No quarterback wants to be a game manager. As Brett Favre put it: “Sounds like you’re trying not to lose the game, instead of trying to win it.” A game manager can’t be MVP, regular season or postseason. Such hardware requires gunslinging – rapid fire to all areas of the field. Favre, Montana, Brady, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Newton and such.
But Super Bowls are often won by a game manager who doesn’t throw more than a touchdown or two and is beloved for the excitement he does not create. Which is to say, he doesn’t cook up anything special in the kitchen but he doesn’t serve turnovers.
Remember (well, maybe you don’t) Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien. All of them earned championship rings without a decibel of MVP buzz.
Case Keenum, the underappreciated quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, may be the best of this unfashionable breed.
Undrafted by the NFL, he’s led the Northmen to 11 wins in his past 12 starts, though he ranks a modest 12th in yardage among the league’s passers and is tied for 13th with 22 touchdowns.
So I don’t want to be the last to point out that he’s way better than those numbers. I just want to be ahead of his coach, Mike Zimmer, who is sometimes more of a Dimmer.
Keenum is all about efficiency, completing a high percentage (67.6), with few interceptions (7) and sacks (22). His unstyle is perfect for a team with a monstrous defense and a grinding running game, which the Vikings have.
He’s distributor and facilitator, making sure everyone understands his role. “Whenever we’re in the huddle,” he said, “I make sure to look into the eyes of every one of those ten guys.”
Adam Thielen, Vikings All-Pro receiver, said on Pro Football Talk, “Case picks up the game plan faster than almost anybody in the building. He gets us involved in it right away: ‘I’d like you to do this if we get this certain coverage.’”
I first became a Keenum fan when he played for the University of Houston. He directed the team on long drive after long drive and was especially unstoppable in the fourth quarter.
Only two dozen people know this, but Case Keenum is the all-time NCAA Division 1 passing leader with 19,217 yards.
He was undrafted because his height was less than ideal at 6-1 and he didn’t have a howitzer attached to his right shoulder.
But the Houston Texans’ scouts saw enough of their backyard to know Keenum could help on their practice squad, and he wound up starting eight games as a rookie.
He played well for a rookie on a bad team — 9 TDs, 6 picks in 253 passes. But he fumbled 6 times and didn’t win any games, and the Texans waived him the following year. They liked his brains, mobility and deep fade, but they thought he couldn’t put enough mustard on the 20-yard middles and outs.
He spent a couple of mediocre years with the Rams – 13 TD, 12 INT – and they dropped him at the end of last season. Keenum was in Houston, unemployed, when the Vikings called last spring and said they needed a backup for Sam Bradford, with Teddy Bridgewater all too slowly recovering from a gruesome knee injury.
The season began and you had to be shocked, shocked when Bradford quickly became injured, and Keenum again was thrust into a starting lineup.
But now he looks different, arm seemingly stronger than it was last year and previous ones.
No longer does he have qualms about firing a fastball into a narrow window. He’s no gunslinger, but he’ll shoot you full of holes if you stack eight men into the box.
His confidence is bolstered by Thielen’s acrobatics and Stefon Diggs’ speed that opens up the back door of the defense. Latavius Murray pounds the middle, while burly tight end Kyle Rudolph is a poor man’s Gronk, turning 5-yard wheels into first downs.
Keenum seems stronger physically not only because of stout support but because he’s continually strengthening his mental game. Always seeking an edge, he has reviewed 3,000 Vikings plays on Virtual Reality.
He believes VR training sharpens his sense of time so he can gauge the rush closing in. Instead of hurrying to make the throw, he learns to take an extra second to survey the field before releasing the ball.
The ability to “slow the game down” creates greatness in all sports that require playmaking: hockey, soccer, basketball. Jockeys speak of their “clock in the head” that’s essential for decisions on the racetrack.
Spending an hour a week on virtual reality, Keenum can review a thousand Vikings plays and tune his reflexes.
There is empirical evidence that, for whatever reasons, he’s the NFL’s best at performing under duress.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, his QBR when pressured is a league-best 59. His QBR when blitzed is 88.
By the way, many football commentators confuse QBR with passer rating. The QBR measures how well the passer performs under the specific circumstances of each play. Thus, a score in garbage time does not count the same as the one that wins the game.
A QBR of 55 is considered winning football, whereas that would be a dismal passer rating, which is compiled, who-knows-how, from conventional statistics.
On Sunday the Vikings will host the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The Vikes are favored by 4 points, but if they lose, Keenum could be back on the street. Zimmer has not concealed his belief that his team is better off if either Bradford or Bridgewater is healthy and able to start.
The hot rumor is that Keenum ends up in a package deal with his coordinator, Pat Shurmur, who is reportedly coveted by the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants. Conveniently, those two teams have openings for both a head coach and a starting quarterback. Keenum is 29, Shurmur 52, and if Minnesota doesn’t appreciate them, it will be good and right that someone else will.