Facing a third-and-7 from the Rams’ 30-yard-line in the second quarter of the Vikings’ win over Los Angeles last Sunday, Case Keenum took a shot, heaving the ball downfield toward a well-covered Adam Thielen.
The pass fell incomplete to end the drive and Kai Forbath missed a field goal to keep the score 7-7.
“Had a chance,” Keenum said of the throw, “but you might check it down at that point and get a first down.”
But that’s not who Case Keenum is, and it’s what Vikings coach Mike Zimmer loves about him.
“The thing I like the most about Case is he’s got (guts). He’s not afraid,” Zimmer said. “He’s going to pull the trigger and he is going to play like that. That’s a good thing.”
Courage is often derived from confidence, something Keenum is playing with a lot of at the moment. He has the Vikings on a six-game winning streak and in position to essentially lock up an NFC North division title with a win Thursday in Detroit.
After looking nothing more than mediocre through his first five NFL seasons, Keenum is playing far and away the best football of his professional career.
“It feels that way, it really does,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be better than I was before. I’ve always tried to be getting better. I had a coach tell me, ‘If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.’ I think I’ve gotten better over my career, and I think right now I’m the best at where I’ve been, and I hope to continue to get better.”
Keenum’s completion percentage (65.7), touchdown percentage (4) and yards per attempt (7.4) are all up from his career averages, and his interception percentage (1.7) is down.
ESPN’s Total QBR, which “incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties,” ranks Keenum as the second-best quarterback in the NFL this season, trailing only Houston’s DeShaun Watson, who is out for the season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in early November.
“This kid is really playing,” former Vikings receiver Ahmad Rashad said. “He’s really guiding and driving this offense in a way that is so efficient — so efficient and they’re still attacking. They lost their No. 1 running back, you figure that was going to be a little bit of a problem, but it’s turned out that Case Keenum is playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the league.’’
Keenum’s current Total Quarterback Rating of 74.0 would account for the 28th-best season by any quarterback since 2006, and ahead of the likes of Carson Wentz and Tom Brady, two of the front-runners in this year’s NFL MVP race.
“Keenum wouldn’t be my first choice for league MVP, but he absolutely deserves some consideration, having played very well this season after being thrown in following a Week One injury to Sam Bradford,” Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith wrote. “If Keenum plays well and the Vikings keep winning, and maybe if Carson Wentz and Tom Brady have some bad games down the stretch, Keenum really has a chance to be named league MVP.”
That would have been difficult to picture as recently as Week 4, when Minnesota fell at home to the Lions. Keenum completed 16 of 30 passes for 219 yards as the offense struggled to get much of anything going.
Since then, he’s become more comfortable in the offense. He’s either seeing things quicker, he said, or the game is slowing down. Keenum, who went undrafted in 2012, insists he’s always believed he could play this well. Maybe that wasn’t the problem.
“I think he’s always been really confident in what he can do,” Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think now he’s starting to be confident in how we do things as receivers or play-makers.”
Thielen specifically referenced a throw early in the second quarter last Sunday, in which Keenum threw to a tightly covered Kyle Rudolph over the middle. Rudolph made the catch over the head of Rams’ linebacker Alec Ogletree for a 28-yard gain.
“I don’t know if he would have put it in that same spot four weeks ago,” Thielen said. “He’s just starting to realize kind of how we like the ball and what we do best as receivers and tight ends and running backs. So, I think he’s always had a ton of confidence in what he can do individually, but now it’s kind of gaining that confidence in the other guys.’’
When that confidence is there, that’s when the gun-slinging Keenum can really let loose.
“Obviously, first of all, you want to take care of the football, and that’s most important. It’s the hopes and dreams of your team when you have the football in your hands,” Keenum said. “That’s why every decision I make is very important. With that being said, you want to give your guys a chance. Some chances are better than others, some risks are better than others.
“There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of different ways you can look at it, but (I’m) just trying to keep doing what I’m doing.”