With breakout year for Vikings, Case Keenum finally finds solid ground

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Vikings QB Case Keenum will make his first playoff start Saturday.

The nomadic life of a backup quarterback has taken Case Keenum from Houston to St. Louis and back, on to Los Angeles and, now, Minneapolis. From practice squad to injury replacement, to placeholder for a No. 1 pick to, finally, playoff starter.

Keenum’s surprising run as Minnesota's starting quarterback gave him and his wife, Kimberley, the chance to experience another first last weekend while the Vikings were on a bye during the wild-card round.

The Keenums joined tight end David Morgan and his girlfriend for a day of ice fishing, the quintessential Minnesotan winter experience. It was about zero degrees — “not a bad day,” Morgan said — and Keenum, a native Texan, insisted on driving his pickup truck.

“We got there, he was like, ‘OK this is the moment of truth. If the ice breaks, what is our escape route? What are we going to do? Are we going to go through the sunroof or go out the window?’ ” Morgan told USA TODAY Sports, laughing.

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The ice held, of course, and the foursome caught 20 or so sunfish. Consider it yet another successful chapter in the most surreal and successful year of Keenum’s professional life.

“I mean, it's been kind of a bunch of moments where you have to pinch yourself and kind of make sure this is real life,” Keenum told USA TODAY Sports. “I've enjoyed every second of it, and I'm going to enjoy every second of this postseason. I know these times don't come along very often, and I’m making sure that I take full advantage.”

Keenum has been in the starting lineup since Week 2 — save an Oct. 9 game at Chicago, when predecessor Sam Bradford tried to come back from a knee injury. Keenum has gone 11-3 this season, helping lead Minnesota to the NFC North title while putting up the best statistics of his career: 3,547 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 98.3 passer rating. His 67.6% completion rate is nearly seven points higher than his previous career best.

Keenum will make his postseason debut Sunday in the divisional round against the New Orleans Saints, but head coach Mike Zimmer doesn’t expect the situation to overwhelm him at all.

“He’s an excitable guy, but he’s always excitable, so I don’t see that being much of a thing,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “The thing I appreciate about him is, besides his big balls, is that he pays attention to detail, he studies, he works real hard in preparation and so I think all of those things come into factor.”

Keenum’s rise is a credit to quality coaching and his own perseverance, along with the lessons he learned while going from backup to starter to being benched during his two-year tenure with the Rams, both in St. Louis and Los Angeles. He's never had job security in the NFL — even as the Vikings stacked wins with him, the local headlines were so often about Bradford’s knee or when former starter Teddy Bridgewater might make his long-awaited return from the devastating injury he suffered before the 2016 regular season. Even Zimmer seemed reluctant to commit to Keenum.

During his time with the Rams, as pressure built to play No. 1 pick Jared Goff last year amid the offense's struggles, Keenum learned to block out the noise. He stopped letting questions asked in press conferences bother him, nor worried about things people might say about him on television or online.

“For me, it really helped focus on what I'm doing, putting my blinders on, making sure that I'm not letting the externals get in the way of what's most important,” Keenum said.

"I think I used a lot of that and compartmentalizing when talking about things and then actually going and doing my job. Separating the two, I think that helped a lot.”

He’s also benefited from playing in coordinator Pat Shurmur’s offense, a scheme that utilizes a creative mix of formations, tempos and passing routes. Shurmur’s success with Keenum — with a unit featuring a rebuilt offensive line and thriving despite the loss of rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a knee injury early in the season — has made him a hot head coaching candidate. Speculation has even begun that perhaps Keenum, who is playing on a one-year deal, could join Shurmur if he lands a new job.

“I love him as a coordinator, as an install guy and putting together game plans. He's a great person, so all those things combined, I think he'll make a great head coach,” Keenum said. “He deserves all the praise that he's getting, and I think he'll do well at whatever he wants to do.”

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If the Vikings overcome the Saints, and the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons, it would set up an NFC Championship Game with the unlikely quarterback pairing of Keenum and Nick Foles, who were teammates on the 2015 Rams.

Foles was granted his release from the Rams after they picked Goff atop the 2016 draft. Foles eventually found his way back to the Eagles, who drafted him in 2012, and returned to their starting lineup last month after Carson Wentz suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Foles and Keenum remain friends, thrilled to see the other still playing.

“Case is a really good player, and he’s showing that this year with his consistency week in and week out. He’s playing at a high level. That doesn’t surprise me,” Foles said.

But first comes the biggest game of Keenum’s career, opposite New Orleans' Drew Brees, and the chance to prove that what he’s done this season is not a fluke.

“It's one thing to go out there and have a good game here or there. But I mean, he's played at a consistently good level all year long, and that speaks volumes about who he is and how he prepares,” Morgan said.


Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones


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