Vikings Keep Winning, but Ceiling Still Unclear with Case Keenum Starting

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 19, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 19: Case Keenum #7 of the Minnesota Vikings calls a play at the line of scrimmage in the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Rams on November 19, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Sam Bradford is gone, Teddy Bridgewater hasn't taken a snap in two seasons and yet the Minnesota Vikings have won six consecutive games. 

One week ago, they put up 38 points in a road victory over a desperate Washington Redskins team. And on Sunday, they held the Los Angeles Rams, league's highest-scoring offense, to just seven points in a three-score victory.

In back-to-back statements from opposite sides of the ball, there were back-to-back strong performances from "that other Vikings quarterback." 

Case Keenum entered training camp as an afterthought, an insurance policy. Bradford, who set a single-season completion percentage record in 2016, was the clear-cut starter. There was hope that Bridgewater, who was once a franchise quarterback in the making, could eventually return to work as Bradford's backup after a career-threatening knee injury last year

If you told a Vikings fan in August that Keenum would start the majority of the season, they might have thrown up in their mouths a little bit. No one could have imagined that Minnesota would be 8-2 entering the home stretch, thanks in large part to Keenum. 

Playing for his third team in four seasons, the 29-year-old undrafted journeyman continues to put together a career year out of nowhere. Since taking over for Bradford in September, he's won seven of the nine games in which he's served as Minnesota's primary quarterback. And in the last two games, he's completed 71.6 percent of his passes for 584 yards, five touchdowns to two interceptions and a passer rating of 110.5.

He's yet to fumble and he's been sacked just five times all year, which helps explain why the Vikes entered Sunday quietly ranked in the top 10 in terms of points per game, yards per game and time of possession. 

Lowest Sacks-Allowed Rates
QuarterbackTimes sackedDropbacksRate (%)
1. Case Keenum53001.7
2. Drew Brees103512.8
3. Philip Rivers113343.3
Sam Bradford*54810.4
* Does not qualify, but worth the comparison

This was supposed to be their biggest challenge yet. The Rams were 7-2 as well, and had lit up the NFL with a league-high 32.9 points per game. They were coming off three straight victories in which they outscored their opponents—and this is not a typo—117-24, and they hadn't lost since Oct. 8. 

And yet Minnesota controlled the ball for over 37 minutes in a 24-7 win, with its star-studded defense holding the high-powered Rams to just 254 net yards and a lone first-quarter score. Keenum didn't even need to be at his best, but he was anyway with a turnover-free performance in which he completed all but 11 of 38 passes. 

But the truth is the jury is still out on Keenum, and by extension his team. 

There's a reason why he wasn't drafted, and why he didn't cut it with the Houston Texans or the Rams. The man threw 777 passes in 26 different games during his first five seasons in this league, and he completed fewer than 60 percent of them. He threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (24) during that stretch, and among 38 quarterbacks who threw at least 600 passes between 2013 and 2016, Keenum ranked 36th in terms of both completion percentage (58.4) and passer rating (78.4). 

Only Brock Osweiler and Geno Smith were rated lower.

That sample is significantly larger than this one, which is why nobody knows what the future holds for him or his team. There's plenty of evidence that it's nearly impossible to experience sustained team success these days without strong play under center. After all, 12 of the last 14 Super Bowls have been won by teams quarterbacked by guys named Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Brees or Rodgers. 

So if Keenum hits a wall between now and January, the Vikings will likely hit that wall with him. And while it's comforting to have an apparently healthy Bridgewater available, the rope that Keenum continues to collect with his superb play might cause the team to wait too long if/when the fairytale ends. 

"It's going to be hard to yank him out of there right now," head coach Mike Zimmer said Sunday, per ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin. "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."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 19: Case Keenum #7 of the Minnesota Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater #5 on the sidelines in the fourth quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Rams on November 19, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

If the Keenum project goes up in flames in the playoffs, going to a potentially rusty Bridgewater mid-game won't likely save the Vikings in a win-or-go-home situation. If the experiment blows up before then, that extra leeway could negatively impact the Vikings' playoff position.

In other words, the Vikings are relying on a wild card. They're a contender, but the element of the unknown is larger for them than most of their contending counterparts. 

It's important to note that having an unclear ceiling isn't a bad thing. At this time of year, most teams have established ceilings. And most of them appear to be too low. 

Sure, the defending champion New England Patriots have a clear Super Bowl ceiling. So do the 8-2 Pittsburgh Steelers and 8-2 New Orleans Saints, both of whom have quarterbacks who have been there, done that. But we can already say goodnight to at least half of the league's teams, and under these circumstances, it's remarkable that Minnesota is not only absent from that group but also has the look of a prime contender. 

We know that top-five defense is good enough. The running game has improved, despite the absence of electric rookie back Dalvin Cook. The offensive line has even gone from liability to asset. And the receiving corps has taken off, thanks mainly to the emergence of another undrafted weapon named Adam Thielen, who has caught 19 passes for 387 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games. 

Maintaining the status quo at quarterback would be enough to give the Vikings a shot. The problem is there's still a good chance the status quo won't be maintained, which would further complicate an already deeply complicated season.

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.