Case Keenum, career vagabond, heads into most important stretch of his career

Vikings replacement quarterback was never supposed to be 'the guy,' but has that changed now?

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Vikings quarterback Case Keenum has had a career awakening. (USA Today Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings’ best-laid plans at quarterback were pretty clear, if not complex, heading from last season to this one. They had Sam Bradford as an expensive rental fixed as the starter. They had Teddy Bridgewater, their one-time (and future?) franchise quarterback in the throes of what could be a tremendous comeback.

They just needed someone to mind the gap. That’s where Case Keenum came in.

That’s where Keenum has come in for most of his career, “banging around the league” as Chicago Bears head coach John Fox said this week.

The undrafted quarterback had found enough footing in the NFL to reside in a comfy middle-management position. He signed with his third team (and fourth NFL city) in four years with the Vikings this offseason. It was for a salary south of $2 million that places him tied for 39th among quarterbacks, toe to toe with the Bears’ Mark Sanchez, who has entered the sideline-impression-guy phase of his career.

Waived three times, traded and released — Keenum has hit the Career Afterthought Trifecta. But now he’s leading the way for the 12-3 Vikings, having a hand in 11 of those victories, as they head into Sunday’s finale against the Bears with their eyes set on securing a first-round bye for the playoffs.

Debate the merits or veracity of the “QB victories” statistic until you’re Vikings purple in the face, if you so choose. But Keenum had only been on the winning side nine times in 24 career starts entering this season for the Houston Texans and the Rams, in both St. Louis and Los Angeles. Prior to that, he had the appearance of the quarterback teams always will seek to upgrade from, and ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck has an idea why.

“It’s his style,” Hasselbeck said. “He doesn’t have the measurables. He’s not 6-foot-4. He doesn’t walk into a room and have that size and presence where people turn and look. Not at all — it’s off the charts the other way. Not to criticize him or anything. He’s just not that guy.

“He looks a little bit like Kirk Cousins’ little brother.”

But Hasselbeck said he never understood why people were so quick to criticize Keenum, even before this season.

“I heard Rams fans spouting off last year, ‘How can Jared Goff be the third-string quarterback? Keenum is terrible, blah blah blah,’” Hasselbeck told PFW recently. “Wrong. Just wrong. I saw him starting out when he was in Houston, and you could see he had a chance to be good. And now look at him. This dude is a challenge. He’s been lights out.”

Keenum might have entered the league undrafted and since has been cast aside, having to shift gears every few years to stay employed. Over his six NFL seasons, he’s earned less than half of what Bradford has in 2017 alone. But did you know that Keenum, who played in college at Houston, remains the NCAA’s all-time leader (dating back to 1956) in both passing yards and touchdowns?

“And second place isn’t even all that close,” Hasselbeck said. “I don’t think people realize that. To think that this happened overnight, it’s just not true.”

Still, Keenum’s one-year deal with the Vikings back on March 31 was little more than a footnote on agate pages at the time. Now it stands as one of the best bang-for-the-buck signings in recent years.

Keenum stepped in after Bradford’s brilliant, near-perfect season opener against the Saints. A knee injury set him back, and Keenum struggled in his place in the Week 2 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. It looked like Vikings fans had fair reason to worry right away.

But since then, Keenum has been brilliant in helping lead the Vikings to an NFC North crown. He’s completed more than 68 percent of his passes in the following 13 games (12 starts), with a 21-7 TD-INT ratio and, perhaps most importantly following a 2016 season in which Bradford was sacked 37 times in his 15 starts, Keenum has only taken 18 sacks.

His one non-start in that stretch came in the Week 5 relief appearance, when Bradford started but couldn’t finish with a balky knee after taking four sacks (one for a safety) in 15 dropbacks. Keenum was brilliant in the second half, completing 17-of-21 passes, taking only one sack and scrambling 22 yards on a 3rd-and-11 play in the fourth quarter after the Bears had taken back momentum and tied the game. The Vikings would win 20-17, and Keenum has started every game since.

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called Keenum “a creator” this week.

“He moves around within the pocket. He moves around outside the pocket. He’s done a good job running their rhythm passing game also. When the first option isn’t there, he has a knack of turning it into a positive play,” Fangio said.

It’s that movement skill that allows Keenum and his receivers to thrive. His rushing totals (37 for 170 yards and a TD) are modest, but Keenum has continually extended plays, avoided sacks and given his receivers a chance to separate.

Adam Thielen has turned into a Pro Bowl receiver. Stefon Diggs has a career-high seven TDs. Tight end Kyle Rudolph has six TDs in his past eight games. Running back Jerick McKinnon — the primary replacement for rookie standout Dalvin Cook after he went down with a torn ACL — has a career-best 51 receptions.

Keenum entered this season with a career mark of 6.7 yards per attempt, which ranked 32nd out of 36 quarterbacks with at least 700 pass attempts from 2013 to 2016. But the Vikings enter Week 17 ranked eighth in yards per pass play, third in third-down conversion rate and eighth-lowest in sack percentage.

Keenum’s presence, steadiness and playmaking ability have allowed much of this to happen.

“He’s more mobile than anyone realizes," Hasselbeck said. "And jJust watch the ball come off his hands. Case Keenum is just in a rhythm. The ball comes off his hands and it’s just effortless. Those corner routes he throws — maybe it’s the dome, maybe it’s the way they rub the football there — he’s feeling it.”

And now the Vikings enter what might be the franchise’s most fascinating stretch since their last big playoff run when they reached the NFC title game following the 2009 season. Keenum is entrenched as the starter for now, logic would suggest. But what does the future hold?

Bridgewater made his emotional return to the practice field following a devastating knee injury in August 2016, and Keenum was among his biggest cheerleaders as Bridgewater took the field for the first time in more than 700 days at the end of the Week 15 game. Bradford is now eligible to return to practice and be activated to the playoff roster from injured reserve. All three, including Keenum, are due to be free agents following the season.

It's a crowded QB room once more. There might never have been a situation quite like this before.

In Hasselbeck’s mind, Keenum has to be the guy now — and the Vikings can worry about what happens in the offseason later.

“On the field, he’s every bit of an MVP candidate,” Hasselbeck said. “It actually bothered me when Coach [Mike] Zimmer was saying, ‘Well, I am not going to name a starter for next week.’ It’s like … what? I’d like to give Zimmer some credit, like he [was] just throwing some doubt into whoever was doing the scouting for the next opponent. But if it [was not that], that’s crazy talk.”

Just because Keenum entered this season as an afterthought doesn’t mean the Vikings couldn’t decide to re-sign him, and then also bring back either Bradford or Bridgewater. It’s almost certain that how the Vikings fare in the postseason, when they might not even have to play on the road (after all, the Super Bowl is in Minnesota this year, too), that will determine how the team proceeds at the position.

Keenum recently said he knows what’s at stake this week, not wanting to speculate beyond that. He’s treating this Bears game, with the chance for the Vikings to earn a bye, as a postseason game. And why wouldn’t he? After all, Keenum’s next playoff game will be his career first.

“I mean, it’s like winning a round of the playoffs,” Keenum said. “For us, that’s what we’re playing for this week. That’s of utmost importance. That’s why we’re putting everything we’ve got into this.”

If Keenum struggles in the playoffs or is unable to help the Vikings go on a run, perhaps he’ll be forced to reinvent himself all over again elsewhere. Hasselbeck knows all about that, having started 160 career games for three different organizations, none of which came with the team that drafted him (the Green Bay Packers). He found ways to be useful and effective up to the age of 40 in late-career stops with the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, and Hasselbeck believes that Keenum would have no problem doing that if needed.

There’s a quality that Keenum possesses beyond his physical skill, Hasselbeck said, that always will command attention from teams.

“I think what Case brings to the table, the reason they signed him in L.A. and in Minnesota, is that he’s just such a pro,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s the kind of guy that you want your young quarterbacks to just be around and just watch.

“I think people sign guys like Case because they just want the aroma of professionalism to rub off on everybody in that quarterback room. And what they found in the process was that they can absolutely win with him. You play good defense and you support him and give him the tools at the line of scrimmage, and just a few players who can win one-on-one matchups, you can win with players like Case Keenum.”

But can the Vikings keep winning with Keenum? This fascinating run has been a blast, but the road is about to get a little tougher — and way more important.