How Case Keenum Went from Unwanted Free Agent to Leader of the NFC Favorites

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJanuary 11, 2018

Minnesota Vikings' Case Keenum celebrates after an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. The Vikings won 16-0. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

MINNEAPOLIS — Case Keenum is sitting in the corner of a quiet locker room. His teammates long ago disappeared into the frigid night to celebrate another victory with family and friends. 

There is carryout lasagna in the warmer waiting for Keenum at home, and he texts his wife, Kimberly, to let her know he's running late. For now, he is pondering what he is doing here. How he's quarterbacking a team that oddsmakers say is favored to play in the Super Bowl.

How is he a Minnesota Viking?

"They wanted me," he says. And then he smiles. It isn't just a conversational smile. It's a big, I'm really happy smile.

Among the categories Keenum leads the league in, it seems, is gratitude.

There haven't been many times in Keenum's football life when he could say those words.

They wanted me.

At Wylie High School in Abilene, Texas, he started 42 games, threw for 48 touchdowns, ran for another 41 and led his team to the Texas Class 3A Division 1 championship. He went to four quarterback camps in the hopes of getting noticed, but the recruiters kept pointing at the other quarterbacks. He was a 2-star recruit, according to 247Sports, ranked 1,818th in the country.

Texas-El Paso, Missouri, Baylor and North Texas came calling, but once they took a look at him in person, all said, "No thanks." He received one scholarship offer, from Houston. There, in Kliff Kingsbury's spread offense, all he did was throw for more yards and touchdowns than any player in NCAA Division I history.

But no NFL team drafted him. Only one team—the Texans—even made him an offer.

The Texans cut him that fall and re-signed him to their practice squad, where he spent the whole 2012 season. It would be the first of three times he was cut. He also has been traded, for a seventh-round pick.

Last season, the Rams had to play him because Jared Goff wasn't ready. But by November, it was time to start the first overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press/Associated Press

Keenum's contract expired in the offseason, and the Rams wished him well. When he became a free agent, the Bears and Bills expressed interest, but only one team wanted him.

He is so thankful the Vikings did.

Keenum could win in the postseason or throw a jillion touchdown passes, but it wouldn't change what our eyes tell us about him. Playoff quarterbacks are supposed to be taller, broader of shoulders, squarer of jaw. So many of us have fallen to the temptation of looking at what he is not rather than what he is.

Keenum has been called a game manager, even though he doesn't play like one. Why? He looks like one.

In reality, he plays more like a pirate, cutlass in mouth, swinging from a rope to board his enemy's ship.

"I believe in being smart with the football, not taking sacks and giving guys chances," Keenum says. "But I let it rip. Attack, attack, attack. I like to let it rip, I do."

Keenum, a shade over 6'0", looks like a short quarterback in the locker room, but not so much on the field. Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has helped mitigate his lack of height by moving the pocket. He says Keenum is also good at finding throwing lanes when he is in the pocket.

One NFL scout said Keenum likes to get deep in his drop and then climb the pocket. It helps that he has the ability to react well with his feet.

To Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, Keenum is similar to a quarterback he played with in the 2012 Pro Bowl. Drew Brees is roughly the same height.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 09:  Kyle Rudolph #82 and quarterback  Case Keenum #7 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrate after Rudolph scored against the Chicago Bears in the third quarter at Soldier Field on October 9, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Joe Rob
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"Case moves around in the pocket and extends plays and makes big plays down the field like Drew does," Rudolph says. "He's not the tallest guy in the world, but there are a lot of guys who have had success in this league at that position at his height."

His appearance is both a blessing and a curse. It has made it difficult for him to find opportunity, but it also has enabled him to take advantage of this opportunity.

"I've had a chip on my shoulder for a long time," he says. "It's driven me to work hard my whole career. I am who I am. I don't apologize about it. I don't worry about it."

He speaks of the pleasure he derives from proving people right for believing in him, as opposed to proving the doubters wrong.

Steve Keenum, Case's dad, is a former football coach who now is an area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He cites a biblical story to describe how his son has been perceived.

"God was going to choose a king," Steve says. "He had Samuel look at all these guys. He saw the Schwarzenegger-type guys, all kinds. God said no to all of them. Finally, he came to this one small guy, David. They said, 'He can't be the one.' Well, they were looking at the wrong stuff. They were looking at the outside. And I think that's what's happened with Case."

Keenum has this incongruous quality of inspiring faith in those he aligns with, and doubt in those he does not.

This year, his team believes in him, no matter what most of America thinks. 

It's all right. He gets it.

"My whole life, I've been the underdog," he says. "I've been reminding myself a lot that I can do it, and I know this team has my back. ... There are a lot of people's opinions that don't matter."

Last offseason, the Vikings were looking to replace Shaun Hill as the backup quarterback to Sam Bradford. They wanted a veteran who was in the sweet spot between young enough and cheap enough. There weren't many options.

They studied Keenum's performance with the Rams and focused on the positives. He won four games with a bad team. He had an outstanding performance against the Lions. His teammates made him a captain.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman talked himself into making Keenum a one-year, $2 million offer.

Through offseason workouts and training camp, the Vikings weren't sure whether Keenum would beat out fellow backup Taylor Heinicke. As Keenum was throwing interceptions in camp, it became fair to wonder if he would be any different in his fifth pro offense than he was in his first four. Even after Keenum had a decent preseason, no one felt confident in his ability to win games if he had to play.

The more Keenum played, the more comfortable he seemed, and the more Shurmur learned how to use him.

"What we try to do is do what our players do well," Shurmur says. "So we tailor things to his strengths. He can move around a little bit, get the ball out quickly, do some play-action stuff. He rewards us by making good decisions. If it's not there, he checks it down."

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 1: Case Keenum #7 of the Minnesota Vikings speaks with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in the second quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions on October 1, 2017 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Han
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

By the time the regular season was over, Keenum had won 11 of 14 starts, had the second-best completion percentage in the league (67.6) and the seventh-highest passer rating (98.3).

He did it despite being considered an understudy. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said he didn't feel completely comfortable with Keenum until December, and there always seemed to be a possibility of Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater returning.

"It's blinders, taking it one week at a time," Keenum says. "There is no point in looking left or right or behind me. I'm going to look forward and do my job."

This is a right-place-at-the-right-time story. The Vikings were in the right place, right time to get Keenum, who didn't have any other real opportunities. The 29-year-old was in the right place, right time to become all he is destined to be.

From the simple brilliance of Shurmur and the injuries that provided an opportunity to play to a gifted wide receiver group and the defense that would be any quarterback's best friend, the Vikings were perfect for Keenum.

"Maybe it's the team, the system, the player," Shurmur says. "The stars all cross."

So much is potentially in front of Keenum in the weeks ahead. He can win playoff games and become the first quarterback in history to play in a Super Bowl on his home field. He can take the Vikings where Joe Kapp, Fran Tarkenton, Wade Wilson, Randall Cunningham, Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre could not.

Keenum is rich in ways that have nothing to do with money, but he can become rich in ways that have everything to do with money. He can convince the Vikings or some other team to offer him a contract that will allow him to plant roots and kiss worry goodbye for the rest of his life.

"It's a heck of an opportunity. It really is," he says. "I know it's such a good opportunity that I don't want to waste it. What's great is I don't have to be anybody else but myself."

At some points in his playing career, being himself wasn't good enough. That's different now.

"In our current situation, there is no reason he can't continue to play at this high level," Shurmur says. "I really feel he has the ability to make a play at the most crucial time. He's done that for us this year. ... He's just a really good player."

The Vikings were destroying the Bengals in the final minutes in Week 15. It was back-slap and big-smile time. It also was time for Bridgewater to take his first snap since he tore his knee to shreds nearly 16 months earlier.

As Bridgewater entered the game—a goosebumps moment—chants of "Ted-dy, Ted-dy," reverberated through U.S. Bank Field.

Keenum was leading the chants.

"It was great," Bridgewater said afterward, via Lindsay Young of Vikings.com. "It was better seeing Case leading the chant. Case is an awesome guy, and to see him standing behind me was just amazing."

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

Like Bridgewater, Keenum is easy to cheer for. Despite being cut by disappointment many times, Keenum has an absence of scar tissue. He is relentlessly cheerful and optimistic. Grounded by Kimberly, his wife of nearly six years, he is comfortable in his own skin. His teammates speak of his humility, character and faith.

"He's willing to shoulder the blame for things that are not his fault," Vikings guard Joe Berger says. "That's the quality I admire most about him. The Carolina game, I got beat for a sack late in the game [by Kawann Short]. Case said he should have got the ball out faster. Clearly, it was the right guard's fault, not his fault."

What is most important to Keenum likely isn't what is most important to the majority of quarterbacks. It isn't setting records, winning awards or having his name written on a stadium wall.

"At the root of it, what I want is to be a great teammate," he says. "I want guys in the locker room to remember the relationships I've had with them. That's important for me, more than any other external goal—to impact guys in the locker room."

Receiver Adam Thielen, who had a breakout season catching passes from Keenum, calls his quarterback "Casum," a combination of Case and Keenum. He and Keenum connected quickly, two guys who came into the NFL through the back door and look more like they belong in the stands than on the field.

Over regular rounds of golf in the offseason, they became closer.

"When nobody is looking, he's the same Case as when everybody is looking at him," Thielen says. "A lot of people can talk about their faith. When you live it every day and act on the word of God, it's pretty cool to see. He doesn't just talk; he acts upon it and leads by example. It helps me become a better person of faith."

Through extra time on the practice field and film room, Keenum and Thielen developed an unusual chemistry on the field as well. Keenum attributes their connection to "nonverbal communication." They both say they often have a feel for what the other is thinking.

It isn't about psychic abilities—it's about a dedicated, unified effort.

After the Vikings offense wraps up meetings on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Keenum often watches tape for another hour or two with his receivers. During practice, when the scout-team offense is working against the first-team defense, Keenum might take the receivers to the side to work on a specific route.

"I've never seen anyone prepare the way he does," Thielen says. "He's always coming to us with things he sees on tape, or things he can do a little better job of. And talking about how we can attack defenses. I think he takes it to another level."

When Thielen arrives at Winter Park around 6:30 most mornings and walks into the meeting room, he finds Keenum watching tape with a pad full of notes. Keenum has been there for an hour by that time.

"Man," Thielen thinks, "I need to study harder."

The good teammate is making others better while trying to be the best he can be.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 15: (L-R) Case Keenum #7, Adam Thielen #19 and Kyle Rudolph #82 of the Minnesota Vikings look on during the game against the Green Bay Packers on October 15, 2017 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Fos
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the second week of the season, the Vikings travelled to Pittsburgh. The hope was that Bradford, who had won NFC Offensive Player of the Week six days earlier, would be able to play against the Steelers despite a knee injury. But as he hobbled through pregame warmups, it became apparent that wasn't going to happen.

On Minnesota's first possession, Keenum sprinted out and took over the huddle like an army sergeant addressing a platoon.

"Don't worry about this," he said to 10 men with eyes wide through the din at Heinz Field. "I've got it. Now, let's roll."

As it turned out, he didn't have it. He had 17 incompletions and threw for just 167 yards in a 26-9 loss.

But his confidence left an impression. Keenum has an abundance of it, perhaps more than he has a right to have.

He says his success this season has not surprised him.

"I think I can make every throw in the book," he says. "Am I perfect? No. Is anybody?"

Thielen says he has never seen Keenum get nervous.

"The guys who play at a high level probably think they are better than they are, and that's all right," Thielen says. "He definitely has that. He doesn't care what people think. He knows he can play at a high level."

Where does the confidence come from? His father points out Keenum has been good at almost everything he's ever done—so much so that his sisters, Lauren and Allison, were jealous when they were younger.

In high school, he was all-state in football and basketball. He played varsity baseball as a freshman, and in his first two at-bats, he hit balls off the outfield wall. His high school team did not have an established kicker at the start of his junior year, so Keenum begged for a chance to kick a field goal on the opening drive of the season. He nailed a 47-yarder.

He's an adept bow-hunter, he plays a mean game of pingpong, he's a heck of a gamer and he's a scratch golfer. In fact, his golf game sounds a lot like his quarterback game.

"He puts the ball in the fairway, hits it long, and he's a really good putter," Thielen says. "He doesn't make many mistakes."

Keenum, though, says his confidence comes from someplace else.

"My faith," he says. "God has equipped me with exactly what I need, so it's important I do the best I can with what He has given me."

Playing the way he has is one way to give thanks.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.