When the Minnesota Vikings signed Case Keenum to a one-year, $2 million contract, they hoped he would never hit the field. But general manager Rick Spielman made Keenum one of the 10 highest paid backup QBs in the NFL for one reason: Insurance.
With 26 starts under his belt and a 9-7 record in his previous 16 games, the Vikings figured the former Houston Texan and St. Lous/Los Angeles Ram had enough experience to give them a fighting chance if something happened to starter Sam Bradford.
Well, something happened.
Bradford suffered a knee injury during his 346-yard, three-touchdown win over the New Orleans Saints, forcing Keenum into action against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now it is unclear how many games Bradford will miss. The Vikings’ starter will not play against the Tampa Bay Bucs and is seeking a second opinion on his knee according to ESPN.
“Hopefully it continues to get better each day and we’ll look back in a few days or whenever that time is and hopefully it’s something that we’re not having to deal with again,” Bradford said Wednesday. “If it’s something that lingers and we have to deal with it”
It appears there is a real chance Keenum could start multiple games.
In his first start as a Viking, Keenum went 20-for-37 with 167 yards in a 26-9 loss and provided little confidence in the Vikings’ odds to win with him under center.
But one game doesn’t tell us much. The loss came on the road against a legitimate Super Bowl contender and the Vikings’ defense committed costly penalties.
So what are the real odds that the Vikings could still have a successful season if Keenum is under center for half of the season or more? They might not be as good as with Bradford, but Keenum’s career numbers suggest nobody should be throwing in the towel yet.
Keeping the ship afloat
There is nothing exciting about Keenum’s 24:20 career touchdown-to-interception or 77.8 career quarterback rating, but those numbers lack context. They don’t tell things like: When did his interceptions happen? How many touchdowns came in important situations? In 2011, with this problem in mind, ESPN invented a statistic called QBR.
The network worked with former quarterbacks as well as statisticians to, by its definition, “measure the degree to which a quarterback contributed to scoring points for the team, and also to a win by the team.”
In more simple terms: A touchdown in the final moments is worth more than one scored while down 30 points.
By no means is QBR the be-all-end-all of quarterback stats, but it uses a 1-100 scale to paint a picture of whether a quarterback gave his team a realistic chance to win. For example, Bradford’s magnificent game against the Saints registered a 95.2 on the QBR scale, while his loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last season scored a 6.1.
One way to tell if Keenum could lead the Vikings to the postseason is to look at the distribution of his game-by-game QBR scores over the past three years.
What should stand out is that the former Houston University star was rarely terrific but also rarely terrible. You should also notice that his start against Pittsburgh, which registered a 24.7 QBR, was below a normal start. He’s usually better than what Vikings’ fans saw on Sunday.
More often than not, Keenum’s starts are somewhere in the middle, leaving it up to the rest of his team whether they come away with a victory.
What Keenum needs to win
Winning with Keenum starts on defense. In his six wins in “Below Average” starts, Keenum’s defenses allowed just 15.3 points on average and over 20 points only once.
The Vikings are certainly capable of holding opposing teams’ offenses in check, but routinely keeping opponents under 20 is a difficult task in today’s high-scoring NFL. Last year, the Vikings ranked sixth in the league in points allowed and gave up 19.2 points per game.
In order to succeed, Keenum will also need protection. He went just 6-for-16 while under pressure from the Steelers’ defense on Sunday and managed only a 37.0 rating while facing a pass rush last season.
When he is given an opportunity to sit in the pocket, Keenum can have success. In 2016, he went 21-for-52 on passes that qualified as “deep throws” by NFL official play-by-play. Keenum’s 40.4% completion percentage on deep throws was higher than that of Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and Matt Stafford.
The Vikings will also need more from their running game of they are going to stay above water with Keenum under center. Last week, rookie Dalvin Cook finished with 64 yards on 12 carries, but he only gained three yards on six rushes in the first half.
Luck is always a factor in the NFL, too. There won’t be much room for missed extra points, turnovers or injuries to other key players.
The bottom line on the Vikings’ chances with Keenum at the helm is: His play alone will not sink the season, but everything else – from defense to the running game to health – has to go the Vikings’ way in order to succeed. And that’s a lot to ask.