The Minnesota Vikings went into Sunday's NFC Championship Game at Lincoln Financial Field with dreams of becoming the first team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. After being shelled 38-7 by the Philadelphia Eagles, they left with that dream in shambles.
It was an ignominious end to what had been Minnesota's best season in almost a decade. However, the Vikings aren't going to have much time to lick their wounds. As they head into the offseason, they do so facing an unprecedented dilemma at the NFL's most critical position.
Three accomplished quarterbacks, including the one who led them to within a game of Super Bowl LII, are set to hit free agency at the same time.
The Vikings have a decision to make—one that could determine whether 2017 was a one-shot deal or the beginning of a run atop the NFC North. The choice will shape the franchise for years to come.
For most of Minnesota's magical run to the playoffs, Case Keenum started at quarterback. And for much of the season, he looked nothing like the journeyman backup we'd seen over the first five years of his career.
Over five mostly forgettable seasons with the Houston Texans and St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, Keenum started 24 games. He completed 58.4 percent of his passes with 24 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, and he went 9-15.
Keenum wasn't awful, but he wasn't especially good either.
In 2017, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Keenum blossomed. He completed 67.6 percent of his passes, threw 22 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and posted a passer rating of 98.3—over 10 points higher than in any other season of his career. His average for passing yards per game (236.5) was substantially higher than his career average.
Most importantly, Keenum won 11 of his 14 starts and led the Vikings to a division title and their first playoff win since 2009.
Had Keenum taken Minnesota to the Super Bowl, this discussion would probably be over. He struggled mightily against the Eagles, however, throwing a pair of interceptions (one of which cornerback Patrick Robinson returned for a touchdown) and losing a fumble.
Keenum told reporters that Sunday's fiasco stings.
"I'm going to take tonight and bottle it up and make sure I never have that feeling again," he said. "The guys we have in the locker room, it was an incredible ride with them, it really was. I can't put into words because this is too much right now. It was an incredible season. It stings to end like this."
Leading into Sunday's game, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported that the Vikings were expected to retain Keenum and mentioned the franchise tag (more than $21 million for 2018) as a possibility:
But that was before the 29-year-old looked a lot more like the old Case Keenum. His accuracy was off, and he pressed. And even if his left arm had not been hit on the pick-six, he never should have thrown that pass given the coverage.
That performance—coupled with the likely departure of Shurmur, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter—has muddied the waters. (Shurmur has been largely credited for Keenum's breakout).
Things don't get much clearer from there.
It was Sam Bradford, not Keenum, who started the season as Minnesota's quarterback. And Bradford played well in a season-opening win over the New Orleans Saints, passing for 346 yards and three scores.
But in a Week 5 victory over the Chicago Bears, Bradford—whom the Vikings traded for in September 2016 after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a horrific injury in training camp—aggravated a knee injury that cost him three games. He left 11 passes into that contest and didn't play again this season.
In his defense, Bradford played some of the best football of his career in Minnesota, setting an NFL record for completion percentage in 2016 while passing for 3,877 yards with a 4-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
However, he averaged a career-low 9.8 yards per completion that campaign, and 2017 was the sixth season out of eight he's missed time because of injuries. It was the fourth season in which he missed at least six games.
Bradford just can't stay on the field. And the best ability, as they say, is availability.
That brings us to the guy who was supposed to have been the Vikings' franchise quarterback all along.
Back in 2015, his second NFL season, Bridgewater completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 3,231 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Vikings won 11 games and a division title before falling at home to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card Round.
Bridgewater appeared to be on his way to stardom. But then he shredded his knee so badly that there were fears he could lose his leg. Outside of a few minutes of mop-up duty in a blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Bridgewater hasn't seen the field in a game that counts in two years.
For much of the second half of the 2017 season, there were rumblings that Bridgewater could replace Keenum should he falter. Not only did that not happen, but by the time the playoffs rolled around, Bridgewater also wasn't even active. Bradford served as Keenum's backup in the divisional round against the Saints as well as in the NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings are smack-dab in the midst of a three-way puzzle. Every piece of it brings positives and risks, and according to Over the Cap, Minnesota has about $57 million in cap space with which to solve it.
Bridgewater's the youngest of the bunch at 25. The 2014 first-round pick is well-liked and respected by both his coaches and teammates. And while his numbers so far haven't been gaudy, he's shown he can lead his team to the playoffs.
But there's no telling if he'll ever be the quarterback he was before that fateful day on the practice field.
Keenum's not old by any stretch. He just led the Vikings to their best regular season since 1998. And while he deserves some of the blame for what happened in Philadelphia, it isn't his fault the offensive line took the day off or that the Minnesota defense imploded.
The risk that his breakout is more fluke than ascension is real, however.
As for Bradford? The Vikings should let him walk. At 30, he's older than Keenum and has the same durability issues Bridgewater might have. Let someone else pay him.
In a perfect world, the Vikings would figure out a way to keep both Keenum and Bridgewater. Convince one (or both) to sign a short-term deal while possibly tagging the other. Let them duke it out in training camp. Then they'll also have a proven, viable backup in their hip pocket.
But this isn't a perfect world. Too many teams in the NFL are desperate to get better under center. In the last two years, we've seen the likes of Brock Osweiler and Mike Glennon receive lucrative contracts on the open market.
And calling those quarterbacks mediocre is kind.
There are going to be numerous teams willing to bet Keenum can repeat his performance from 2017, while others will want to roll the dice that Bridgewater can become the player he was in 2015.
Add to that the fact that, per Chad Graff of the Twin Cities Pioneer-Press, Bridgewater views himself as a starter in 2018, and the Vikings are left with a binary choice.
The smartest play is to slap the tag on Keenum. The fact Bridgewater wasn't active for the playoffs seems to indicate his knee remains an issue. And while there's no guarantee Keenum can back up 2017, a one-year deal for him limits Minnesota's liability. In any event, he played well enough this season to earn the chance.
It's an imperfect solution to a complicated problem.
Head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman need to think long and hard before making this call. The decision could come to define their time in Minnesota.
Choose wisely, and the Vikings may end their four-decade absence from the Super Bowl, even if they won't get to play it at home.
Choose poorly, and all the success Minnesota had in 2017 will quickly be forgotten.