By DAVE CAMPBELL
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Saturday, January 13, 2018
MINNEAPOLIS -- When Minnesota's offence huddled for the first time that mid-September afternoon in Pittsburgh, Case Keenum's energy and confidence quickly filled the circle.
The Vikings were forced to turn to their backup quarterback to start the second game of the season after Sam Bradford's knee acted up, an ominous development that can doom a team to an autumn of disenchantment and playing for draft pick position.
Despite the decisive defeat against the Steelers that day, though, there was a certain assurance Keenum gave his teammates that suggested they'd be all right.
"He's a guy you want to play for," wide receiver Adam Thielen said.
Four months later, the Vikings and Keenum are still playing.
They're two wins away from reaching the Super Bowl.
"It's been a blast, man. It's been incredible. I'm sure one of these days I'll be able to look back and really appreciate it, but there's so much to enjoy right now," Keenum said. "Not really putting too much into perspective. Not really looking too much at the big picture. I'm keeping my blinders on."
With a modest 6-foot-1, 215pound frame, Keenum was mostly ignored by major college programs despite leading Abilene Wylie High School to its first state championship in football-obsessed Texas. Houston made his only FBS scholarship offer, from then-head coach Art Briles. By the time Keenum was finished with the Cougars he was the NCAA's all-time leading passer with 19,217 yards and 155 touchdowns. Yet he still went undrafted in 2012 and started his professional career on the Houston Texans' practice squad.
Keenum started 10 games over the next two years before being traded to the Rams in 2015, but they made Jared Goff the first pick in the 2016 draft .
Even Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was among those who typecast Keenum as a just-incase second-stringer. Zimmer acknowledged recently he didn't gain full confidence in Keenum until the 11th or 12th game of the season and, when Teddy Bridgewater was cleared to play in midNovember, Zimmer never declared Keenum the starter for more than a week at a time.
"He just wanted a chance," his father, Steve Keenum, said this week in a phone interview. "He's got to have the knack. It's just a God-given, innate thing that he's maximized by working hard."
Good coaching, starting with dad's tips in the family backyard, was another success factor.
When Briles left for Baylor, Kevin Sumlin arrived at Houston for Keenum's sophomore year.
Dana Holgorsen, now the head coach at West Virginia, was the offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach. After he departed, Kliff Kingsbury, currently the head coach at Texas Tech, took charge of the quarterbacks.
"They had some speed, and the next thing you know they were throwing the ball all over the field," said Steve, who attended all 57 of Case's games with the Cougars and has been to each game he's played for the Vikings.
"They had some really talented kids. People talked about him being a system guy, with short passes and a run after the catch, but they didn't see him play."
Though Keenum had prior NFL experience, including nine starts for the Los Angeles Rams in 2016, he was signed by the Vikings as a one-year stopgap to be the guy in the ball cap providing sideline support and give Bridgewater ample time to recover from his knee injury. The Vikings were banking on Bradford, who had just produced an injury-free career-best performance.
Over the past four months, though, they've been cashing in on Keenum, a dividend that has paid out handsomely for both parties.
"We've got a great group of guys here," he said, "and I think we're all excited to be extending our season."
SAINTS (12-5) AT VIKINGS (13-3) SUNDAY, 4:40 P.M. EST, FOX, CTV
Opening line - Vikings by 4 Record vs. spread - New Orleans 8-8, Minnesota 11-4-1 Series record - Vikings lead 21-11 Last meeting - Vikings beat Saints 29-19, Sept. 11, 2017 Last week - Saints beat Panthers 31-26; Vikings had bye AP Pro32 ranking - Saints no. 6, Vikings no.2 Saints offence - over all (2), rush (5), pass (5) Saints defence - over all (17), rush (16), pass (15) Vikings offence - over all (11), rush (7), pass (11) Vikings defence - over all (1), rush (2), pass (2)