Case Keenum entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and was signed by the Houston Texans after being passed over by all 32 teams in the league. Eleven other quarterbacks were selected in that draft, among them Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, and Texas high school stars Andrew Luck and Nick Foles. Brandon Weeden, who did time with both the Cowboys and the Texans, entered the league as a 27-year-old first-round draft pick for the Cleveland Browns that year. The following round, the Denver Broncos selected Brock Osweiler—whom the Texans would, in the course of the 2016 off-season, trade to Cleveland along with a second-round pick for literally nothing in return.
Meanwhile, Keenum was passed over a total of 253 times in the 2012 draft. It was not an auspicious start to his professional career.
It was, however, a fair one. Keenum spent the 2012 on the Texans’ practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster for the 2013 season. That year, he was pressed into service after now-departed starter Matt Schaub suffered an injury that would mark the end of his time in Houston. In the eight games he played in that year, he completed just 54 percent of his passes, threw nine touchdowns and six interceptions, and came away with an 0-8 record. Houston, confident that they had a proper evaluation of Keenum’s ability, released him in the off-season and decided to roll with former New England Patriot Ryan Mallett.
Mallett’s tenure in Houston was uninspiring, and Keenum spent 2014 on the practice squad for the St. Louis Rams. He would proceed to bounce between Houston and the Rams organization (which moved to Los Angeles last year), starting eighteen games over the course of three seasons, seemingly proving that he was exactly who the Texans’ coaching staff thought he was: a middling journeyman whose best seasons saw him complete maybe 60 percent of his passes, who tended to throw interceptions about as often as he threw touchdowns, and who played his best ball when he wasn’t called upon to do very much.
Through it all, though, fans of his alma mater continued to believe in Keenum. At the University of Houston, Keenum wasn’t just successful, he was historically great. He holds all-time NCAA records in categories including most completions, most passing yards, most passing touchdowns, most games with 300 or more passing yards, most seasons with 5,000 or more passing yards, most total yards (both passing and as a runner), and most touchdowns (both passing and as a runner). For a Cougars program that, at the time, had never received much in the way of national respect, Keenum was proof that the school mattered. At the end of his college career in 2011, Bleacher Report ran an impassioned essay arguing that Keenum was the greatest Cougars quarterback of all time; writing for Texas Monthly in 2009, Jeff Beckham argued that Keenum deserved the Heisman Trophy. (Alabama running back Mark Ingram eventually won with 229 votes; Keenum received two.)
And so loyal Cougars remained steadfast in their belief that if given the chance and the right supporting cast, Keenum could develop into a franchise quarterback. Bleacher Report‘s Texans blog made that argument in 2013, citing his college career. As recently as last October, Houston’s Paper City argued that the Texans had it better with Keenum than they did with Osweiler, despite the fact that Keenum was on the verge of being benched in Los Angeles. It appeared to be the sort of delusional, if familiar, clinging-to-the-past sentiment felt by college football fans following their beloved alma mater’s players in the NFL. But outside of the University of Houston’s orbit, we knew the truth: Case Keenum was a career backup at best.
…except, as it turns out, the Cougars fans may have been right all along.
Keenum signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings in the off-season. It was a $2 million contract, peanuts compared to the sort of deal signed by players currently riding the bench like Nick Foles ($27.5 million over five years), Mike Glennon ($18.5 million for the 2017 season alone), Brian Hoyer ($7.3 million for 2017), and even Matt Schaub ($9 million over two years). He entered the season as the backup to starter Sam Bradford, who was himself mostly keeping the spot warm while erstwhile starter Teddy Bridgewater, who missed the entire 2016 season because of a freak injury, recovered. Keenum was a cheap insurance policy, a one-year rental who might well get cut by the Vikings when Bridgewater returned.
But Bradford suffered injuries. He started only two games this year and is currently on injured reserve. Bridgewater is practicing with the Vikings again, but it’s unlikely he’s going to end up on the field anytime soon, and for a simple reason: Case Keenum is having not just the best season of his disappointing NFL career, but one of the best 2017 seasons of any quarterback in the league. Under his leadership, the Vikings are sitting on an 8-2 record, riding a six-game winning streak, and establishing themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
It’s not simply through the strength of Minnesota’s impressive defense, either. (Since week two, only one team has scored more than twenty points against the Vikings.) Keenum’s quarterback play has kept the Vikings in games they might have lost; it’s helped them pull away in games that a Super Bowl contender needs to dominate; and, in recent weeks, it’s put his name in the same conversation as stars like Tom Brady and Carson Wentz when Bridgewater’s potential return comes up. Why would you ever bench someone who’s playing like one of those guys?
On Sunday, going against the equally-hot Los Angeles Rams, Keenum led the Vikings offense to 24 points while stymieing one of the league’s best defenses. That came a week after out-dueling Washington’s Kirk Cousins in a four-touchdown performance that helped establish the possibility of the Vikings being the first team to host a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
At this point, it’s unlikely that Keenum wins the NFL MVP award, simply because Brady is still playing dominant ball and Wentz is the brightest star of a league that desperately needs a marketable face that’s under 40 years old. (Had Texans’ QB Deshaun Watson not suffered a season-ending injury, he’d likely be prominent in that conversation too.) But when the balloting for the award happens, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Keenum pick up a few votes if he keeps it up. If that were to happen, it might mirror his Heisman balloting back in 2009, when a flashier player from a respected powerhouse program took the award and Keenum was once more an afterthought on the national stage. But even if he never gets the recognition that fans have long believed he deserves, Case Keenum is finally playing like the quarterback that Cougars fans always dreamed he could be.