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Case Keenum in Power Play Spot

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December 31, 2017

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With one regular season game remaining today and the playoffs ahead, quarterback Case Keenum—a humble 29-year-old NFL journeyman—is now a power player for not only the fate of the Vikings but his own future.

The Vikings, who likely will defeat the Bears Sunday, can finish with an unexpected and impressive 13-3 regular season record. They will then have a first round bye and be among the favorites to earn their way to the February 4 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

Head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is holding NFL opponents to league bests of 280.9 yards per game and 16.1 points. The unit excels against both the run and pass. There are terrific playmakers on the line and beyond the line of scrimmage. Tackle Linval Joseph is a “wall” to run against, while end Everson Griffen ranks with the league’s top pass rushers and sackers. Linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith are standouts, too.

Zimmer is a master at defensive game preparations. His schemes, along with the execution of the players, can have opponents frustrated whether trying to pass or run. Opponents can be forced into costly turnovers and sometimes the Vikings turn those miscues into points.

It’s expecting a lot, though, for the defense to carry the Vikings through two wins in the playoffs and on to the Super Bowl. Certainly the offense must not only avoid giving opponents points with fumbles and interceptions, but also at times that unit must sustain drives resulting in field goals and touchdowns.

The Vikings have a good—not great—offensive team. The rebuilt line, led by new acquisitions from last year, is solid. Pass catchers Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph and Adam Thielen are enjoying exceptional years. The power-speed combo of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon has more than made up for the departure of Adrian Peterson at running back.

Case Keenum (photo courtesy of Minnesota Vikings)

All of which leads back to Keenum, the spring of 2017 free agent newcomer who apparently no one, including the Vikings, wanted to be their starting quarterback. But the Vikings had no choice other than to promote expected backup Keenum to starter when starter Sam Bradford was lost for the season with a left knee injury early in the season. Keenum, who never established himself as a No. 1 quarterback with the Texans and Rams, has been Mr. Super Sub leading the Vikings to 10 wins in 13 games.

Keenum has completed an NFL fourth-best 67.3 percent of his passes, while throwing for 21 touchdowns, and has just seven interceptions. His career-high 98.1 passer rating is among the best in the league.

He has also extended plays and made them successful with his scrambling. He senses when tacklers are closing in and often avoids them. At maybe 6-feet tall, he is short enough to duck under pass rushers and sometimes run for first downs. NBC TV analyst Cris Collinsworth referred to Keenum’s escapes from tackles as Houdini-like in last week’s win over the Packers.

Keenum’s mobility has impressed offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “…Typically, if you’re going to drive the ball against these good defenses, somewhere in a long scoring drive, the quarterback has to do something with his feet,” Shurmur said. “He’s been able to do that.”

Shurmur is highly regarded as an offensive coordinator who has been successful with Bradford and now Keenum. While Keenum’s ascension to a place among the NFL’s more productive quarterbacks is surprising, it’s not inexplicable. In college at the University of Houston he became the NCAA all-time leading career passer with 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns. But he had a less than successful NFL Combine and was considered suspect because of his height, going undrafted by league teams and signing with the Texans as a free agent.

Keenum had a bias against him coming into the pros. The two NFL teams he played with prior to joining the Vikings—the Texans and Rams—were struggling to become winners and never committed to Keenum, who at 29 is more experienced and mature than he was with those franchises.

Keenum’s performances in the Vikings playoff games could well determine whether Minnesota wins twice and makes history by being the first NFL team ever to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The stakes couldn’t be higher in January for he and the Vikings.

If Keenum leads the offense successfully he seems a cinch to be the team’s quarterback next season. The Vikings are paying him a reported $2 million and he has never performed before like a quarterback who deserves much higher compensation. He is a free agent after this season and could be in position to leverage something like a multi-year deal for $15 million per year.

What Keenum must not implode in the playoffs so that later he can negotiate for the big money and the security a new contract will deliver. Even if the Vikings lose on their way to the Super Bowl, he remains in a strong negotiating position with the Vikings if he avoids a disastrous game performance.

Bradford and Bridgewater are also free agents after this season but they don’t have anywhere near the leverage for new deals that Keenum does. Bradford is 30 years old with a history of knee problems including ACL surgeries. The Vikings reportedly are paying him $18 million this season. There is some speculation  Bradford will decide to retire after this season.

Bridgewater, 25, suffered a horrific knee injury about 16 months ago and it’s still not known whether he can resume his career as a fulltime starter, or even effective sub. He gushes positivity and is a hit in the locker room. In a popularity contest, he probably would be voted the starter. But in the real world Bridgewater, who reportedly earns about $2 million on his present deal, has to decide how much he can command in the open market next year in money and potential playing time, with teams like the Browns and Redskins perhaps interested.

It seems unlikely the Vikings will offer Bridgewater a big contract, even if Keenum disappoints in the playoffs. A complete flop by Keenum seems unlikely since both his leadership and play have been so steady this season. His worst outing was his first game as a starter. He had a passer rating of 65.9 with no touchdown passes, but he’s been a lot more productive since that game against the Steelers September 17.

It will be known soon whether Keenum delivers for the Vikings and himself. He has evolved into a team MVP candidate and widely distanced himself from Bradford and Bridgewater who because of past injuries and inactivity are risky bets. Maybe Keenum will turnout to be a one-year wonder but right now he appears to be the Vikings’ best choice for the 2018 season.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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