Case Keenum is no stranger to the last-minute comeback win under pressure. In 2004, the Abilene Wylie High School quarterback scrambled for 39 yards, setting the team up to win with a field goal against an undefeated Cuero Gobblers team and taking the 3A Division I state title.
Sunday’s circumstances were different, but even with much higher stakes, Keenum—the University of Houston product whose career began shining this season—once more delivered. In the playoffs—his first time competing on that stage—Keenum led the Minnesota Vikings to a 29-24 victory over the New Orleans Saints with a walk-off touchdown that cemented Case Keenum as the person soon to be the NFL’s most in-demand free agent. It also booked him a ticket to the NFC Championship Game.
Keenum is clearly a talented quarterback, even if that hasn’t been recognized for the during of his NFL career. After his career at the University of Houston nearly ended with a torn ACL, he recovered, played his final season as a grad student, and worked his way up as an undrafted free agent on the Texans’ practice squad before earning a roster spot. He went 0-8 as a starter in 2013 and was dumped unceremoniously that off-season for quarterback Ryan Mallett. He ended up with the Rams after that, where he spent the 2014 season on the practice squad. He went back to Houston, started—and won—a couple of games, then was traded back to the Rams for a seventh-round pick in 2015.
With the 2015 Rams, Keenum was acquired to serve as second string behind the team’s anointed starter, Nick Foles, a fellow Texas boy whose high school career overlapped with Keenum’s.
In 2006, Foles was a star at Westlake High School in Austin. He shattered every record held by the school’s most famous alumnus, but Drew Brees’s shadow still loomed large. Brees led the Chaparrals to a state championship; Foles lost his shot at one. Nonetheless, Foles’s talent on the field was enough to get him a scholarship offer, and after a year at Michigan State, he spent three seasons as the quarterback for the University of Arizona.
But where as Keenum scraped and clawed his way into the NFL, Foles was a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, and the kind who came in to the league behind an aging starter on a short leash. By the middle of Foles’s rookie year, after weeks of speculation that Michael Vick would be benched to make room for him, he was under center for the Eagles. (Ultimately, he got his first shot because of an injury suffered by Vick.) Foles impressed in his first few seasons in Philly. He made the Pro Bowl in 2014, but struggles and injuries the following year derailed his career. Eventually, the Rams—another team with uncertainty at the quarterback position—made the Eagles an offer, and the two made the nearly unprecedented move of swapping starting quarterbacks. Foles was sent, along with a second and fourth round draft pick, to the Rams, and Sam Bradford and a fifth round draft pick came to Philadelphia.
Foles opened the 2015 season as the Rams’ starter, but he struggled; that November, he was benched, and Keenum ascended. Foles returned to the field briefly after Keenum suffered a concussion, but then Keenum returned once more after Foles continued to struggle. In the 2016 NFL draft, the Rams spent the first overall pick on quarterback Jared Goff, and Foles was granted his release.
In the 2017 offseason, Foles returned to Philadelphia—this time, with the clear plan to serve as the backup to Carson Wentz, the number two overall pick in the 2016 draft. He signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the franchise that drafted him. That same off-season, Keenum—who had played well with the Rams in 2016, as the team waited for Goff to mature—hit free agency. The market for his services was small. He signed a one-year contract worth $2 million with the Vikings, where he was expected to backup Sam Bradford for at least part of the season, unless and until the team’s highly-drafted quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, returned from injury. It was the sort of deal a journeyman quarterback takes. The NFL is full of guys who bounce from team to team on short-term deals, veteran presences who help rookies learn the league and who are valued for their locker room makeup.
But now, the legend of Case Keenum is cemented in Minnesota lore; “third and ten with ten seconds left” are words that today’s children will someday tell their own kids about. Keenum vanquished Drew Brees in the playoffs. On Sunday, he’ll have to do the same to Nick Foles, who found himself starting for the Eagles after Wentz tore his ACL late in the season.
Foles has been playing well in relief of Wentz. This past Sunday, he led the Eagles to a 15-10 victory over the reigning NFC Champions, the Atlanta Falcons. But while Keenum’s status as the best quarterback to enter free agency this off-season is cemented, Foles is still in a position where he has to prove himself. The Eagles are the rare home team in a conference championship game to be an underdog—Vegas favors the Vikings by three—and there’ll be no shock among fans if he struggles on the field on Sunday. Those who followed their careers with the Rams won’t be surprised, either, if Keenum outplays him—he did that when they both played in St. Louis, after all.
Or perhaps Foles shines, and lives up to the promise he carried with him at Westlake High School, back when Keenum was breaking records of his own in Abilene. Then, perhaps, we’ll finally know who the best high school quarterback in Texas was in 2006.