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Cougar Fans, Apparently You Were Right About Case Keenum All Along

Why is the former University of Houston star suddenly playing like the best quarterback in the league in his seventh season?

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Case Keenum of the Minnesota Vikings drops back to pass in the first half during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on September 17, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by Joe Sargent/Getty

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.

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  • Matthew Yeoman

    Terrific article, but how do you neglect to mention that he leads the NFL among active roster QBs in terms of QB rating? He currently is statistically, according to a well regarded composite ranking system, the best QB in the NFL.

    • Donald Johnson

      Why did so many overlook this guy? He showed this when he was in Houston.

      • c w

        “He didn’t beat anybody”.

        “He didn’t play in a real conference.”

        “He’s a system guy.”

        whichever cliche you prefer.

        Having seen how his coach left, one might surmise that there were some things he needed to learn coming out of college. Maybe he also needed to learn how to ignore outside chatter and be himself.

        • Donald Johnson

          Case had some faults, for sure, but that’s what pro systems are supposed to improve. He did better in that position than the other schmucks brought in while he was there and let go for????

  • keenum is one of the best….and whoever proofed/edited this article is not.

    • Donald Johnson

      Yes, the sportswriting quality of these internet hacks leaves much to be desired.

  • Doug Pitre

    Always KNEW that he WOULD be, if given a real chance.

  • James Edelman

    Case Keenum has always been an excellent NFL starting caliber QB. The problem has always been that he has never been with a team that is any good. However, that is not the case anymore. He is finally with a team that is good and he has helped make them even better. God speed Case Keenum.

  • Michael Victor Jozwiak

    Case Keenum should have been the back up to DeShaun Watson. And Keenum at one time had the backing of Andre Johnson.

    • icemankimi

      Yup. Precisely. He should have never left Houston. Look at the quarterbacks Bill O Brien brought in(the so called QB Guru – Flitzpatrick, Hoyer, Mallet, Osweiler, Savage). It is just that Watson is tremendously gifted and made O’Brien look good. He let Keenum walk. That was dumb of him.

  • c w

    “For a Cougars program that, at the time, had never received much in the way of national respect”

    proposed:

    “For a Cougars program that, at the time, did not receive much in the way of national respect”

    The Houston Cougar football team had, by that point, arguably received national respect on several occasions, as evidenced by national rankings, award-winning players (Heisman, Baugh trophies), SWC championships and Bowl game participation (back when one didn’t need to qualify them as “major”).

  • Will Sun

    Go Coogs! Watched him took us beating 5th ranked OSU, Texas Tech, and many other good teams in Roberson stadium. His instincts and guts are nothing short of amazing.

  • Donald Johnson

    Ever since he played his first exhibition with the Texans, I’ve been among those exhorting this guy be kept around until he was ready to start. He showed flashes of managerial brilliance from the start.

    Every time I’d post to others extolling Savage, Osweiler, Weedon, et. al., I would insist that they may never be adequate starters in the NFL, but that Case could be.

    I was laughed at frequently.

  • Brian

    In all fairness, the guy from Paper City is pretty much of a homer, and just as likely to get things wrong. He predicted that JJ Watt wouldn’t be much of an addition to the Texans, and said that Astro George Springer was out injured for months back in 2015…right before he started hitting all those home runs. Oh, and he also came out with an article saying that the Texans would never cut Keenum…the day before they cut Keenum.