Mike Zimmer’s face was beet red from another sunscreenless day in Mankato. He sat down in a golf cart, let out a sigh, and then fielded questions for the umpteenth time since training camp opened in late July.
Over the previous three weeks, Zimmer had given his take on every player from QB1 to Roster Filler No. 90. With a lifetime of football under his belt, you can bet he already knew 50 of the final 53 or more at that point – the day before the Vikings were set to open their preseason against the Buffalo Bills. But if he was set on a backup quarterback for Sam Bradford at that point, the 61-year-old head coach wasn’t giving any indications.
“Not yet,” he said. “I think these games will determine it. We will get a good amount of seeing them this week and next week.”
Case Keenum and Taylor Heinicke were deadlocked in a distant second place behind Bradford. Like Minnesota to Mars distant.
If you ever wondered why Bradford was selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 draft, all you needed to understand was one afternoon on the sidelines at camp. Day after day, he looked like a create-a-player with arm strength and accuracy ratings jacked up to 99. Passes traveled 20, 30, 40 yards down field and dropped into the hands of Stefon Diggs like Angels in the Outfield showed up and guided the ball.
The 6-foot-4, 236-pound starting quarterback was also comfortable in an offense that had been designed to accentuate his talents. He’d worked with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in St. Louis as a high-ceiling young QB in St. Louis, then in Philadelphia and again after Norv Turner resigned midway through the 2016 season.
Keenum, on the other hand, was recovering from two years playing for Jeff Fisher. His passes fluttered. Deep balls rarely found their target. The Vikings’ stacked defense frustrated him in red zone drills. Heinicke was equally as tough to watch. If they had hot dog stands in Mankato, fans would have visited them in between Bradford reps.
“One guy has a good day and the next day someone else has a good day,” Zimmer said. “I think that’s going to sort itself out kind of in the preseason games more so than in practice. Where I’m at right now it’s kind of close. Hard to say.”
Zimmer’s comments were prescient. The backup quarterback battle ended August 10 at approximately 7:34 pm C.T. when Keenum rolled to his right escaping pressure from the Bills’ defensive line and found rookie Stacy Coley for a 24-yard completion to the Buffalo 2-yard line.
At the time, Keenum’s seven-play, 69-yard touchdown drive was a where-the-bleep-did-that-come-from moment. But five months later, as the 13-3 Vikings prepare to play the New Orleans Saints at US Bank Stadium in the Divisional round of the playoffs, we know that’s the real Case Keenum.
We know the 29-year-old journeyman who couldn’t stand out in practice from a kid the Vikings signed off the street is much different when lights are at their brightest.
But why couldn’t anyone see it before? Why did a quarterback who threw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns in college go undrafted? Why couldn’t the Texans and Rams maximize the talents of a quarterback capable of posting a 98.3 rating over nearly a full season of starting?
What did everyone miss that the Vikings found in Case Keenum?
The system is rigged
We often make the mistake of thinking that quarterback is just a position in football. It’s much more than that. It’s a political position. It’s a marketing job. It’s a beauty contest. Getting opportunities to play quarterback at a major college program is often dependant on a level of hype that would make LaVar Ball blush.
There are quarterback gurus who make seven figures to work with wealthy preteens from California and Texans. Part of the job is pumping up clients. QB Guru Steve Clarkson once told Sports Illustrated that top D-1 prospect Jimmy Clausen had the “skills of Dan Marino.” In the book The QB: The Making of a Modern Quarterback, author Bruce Feldman tells the story of tall, blonde Clausen showing up to Notre Dame with a 16-person entourage. (Of course, he went on to have a disappointing career at Notre Dame and in the NFL, Clausen went 1-13 and finished his career with seven touchdowns and 14 interceptions.)
Keenum didn’t look like Jimmy Clausen. Keenum was a two-star recruit. When it came to draft time, it didn’t seem to matter that he posted over 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in three different seasons as a Houston Cougar.
It didn’t matter that he set the following college passing records:
In three days of the 2012 NFL draft, the supposed brightest football minds on earth selected 11 quarterbacks over Keenum.
Several of them turned out to be big-time stars like all-time great prospect Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins.
Others turned out to be dreadful.
Brandon Weeden, a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder with an MLB-caliber arm, went 22nd overall. Brock Osweiler, 6-foot-7, 240-pounds, was picked 57th. Osweiler threw fewer touchdowns in his college career than Keenum threw in three different single seasons.
The league couldn’t get over Keenum’s athletic profile. At the NFL Combine, he rated in the 11th percentile in height and weight, 15th percentile in hand size, 14th in arm length and 13th in broad jump. Meanwhile Osweiler was in the 98th percentile in height, 94th in weight, 90th in arm length and 68th in hand size.
Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, who is also 6-foot-1 (if he’s standing on rolls of pennies), can relate to facing criticisms over his size.
“Case and I both coming out of high school were probably not the most highly recruited guys,” Brees said five days before the two were set to battle in the playoffs. “That’s all you hear through the draft process is they want to tell you all the things you can’t do instead of turning on the film and looking at the things you can do.”
Keenum’s NFL.com draft profile actually lamented that his amazing college statistics wouldn’t mean much in the draft. The report said: “If numbers were pure projections to the next level, Keenum would be the undisputed top pick. Unfortunately for him, his height might limit him as he moves to the next level.”
Ethan Young would tell you that numbers can be projections if used properly.
“Keenum is an interesting case study,” Young said enthusiastically over the phone from Los Angeles. “He had insane production numbers even when you account for his situation where he’s playing lower level, you account for the pace of the offense, you account for his teammates around him, and when you isolate all that he still had – at his peak – 90th percentile production at the quarterback position. That’s absurd.”
Young works for NFL Research now. Around one year ago he released a statistical system called SEMTEX that adjusted college quarterbacks’ production for factors like quality of competition and offensive system and broke them down into three categories: Gold, Silver, Bronze. What he found was QBs who had been criticized for their height like Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott, who were mid-round draft picks, had Gold-level production while the likes of Weeden and Osweiler landed in the bronze category.
“If you’re undersized, you better be uber productive,” Young said.
The Combine numbers have been proven to be predictive. It won’t surprise you that Young has a system for that too. So there were valid reasons to question whether Keenum could carry over his college numbers. After all, the likes of Kellen Moore, Ryan Mallett and Bryce Petty had Gold stats too.
“Combine results matter, but not to the extent that we think they do,” Young said. “[Evaluators] care about speed and height, sort of the bigger-is-better way. That’s not the way I think Combine results are best utilized.”
Charles McDonald laughed out loud talking about some of the big-armed bust quarterbacks of the past. Kyle Boller, for example, completed 47.6 percent of his passes at Cal and somehow went 19th overall in the 2003 NFL draft.
A film analyst for the well-respected research and analysis website Football Outsiders, McDonald thinks the football world decided a long time ago that quarterbacks look like Terry Bradshaw and only Terry Bradshaw. Anything else is risky.
“A lot of people get stuck in preconceived notions of what a quarterback is supposed to be,” McDonald said. “I think part of it is that we get latched on to these guys who are 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 230-pounds, rocket arm or whatever, they come out of ‘pro-style offense’ in college. But I think we get caught up on what we want things to look like and what’s actually going on out on the field. If you were to rank the top-10 things you want in a quarterback, height and size, if you really break it down, wouldn’t make your top 10 because it doesn’t have that much to do with playing quarterback.”
The preconceived notions go beyond height/weight/hands. The biases also apply to systems.
“In Houston, they played in that wide open, shotgun spread offense, that people seem to not like for some reason even though it’s really infiltrating the NFL now,” McDonald said.
Neither Young nor McDonald claim they would have pegged Keenum as a potential franchise quarterback when he was coming out of college, but teams overlooked a lot of green flags with Keenum to draft players like 222-pound Chandler Harnish instead.
“When you have a guy that doesn’t have the prototypical size to be an NFL quarterback, well he better check every other box with enthusiasm and Keenum is a guy that did that for sure,” Young said.
Keenum wasn’t completely ignored by the NFL. The Houston Texans signed him to their practice squad in 2012. In 2013, he not only made the roster, but briefly became the flavor of the month. In his first three games, Keenum threw seven touchdowns, zero interceptions in three one-score losses. But over the following five games, he threw just two TDs and six INTs, good for a 60.0 quarterback rating. The Texans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick to start the following season.
Between 2014 and 2015, Keenum was called upon to start seven games between the Texans and Rams. He went 5-2 but only averaged 157 yards per game. Game managing to the Nth power.
In 2016, with the Rams in Los Angeles, Keenum finally got his chance to prove that he could be a full-time starter, but he was benched for rookie Jared Goff after throwing nine touchdowns, 11 interceptions in nine starts.
What the NFL seemingly failed to account for in its pro evaluation was Keenum’s supporting casts. In Los Angeles, his starting left tackle Greg Robinson was one of the biggest busts in draft history and his top receivers were Kenny Britt, who was cut by the Cleveland Browns this year, and Tavon Austin, another major draft bust.
“I think circumstances matter,” Vikings quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski said. “It’s hard when some young quarterbacks get put in positions where it’s going to be hard for them to succeed with maybe the skill level at wide receiver. You think back to some of those guys that really struggled early and then maybe played a little bit better later in their career.”
There’s no perfect way to account for supporting cast, but one stat from his years with the Rams in particular stands out. When the pocket was kept clean – no pressure, he had a 92.0 quarterback rating. More or less, when he had a chance to throw, he did so with some level of effectiveness.
When he was blitzed or pressured, those numbers tanked, likely because his teammates didn’t give him any type of help on blitz pickups or create yards after catch on checkdowns.
When throwing passes less than 10 yards through the air in 2016, he averaged less than five yards per attempt. The success of many of those types of throws is dependent on playmakers and scheme rather than QB talent.
Keenum had multiple offers around the league as a backup. The Vikings desperately needed a capable backup with Sam Bradford’s injury history and no telling when Teddy Bridgewater would return. So they went with a guy that had gone 9-7 in his last 16 starts.
“It’s tough to translate a guy’s skill set from one scheme to another scheme, so you do your best to look for the redeemable qualities that you’ve identified,” Stefanski said. “There is a certain amount of…I don’t want to say luck involved…you certainly do your homework, you figure it out, then you put the guy in your system and see what happens.”
Even as the season went along and Keenum kept winning, Zimmer was not totally convinced. He admitted at the end of the regular season that it took him weeks and weeks before he felt comfortable with Keenum as his quarterback.
Now Zimmer’s legacy is riding on him.
The Whalen qualities
How many times do you think Drew Brees has ever gotten fired up during a conference call with the opposing team’s media? Probably none point zero. Until the Wednesday before playing the Vikings in the Divisional round. His voice got more intense as he admitted that knocks on him during the lead up to the draft never left his mind.
“I think there’s always that sense of urgency, always that chip on the shoulder, always that feeling like you have to prove something,” Brees said. “I think that serves you well as you go along. Certainly I think that’s helped make me the player and the person that I am. I’m sure Case would say the same thing.”
In Feldman’s book, long-time NFL quarterback and Super Bowl winner Trent Dilfer has a nickname for the required intangibles of a great quarterback. He calls them, “Dude Qualities.” But since the Twin Cities’ greatest champions are women, it wouldn’t be right to refer to things like work ethic, competitiveness, leadership, toughness and clutch-ness as being connected with only men. So instead, let’s call them “Whalen Qualities.” (If you’re from Minnesota, you understand exactly what this means. If not, use Google.)
Feldman quotes Dilfer’s explanation: “It’s probably the most influential position in sports and probably the most poorly evaluated position too. People dumb it down by using height, weight, arm strength and a forty….well, everybody in this room who has played knows your soul has more to do with your success than your arm strength.”
The comparison has been made between Keenum and Dilfer because a large percentage of their winning ways has been attributed to an elite defense. But they couldn’t be much different. Dilfer was a top draft pick who underachieved, while Keenum was undrafted and is currently overachieving. Dilfer had size, arm, athleticism, but admits in the book that he lacked Whalen Qualities. Keenum has succeeded in large part because of his intangibles.
Keenum’s standout Whalen Qualities are his ability to improvise, his attitude and his mental and physical toughness.
Feldman wrote: “[Dilfer] realized that the Hall of Fame was full of slow-footed guys and guys who didn’t have elite arms. The one thing every quarterback had was the knack for creating space and somehow extending the play.”
Dilfer expanded: “At some point, you have to play beyond the X’s and O’s.”
Zimmer sees that in Keenum.
“I think he’s a guy that’s trying to figure out how to make a play,” the Vikings’ head coach said. “I think it’s shown up in a lot of games where he’s been able to move, run for the first down, even the touchdown against Cleveland where they turned the guy and he’s scrambling and finds the guy. I think it’s just part of his makeup.”
Against Chicago – after he relieved Sam Bradford at halftime – Keenum saw a gap and rushed for 22 yards.
Against the Los Angeles Rams – a game the Vikings needed to win in order to prove they were a legitimate threat in the NFC – Keenum bailed out of the pocket. Milliseconds before taking a hit from a Rams defender, he flung the ball up in the air. Waiting on the other side was wide receiver Adam Thielen.
Against Green Bay, he rolled out and found tight end David Morgan on the run for a 23-yard gain on third-and-13.
From a defensive perspective, Zimmer, a lifelong defensive coach, knows what a pain in the tail it can be to have a quarterback with the ability to create something out of nothing or rush for a first down.
“It makes it harder defensively,” he said. “Our sack numbers the last few weeks have been down a little bit but we’ve played guys that can run, so it’s taking a little bit out of the rush game. How you rush him, you don’t just run by him because now you open up the B gap lane and things like that.”
Oddly enough, the NFL often knocks quarterbacks who break the mold. While their improv skills frustrate opponents, coaches also don’t have much control over what’s going to happen next.
“Since it doesn’t come within the prototypical or stereotypical ‘structure’ of a play, those guys tend to get knocked but it can transcend when there are portions of a game that are deficient like accuracy and arm strength,” Charles McDonald said. “If you’re a guy who can sustain plays – and Keenum was arguably the best in the league this year at avoiding sacks and giving his playmakers more time downfield to find holes in zones – I think that’s a value that’s underrated.”
Moving outside the pocket or having a pocket presence takes toughness. In Detroit on Thanksgiving day, Keenum stood in just long enough to drop a touchdown pass in the bucket to Kyle Rudolph.
Going back to his draft days, concerns about Keenum’s stature were based on the fact that many players without ideal height/weight could not handle an NFL pocket.
“Look at David Carr, he failed, Brian Brohm, he failed, these guys crumble because they don’t have the frame to hold up against bigger bodies and take that punishment, so when they get pressured, they get scared and throw the ball up,” Ethan Young said. “But Keenum has never had that problem on tape. He’s a guy that will stand in there and take punishment, he’s a guy that loves to extend plays, so he’s the exception to the rule.”
He’s also an exception to the rule with his mental approach.
One thing about beauty pageant quarterbacks is they often struggle when times get tough. This year has been a dream ride for Keenum, but when Teddy Bridgewater returned to practice in mid-October, the likes of NFL Network, ESPN etc. began debating when Bridgewater would take over for Keenum. Zimmer refused to name Keenum the starter and gave every hint that he was waiting for an implosion to turn to his one-time franchise QB.
But that time never came. And not only did Keenum work with Bridgewater on the sidelines during games, he led a cheer of 65,000 people at US Bank Stadium when Bridgewater finally trotted back on the field after missing the entire 2016 season and half of 2017 recovering from a catastrophic knee injury.
“Some of the good ones have dealt with adversity at all levels of their career and it comes in different forms and fashions,” Kevin Stefanski said. “Case has had a career where he’s been a starter, he’s been a backup, he’s been in different situations. That has helped him move forward.”
Maybe there were signs that evaluators missed about Keenum’s ability to bounce back from tough times. He suffered a knee injury of his own at Houston and was forced to miss most of his 2010 season. In 2011, he bounced back to throw for 5,631 yards and 48 touchdowns.
“I think he’s just a really good competitor,” Zimmer said. “He works really hard at it. He is an excitable guy, but I think the offense feeds off him a little bit. I think he’s a pretty positive guy as far as getting guys going. If they’re having trouble with a route, they’ll go down and work on it extra. I just think he’s a competitor.”
Under the same umbrella of Whalen qualities is mental processing speed. You might hear it called Football IQ or just smarts, but all the X’s and O’s in the world don’t mean much when you have to make a decision in 2.5 seconds with 11 of the most frightening people on earth coming your way.
Now that he has receivers who can get open and an offensive line who can protect him Keenum has proven to be able to read defenses and make good decisions.
“[Defenses are] really complicated…especially with how athletic these guys are,” McDonald said. “The more athletic these guys get, it gives defensive coordinators more flexibility pre-snap to move guys around and be aggressive.”
Defensive lineman Tom Johnson, a master of his craft who loves to break the game down for anyone who inquires, said he’d much rather face the tallest, most athletically gifted quarterback who ever lived than a QB who has strong mental processing.
“Tom Brady ran, what, a 5.3 forty? He’s not athletic at all, but he’s hard to take down and he knows his protections and he knows how to use his offensive line in a good way,” Johnson said. “It’s more the more football savvy guy who can take advantage of what the defense is giving him instead of trying to force things downfield or sticking with a play that’s probably not going to work.”
Oh, one source said Keenum performed well in mental testing – and not just the Wonderlic, but other tests that aren’t publicly known.
The real Keenum?
So Case Keenum has proven every NFL evaluator wrong. He’s earned his head coach’s begrudging trust. He’s led a team to a 13-3 record and home field advantage in the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs. He’s top 10 in rating, top 3 in ESPN’s QBR and top 10 in Pro Football Focus rankings. But the Vikings might still have reason not to make him their long-term quarterback.
An NFL source said that multiple teams are “hot on his prospects” and Keenum is “going to get paid” this offseason if he hits the free agent market – “regardless of how the playoffs go.”
PFF’s Eric Eager explains that while Keenum has had an excellent year by all statistical measures, it’s still very hard to figure out whether he’s actually a good quarterback.
He points to a study of all throws by NFL quarterbacks that found around 50 percent are “non-NFL” throws – or rather, passes that any QB could make and the success or failure depends entirely on playmakers. For Keenum, that number was even higher.
“You almost have to throw out 60 percent of Keenum’s throws because they are data that just isn’t that meaningful to an evaluation,” Eager said.
“Keenum is getting a boost on plays that he isn’t a part of,” Eager added. “Like against Detroit getting 100 passing yards on throws behind the line of scrimmage.”
There are statistical red flags when it comes to signing Keenum long term. On “NFL throws,” which include things like deep ins or outs, seam routes etc., Keenum’s numbers are just OK. He’s one of the league’s lowest rated passers on balls traveling more than 20 yards. And his QB ratings under pressure and against the blitz are so much higher than average that you would expect regression.
Remember Keenum’s bad supporting casts in St. Louis and Los Angeles? Well, he’s had the opposite in Minnesota. In fact, PFF rated his supporting cast (receivers and pass blockers combined) as one of the best of the last decade.
“Paying $20 million for Case Keenum would be tough,” McDonald said. “I think that supporting cast matters so much in the NFL. A really good example of supporting cast mattering…is a guy like Dak Prescott. He had a tremendous rookie season and honestly I don’t think his play [this year] was a lot different or worse but you see Tyron Smith get banged up, the offensive line doesn’t play as well as last year, Dez Bryant has taken some steps back as surgeries and injuries add up and Terence Williams and Bryce Butler and those other guys, that’s not a really great supporting cast. You can even see a decline from year to year.”
McDonald suggests a franchise tag for Keenum, which could run the Vikings in the range of $25 million, but would give them an opportunity to build a bigger sample size. Washington has done this in back-to-back years with quarterback Kirk Cousins, who coincidentally was a fourth-round pick the same year Keenum went undrafted.
So it appears that Keenum will have to keep proving everyone wrong even after he’s already proved everyone wrong. But maybe he’d prefer it that way.
“We don’t know any different,” Brees said, chuckling a bit.