradford and Bridgewater were to remain on the shelf long-term?
Keenum reinforced my thinking against the Pittsburgh Steelers during his first start in Minnesota. He finished the game 20-of-37 for 167 yards and zero touchdowns — a total QBR of just 24.7. More importantly, however, Minnesota lost the game by 17 points, and Keenum very rarely showed signs that he would improve in the near future — or ever, for that matter. At this point, however, Bradford was expected to return from his strange knee ailment and Keenum, well, he was expected to return to clipboard holding duties.
Then something magical happened.
Minnesota, now sitting at 1-1 on the season, was set to take on an upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers team the following week. At the time, it appeared as though this matchup could prove critical if tiebreakers came into play later in the season, and the Vikings — needing a win with the Detroit Lions coming into town the following week — would once again be without Bradford.
Keenum, who had strangely dominated Tampa Bay throughout his career, stepped up in enormous fashion for the Vikings on that mid-September Sunday. He completed 25-of-33 passes for 369 yards (11.2 yards per attempt!) and three touchdowns, which amounts to a ridiculous 95.9 total QBR.
As impressive as the numbers are, the throws Keenum made to accomplish this stat line were even better. He connected with both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs downfield on multiple occasions, bringing the Vikings passing offense to life for possibly the first time since the Favre days (excluding Bradford’s Week 1 start against the New Orleans Saints, that is). He was in sync with his offensive linemen, manipulating the pocket and buying himself extra time to throw on seemingly every snap.
Staring down Gerald McCoy and a talented Buccaneers defense, Keenum never flinched — he just went out there, trusted his preparation and battled through a type of adversity that only an NFL quarterback could truly comprehend. Sure, his limitations were apparent on multiple occasions during that game, but he showed guts, toughness, savvy, awareness, leadership, passion and moxie — a grocery list of intangible traits that most human beings could only dream of embodying. He did his job, and he did it well — much better than myself (or anyone, for that matter) could have ever expected.
Keenum struggled multiple times during the ensuing weeks — particularly against the Detroit Lions (first matchup) and Cleveland Browns — as it became more and more clear that Bradford would not be returning to the Vikings anytime soon, but he never lost his composure. He continued to play Case Keenum football, which, as I have come to learn, refers to playing the quarterback position with a gunslinger mentality and unquantifiable toughness.
Questions from the media began filtering in regarding his role when (and if) Bridgewater returned to the field, but Keenum didn’t even bat an eye. He remained humble, preaching that his job is be prepared regardless of who the expected starter is while simultaneously supporting his injured teammate. If there is, in fact, a selfish bone in his body, it wouldn’t show up on an x-ray, as Keenum has displayed nothing but passion, accountability and, above all, a humble attitude throughout what must be a very trying process.
All of these wonderful intangible qualities would not be enough — at least in my mind — to hang on to the starting quarterback job in Minnesota, however. Bridgewater, as we all know, is just about the closest thing to perfection that humanity has to offer and also exhibits the talent and skill set of a franchise quarterback. But questions surrounding his health allowed Keenum a longer leash — well, that and the fact that he had led the team to four consecutive victories following an uneven triumph over the Browns in London as well as a 5-2 mark since Bradford led the Vikings past the Saints.
If there was ever going to be a time to make the switch to Bridgewater, this was it. Keenum’s performance against Cleveland was quite possibly his worst of the season; Bridgewater had been cleared for game action; and Minnesota was beginning to think that a deep playoff run was possible behind its star-studded defense if the team could find consistency at the quarterback spot.
Sure, Bridgewater hadn’t seen game action in well over a year by this point, but the potential he showed at Louisville combined with a very solid 2015 campaign lended reason to believe that he could return to the field, shake the rust against the Washington Redskins and begin writing the final chapter in what would surely be a legendary 30 for 30. This, in so many words, was my opinion on the situation — Bridgewater is the team’s future at the position; let’s get him in there and see what he can do.
But Zimmer and Co. had other ideas. Whether it was the field conditions in Maryland, Bridgewater not truly being ready to go or simply belief in Keenum, the Vikings head coach elected to forego a quarterback change and gave his $2 million man a chance to go into FedEx Field and prove to everyone whose team this truly is.
And, at least in my not-so-humble opinion, he did just that.
Yes, he did throw a pair of absolutely horrific interceptions during the second half, but he also showed the world that his ceiling may not be as black and white as we all previously believed it to be. His ability to manipulate the pocket during this matchup was unbelievable, and, behind some outstanding Shurmur play-calling, Keenum absolutely demolished Josh Norman and the Redskins secondary with play-action fakes and picture-perfect downfield throws. He completed 21-of-29 passes for 304 yards and a career-high four touchdowns en route to yet another Vikings victory — this time against a quality opponent.
For me, this game marked the turning point.
As someone who grew up a fan of the Vikings and began covering the team as journalist in 2014, I tend to require a bit more convincing than the average person when it comes to Minnesota quarterbacks. So, while I had seen all the intangible traits that made Keenum a player worthy of a 53-man roster spot during the offseason and amidst his early-year starts, I needed to see something beyond toughness and pocket awareness to truly buy into No. 7.
Now, allow me be explicitly clear — I am not calling Keenum the team’s quarterback of the future. For that I will still need more convincing, but if the quarterback who showed up in Washington and Detroit continues to appear on Sundays, you will not see me complaining if he is officially announced as the starter or handed a contract extension this offseason.
What I am saying, however, is that Keenum is my quarterback; and I truly believe, in combination with the way Minnesota’s defense has played throughout the vast majority of the 2017 season, he can lead the Vikings to the place we all want to go but refuse to actually speak about at length in public.
He has that ability; we have seen it now, multiple times.
There eventually may come a time when Minnesota is forced to choose just one — Bridgewater or Keenum … or Bradford? — and while I still hold the belief that Bridgewater’s potential is higher than that of Keenum’s, I can no longer deny the fact that No. 7 has earned the right to be the team’s starting quarterback for as long as he continues to play at the level he has for close to a month now. The Minnesota Vikings are now Case Keenum’s team, and we should all be excited to see just how far he can take this group.
Case. Closed. And yes, that pun was definitely intended.
For more on the Minnesota Vikings, follow @RobertReidell on Twitter, and be sure to check out his 90-minute film breakdown of Case Keenum with Drew Mahowald streaming on the Vikings Territory YouTube Channel.