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The Curious Cases of Case Keenum

After encountering every bad quarterback situation imaginable, the Vikings passer has somehow found himself in the position that every signal-caller dreams about

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Case Keenum — Case Keenum? — is somehow on the verge of bringing the Vikings to the Super Bowl. The team signed Keenum in April as a backup to Sam Bradford, who himself was acquired as a backup plan after injury to Teddy Bridgewater before the 2016 season. Keenum was a third-stringer, and here he is throwing game-winning touchdowns, uniting all of Minnesota in Viking claps and preemptively earning tens of millions of dollars on next year’s free-agency market.

As Keenum darts toward glory, this video of Jon Gruden giving Keenum a pep talk in 2012 by saying that draft order doesn’t matter is the NFL’s Inspiration Fodder of the week. Keenum was soon to be an undrafted free agent, but as Gruden told him, he just needed to make one coach believe, and he would get his chance to show what he could do and make those who doubted him sorry:

Of course, it was Gruden’s job to say these sorts of things in his ESPN QB Camp segments — here he is telling another soon-to-be-undrafted free agent quarterback, Tyler Bray, that he looks like “Tom Brady Jr.”

But Keenum’s incredibly strange career is worth some review. It’s been filled with contradictions: He was a college football superstar who immediately became a nobody in the NFL; he was a nobody in the NFL who soon became a starting quarterback; he was twice cut by teams that instantly demanded him back. Let’s reflect on the Cases of Case:

Curious Case No. 1: The Best Quarterback Nobody Wanted

If you go off the stats alone, Case Keenum is undoubtedly the greatest quarterback in college football history. He is the all-time Division I leader in career passing touchdowns, with 155; nobody else has more than 142. He is the all-time Division I leader in passing yards, with 19,217; second place is 17,072. Keenum is the all-time Division I leader in completions, with 1,546; there’s a two-way tie for second, at 1,403. He ranks sixth all time in completion percentage (69.4), 17th in total yards per play (7.95), and 20th in passer efficiency rating (160.6).

In a matchup against Rice during his senior season, he threw nine touchdowns in a 73–34 win.

Rice: Cooked.

Despite Keenum’s prolific numbers, though, the general consensus in the football world seemed to be that the quarterback’s impressive accomplishments had more to do with his college coaches than his talent. Keenum was 6-foot-1, a two-star recruit out of high school. Art Briles, the coach who recruited Keenum to Houston, was hired as Baylor’s head coach after Keenum’s freshman season. Kevin Sumlin, who replaced Briles, was hired as Texas A&M’s head coach after the Cougars went 13–1 in 2011. Dana Holgorsen, who coordinated Houston’s offense during Keenum’s sophomore and junior seasons, became West Virginia’s head coach in 2011. Kliff Kingsbury, who replaced Holgorsen as offensive coordinator, became Texas Tech’s coach in 2013. Keenum was a “system QB,” and everybody wanted the guys who built the system.

And as all of his coaches advanced professionally off of his exceptional performances, it was clear that nobody wanted to give Keenum a job. A quarterback with strong NFL draft prospects will typically leave school after spending just three years on campus; there was no buzz about Keenum’s pro prospects after his third or fourth college seasons, and when he suffered an ACL tear just a few games into his fifth season, he applied for a rare NCAA waiver to play a sixth season, arguing that he’d missed both his true freshman and redshirt senior seasons with injuries. It worked.

It is strange that Keenum went undrafted after becoming the most prolific passer in college football history, but he wouldn’t have become the most prolific passer in college football history if going undrafted weren’t a possibility.

Curious Case No. 2: From Charity Signing to Starter

NFL teams often sign the local kid from the local college as a flier to help round out their training camp roster or practice squad. This is a nice gesture for area fans, is logistically easy, and helps build a relationship with a nearby college coaching staff. NFL teams don’t often start the local kid from the local college at quarterback, but that’s exactly what happened with Keenum and the Texans.

In 2012, then–Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak spoke highly of Keenum, whom he met on a local golf course. But the rookie emerged as just the Texans’ fourth-string QB that season. Matt Schaub was the established starter; T.J. Yates was the backup (and had won a playoff game the previous year after Schaub went down with an injury); and John Beck beat out Keenum to land the third spot on the active roster. Keenum was relegated to the practice squad, where he occasionally played cornerback and special teams.

But Keenum got a shot in his second year. After starting 2–0 in 2013, the Texans lost five in a row, with Schaub playing so badly that Houston fans cheered when he got injured. At that point, Keenum jumped Yates on the depth chart.

Curious Case No. 3: The Best Worst Start to an NFL Career

Keenum quickly found out that having Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins as wide receivers was good:

Keenum threw seven touchdowns before his first interception, but his stint as the Texans starter was one of the most unfortunate stretches in recent NFL memory. Each of his first seven starts ended with one-possession losses. Keenum, who had made so many coaches’ careers in college, couldn’t save Kubiak: After the seventh straight one-possession loss, Kubiak was fired.

In his eighth start, Keenum injured his thumb. He finished his first season of NFL play 0–8.

Curious Case No. 4: From Starter to Practice Squadder

The Texans brought in Bill O’Brien as head coach before the 2014 season and started completely fresh at quarterback: They signed Ryan Fitzpatrick, drafted Tom Savage, and traded for Ryan Mallett a few days before Week 1. With studs like Fitzpatrick, Mallett, and Savage on the roster, there was obviously no room for Keenum, so he was cut.

The Rams picked him up, but at the time they were embroiled in what might have been the least-compelling QB controversy ever: Shaun Hill versus Austin Davis. Hill started eight games, going 3–5 and completing 63.3 percent of his passes; Davis started eight games, too, going 3–5 and completing 63.4 percent of his attempts. (Davis, incidentally, was the quarterback for the Southern Miss team that beat Keenum’s previously 12–0 Houston squad in the 2011 Conference USA title game, preventing the Cougars from playing in a BCS bowl game. Case Keenum probably hates Austin Davis.)

Keenum was a third-year player with a half season of NFL starting experience languishing on the practice squad. St. Louis, with studs like Hill and Davis at QB, decided it also had no room for Keenum.

Curious Case No. 5: From Off the Roster to a Starting Gig

The disaster of the 2013 Texans extended to the 2014 Texans. Mallett tore his pectoral muscle, Fitzpatrick broke his leg, and Savage injured his knee in his second NFL game. So Houston turned to Keenum, who was eligible to be signed because he was on the Rams’ practice squad and not their active roster. Just five days after signing Keenum, the Texans started him in the midst of a playoff race.

Stunningly, this worked! While the Texans couldn’t win with Keenum in 2013, they couldn’t lose with him in 2014. They won their final two games of the season to finish 9–7.

Curious Case No. 6: Finally Getting to Play, Then Playing for Too Long

Having seen the error of their ways, the Rams brought back Keenum. They’d traded for Nick Foles, who had looked great with the Eagles during the 2014 season, and the Rams needed a backup. This was basically the safest Keenum had ever been to start a season: He’d been a practice squadder, a third-stringer, and a practice squadder. No. 2 QB was a great option.

Especially since Foles actually sucked. He was benched after a stretch of five games in which he threw two touchdowns and five interceptions, leading to Keenum’s first start for reasons not due to injury. But then Keenum got injured. The Rams lost Keenum’s first start, a Week 10 matchup with Baltimore, because nobody took him out of the game when he obviously had a concussion. A woozy Keenum fumbled late in the fourth quarter with the game tied, and the Ravens kicked a game-winning field goal.

Curious Case No. 7: The Starter Who Wasn’t

Luckily, Keenum would finish the season strong after missing a few games with the concussion. He even played the best game of his career in Week 15, posting a near-perfect 158.0 QB rating against the Buccaneers.

But it wasn’t enough to convince the Rams that he should be their guy when they moved to Los Angeles in 2016. The Rams traded for the no. 1 pick and drafted Jared Goff. Foles was released by request, and it fell to Keenum to be the starting quarterback until Goff seemed ready to take the reins. In Keenum’s first legitimate starting gig, it was clear he wasn’t the team’s no. 1 QB.

Then Keenum had the worst season of his career. He was dead last in the league in QBR, 27th out of 30 qualifying quarterbacks in QB rating, 28th in interception percentage, 29th in touchdown percentage. (Never play for Jeff Fisher. Not even once.)

The first four years of Keenum’s career tell the tale of how there are some NFL quarterbacks who just need a shot. Keenum scrapped hard for playing time, and generally pulled through, even in awkward circumstances. But the fifth year threw all of that in the trash, showing that there was a damn good reason Keenum had rarely seen the field in his earlier years.

Curious Case No. 8: Minnesota’s Third-String Hero

The 2016 season probably should have been the end of Keenum’s career. He was not signed to play in Minnesota: He was signed to be the backup to a backup. And yet:

Case Keenum has been at his best when the situation is weirdest. And this Vikings season is one of the weirdest situations of all time.