Teddy Bridgewater is healthy for the first time in 15 months and ready to reclaim his throne in Minnesota. But he’s not going to get a chance as long as the Keenumissaince continues.
Case Keenum, technically the Vikings’ third option at quarterback this season, has revived his career in the Twin Cities, delaying Bridgewater’s triumphant return to the lineup. The man whose last gig was as Jared Goff’s seat-warmer in Los Angeles has a 7-2 record as Minnesota’s primary quarterback — and he’s responded to the pressure of Bridgewater’s presence with the best play of his career.
Keenum has been more than a game manager for a Viking team that’s surprised throughout 2017. After a rocky start — losses in Weeks 2 and 4 — the sixth-year veteran has laid the foundation for the league’s ninth-ranked offense. In his last six games, all victories, he’s averaged 240 passing yards per game and a 68% completion rate.
His numbers got even better once Bridgewater returned from injured reserve to push him for playing time. In his last two games, hard-earned wins against Washington and the Rams, he’s thrown for 584 yards and five touchdowns while completing 71.6 percent of his passes.
So what’s unlocked Keenum’s newfound competency?
Pat Shurmur’s tenure as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator has established him as a quarterback whisperer. In two seasons, he’s coaxed career-best performances from Keenum and Sam Bradford. In both cases he’s built up castoff passers by giving them a host of simple, conservative routes to choose from, taking advantage of soft coverage and valuing accuracy over arm strength.
That’s something that requires patience, but a suddenly solid Viking offensive line has done a great job giving Keenum time in the pocket. Minnesota has allowed only one sack in its last six games. After allowing sacks on more than 6 percent of all dropbacks last season, the team has that mark under 3 percent in 2017 — the second-lowest mark in the league.
Keenum has also gotten help from an unexpected array of skill players. Minnesota paradoxically ramped up its reliance on the running game after losing starting tailback Dalvin Cook for the year to a torn ACL. Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray have made for a potent platoon, with one or the other rushing for at least 50 yards in each of the team’s last six games. That’s created the space needed for an underrated receiving corps to blossom.
No one has taken advantage of the chance more than Adam Thielen, who has evolved from special teams ace to potential All-Pro wide receiver. Keenum has targeted the Minnesota State product 56 times his last five games. In return, Thielen has provided 33 receptions for 524 yards and three touchdowns.
Behind Thielen is the ever-dangerous Stefon Diggs. The rest of the receiving corps — Laquon Treadwell, Jarius Wright, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and even tarnished veteran Michael Floyd — provide a dynamic array of options who can efficiently run Shurmur’s playbook. They’re talented enough to take designed small plays and turn them into big ones — and turn the team’s eventual deep shots into home runs.
And when Keenum hasn’t been at his best, a revived defense has done work. The Vikings rank in the top five in both yards and points allowed this fall. Opponents have converted only 28 percent of their third downs this season. That leaves a lot of wiggle room that would make any quarterback a little more comfortable in the fourth quarter.
How is this possibly a bad thing for the Vikings?
That puts head coach Mike Zimmer in a tough position. Keenum’s history suggests his ceiling in the league is as a high-level backup and spot starter. Bridgewater’s ceiling is higher, and the team needs to see what he can do before he becomes a free agent this spring — but there won’t be many opportunities to throw him into the game as long as Keenum keeps playing like a top 15 quarterback.
#Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on QB Case Keenum: "It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now. He's playing good. I still have really high hopes. You know a lot of things happen throughout the course of this season so we'll just see how it goes.''— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) November 19, 2017
And as unlikely as it seems, that’s what Keenum is. He’s thrown only five interceptions in nine games — a 1.7 percent pickoff rate that’s lower than players like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Russell Wilson. His quarterback rating is 93.7, good for 13th among the league’s qualified starters. While he’s nothing flashy — his 11.3 yards per catch doesn’t place him in the top half of NFL passers and shows Shurmur’s conservative approach with his well-traveled starter — he’s proving he can provide enough of a spark to burn opponents for 300-plus yards when given the chance. More importantly, he’s proving he can win games.
So what now?
The Vikings have to stick with Keenum. Even if Bridgewater shreds him in practice, yanking the quarterback who guided your team to a six-game winning streak would be divisive in the locker room and explosive in the media. A switch now is a distraction Minnesota doesn’t need and a tweak to a winning formula that’s fine as is.
The question now is how long Keenum can keep this pace. Fox Sports, for what it’s worth, isn’t super confident — note the “when” and not the “if.”
There were questions about whether the former backup could keep his pace against a very good Rams defense Sunday. Los Angeles came into Week 11 with the league’s third-best unit when it comes to passing efficiency allowed. The Rams had limited opposing QBs to a 73.3 rating this season. Keenum’s final numbers in a 24-7 win put him at a 100.8.
But Keenum’s history suggests the other shoe is going to drop. The presence of Bridgewater — and the urgency to get him onto the field in a live game situation — will give him a short leash in Minnesota. That’s a harsh way to reward the passer who’s pushed the team to the top of the NFC North, but that’s the reality when you’re a six-year veteran who was 9-15 as a starter heading into 2017.
Fortunately for Keenum, his performance this fall is changing that reality — and it should make him a full-time starter in 2018. Whether that’s in Minneapolis or elsewhere will depend on how he finishes this season.