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The mediocrity of Case Keenum

Case Keenum has led the Vikings to a 4-2 record in games he has started. Here’s why you should have reservations.

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NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns
He has saved Minnesota’s season, but how much praise does Case Keenum deserve?
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Having your starting quarterback go down for the season is usually a death knell for a team, especially when your team is as cursed at the position as the Minnesota Vikings have been. That said, in one of Rick Spielman’s shrewder offseason moves, he brought in fifth-year veteran quarterback Case Keenum to act as Sam Bradford’s backup.

Keenum has been more active as a backup than most would have hoped or even liked when the Vikings first signed him. He was brought in as a spot starter for the Week 2 Pittsburgh game, started two more games against the Buccaneers and Lions, then was benched for Bradford’s return against the Bears. We all saw how that was going, and Keenum was put back in before the end of the first half of the Bears game and has guided the Vikings to four consecutive victories since, including finishing the win against the Bears and beating the Packers the following week.

Despite the success of the Vikings, many fans (myself included) have been clamoring for either Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater to start once either is healthy enough to play. This has caused some consternation amongst other Vikings fans who would prefer to stay the course and wait for Keenum to fail as a starter before going to a different quarterback.

The discussion of when to make the switch is one thing, and the coaches of the Vikings will analyze things on their end and ultimately make a decision that will likely upset large portions of the fan base. But for now, let’s stick with looking at how Keenum has played so far this season, both the good and the bad. All stats from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise notated.

Keenum’s stats

Case Keenum has been moving back and forth between starting and being a backup his entire career. 2017 is now the fourth season where he has started five or more games in a season, and he has played like a backup quarterback would be expected to play on bad, even horrifically bad, teams.

Houston, 2013 (0-8): 137/253 (54.2%), 1760 yards, 9 TD’s (3.6%), 6 INT’s (2.4%), 7.0 Y/A, 6.6 AY/A, 78.2 quarterback rating, 52.2 QBR, 19 sacks, 5.73 NY/A, 5.4 ANY/A

St. Louis, 2015 (3-2): 76/125 (60.8%), 828 yards, 4 TD’s (3.2%), 1 INT (.8%), 6.6 Y/A, 6.9 AY/A, 87.7 quarterback rating, 37.6 QBR, 4 sacks, 6.2 NY/A, 6.47 ANY/A

LA Rams, 2016 (4-5): 196/322 (60.9%), 2201 yards, 9 TD’s (2.8%), 11 INT’s (3.4%), 6.8 Y/A, 5.9 AY/A, 76.4 quarterback rating, 43.4 QBR, 23 sacks, 5.97 NY/A, 5.06 ANY/A

So Keenum, before this season, was basically playing like a low-end starter. Nothing particularly special or really any numbers in general that might indicate he was worthy of a longer look as a starter. Now let’s look at his stats so far this season, with numbers that currently stand as career highs bolded.

Vikings, 2017 (4-2): 149/233 (63.9%), 1610 yards, 7 TD’s (3%), 3 INT’s (1.3%), 6.9 Y/A, 6.9 AY/A, 88.8 quarterback rating, 64.7 QBR, 5 sacks, 6.58 NY/A, 6.6 ANY/A

That’s a fair number of his numbers that are on pace for career-high marks. He’s tied for most wins and fewest losses, he’s completing 3% more passes than he did in 2016, his previous high-water mark in that particular category, he’s tied for his best adjusted yards per attempt, it goes on and on.

Keenum’s performance is rated as average to above-average, depending on which publication you use. PFF, for example, rates him as their #15 quarterback with a 77.6 overall grade, ranked between Ben Roethlisberger at #14 and Eli Manning at #16. They have Keenum’s adjusted completion percentage ranked 17th (72.2%), his passer rating vs. pressure is ranked 9th (76.1), passer rating against the blitz as 15th (90.5), passer rating on short throws as 24th (83.2), 10th in intermediate throws (103.9) and 11th in deep throws (94.0). His big-time throw percentage (throws given higher grades due to excellent timing and accuracy while being thrown downfield or into a tight window) is 4.2%, good for 18th. He’s made turnover-worthy throws on just 2% of his passes (4th overall) and he’s received 2.63 seconds to throw on average, which is 11th in the NFL.

Football Outsiders, on the other hand, is much more complimentary of Keenum’s play so far this season. If you are looking for an explanation of these stats, please go to the page I linked in the first sentence of the paragraph because the site itself gives a much better explanation than I can provide.

Keenum is fifth in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) with a mark of 553, just behind fourth-place Ben Roethlisberger’s 555. He is fourth in YAR with a tidy mark of 578. As for DVOA itself, Keenum is ranked fourth with a DVOA of 24.3% and a VOA of 25.9%, one of just five qualifying quarterbacks to have a DVOA or VOA of over 20%.

Stats are one way to evaluate a quarterback’s play, and they in no way should be the only way you evaluate any player. You also have to evaluate his play on the field and what he does well and does not do well.

What Keenum does well

Mobility. It’s the hallmark of a good quarterback to be able to escape a collapsing pocket and throw on the run. Sam Bradford, as most Vikings fans discovered to their detriment in the last season+, has very little mobility. In fact, it’s noteworthy when he does manage to escape the pocket and go on the run for a play.

Case Keenum is quite the opposite. While not necessarily as mobile as a healthy Teddy Bridgewater, Keenum has shown over and over again this season that he knows just the right second to evacuate the pocket and go on the move to make a play. That mobility has helped him be one of the top QB’s on the move, according to Pro Football Focus.

The positive sides of Keenum’s mobility and pocket escapability was on display on one play in particular in London.

Keenum negotiates the pocket, looks downfield for one of his receivers to get open, but nobody is. When massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton (55) manages to work his way through the Vikings offensive line, Keenum sees the open space to his right and runs that way. He sees Adam Thielen wide open in the back of the end zone and hits him for an 18-yard touchdown pass to put the Vikings ahead, 9-6.

Stat-wise, PFF has Keenum with these stats outside the pocket: 24/41 (58.5%) for 302 yards and 4 touchdowns and nearly three-quarters of his yards outside the pocket (72.5; 219/302 yards). So his accuracy is a bit of an issue, but he’s gotten okay yardage and generally put his wide receivers in a place where they can get yardage after the catch when out of the pocket.

Command of the huddle is another huge component of Keenum’s game. Week 5 of the season against the Chicago Bears was a game where the Vikings, on paper, were clearly the better team. But it the game was in Soldier Field, the Bears were starting a quarterback that basically nobody has tape on and the Vikings started the game with Sam Bradford as their quarterback. As the first half progressed, it became perfectly clear that Bradford had come back too early and needed to be replaced. Enter Keenum.

It wasn’t a statistically impressive performance, but the offense felt like it had taken a breath of fresh air with him under center. When a hobbled Bradford was under center, passes were off the mark and he had no mobility. When Keenum was calling the plays, he was able to move around and found the best places for his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs to go with the ball. It led to the offense doing just enough to escape the Halas Hall of Horrors with a victory, something that very few Vikings teams, no matter how good they have been, have struggled to do in this millennium.

Certain quarterbacks struggle more with pressure than others do. Keenum has been very good in this and it shows in his numbers.

The Browns may not have a good defense, but when Gregg Williams’ defense did manage to put pressure on Keenum, he stayed calm and took care of business to keep the Vikings from being the team that allows the Browns to win their first game of the season. Keenum has been fairly good under pressure all season long. He’s also shown himself capable of making throws like in the tweet below while under pressure.

There’s plenty of value in having a quarterback that’s good under pressure, and, generally, Keenum has taken advantage of teams getting pressure on him by playing at a higher level.

Keenum’s greatest attributes are his mobility and as a stabilizing presence in an offense that has desperately needed one with all the uncertainty at quarterback this season.

What Keenum has struggled with

With all those nice things about Keenum aside, he does have some flaws to his game, and fairly noticeable ones at that. After the Browns game, I think most people would consider that Keenum’s performance was fairly up-and-down throughout.

His iffy performance came despite a Browns defense that has allowed the sixth-most passing touchdowns, has the tenth-fewest interceptions in the league and allows the 9th-highest net yards per attempt. Football Outsiders ranks the Browns’ passing offense as the seventh-worst according to DVOA. So, using the Browns game as an example, what are Keenum’s flaws?

Take for example this play in the fourth quarter. It’s 2nd and 6 at the Minnesota 20 yard line. Cleveland shows that they’re bringing a heavy blitz right from the get-go and that’s exactly what they bring. Seven Browns players attack the line of scrimmage and because of it being a play-action for the Vikings, Keenum is almost immediately on the move. His blockers do a good job of keeping Browns away from him and when he makes his pass to tight end David Morgan in the flat, there’s not a Brown within five yards of him (Keenum).

But what Keenum misses because of the heavy original pressure is that Diggs, who is running what appears to be a deep post pattern towards the nearside sideline, managed to break free of the coverage and was ten yards clear of any Browns defender. Any throw in his vicinity with enough room for him to keep running and Diggs is gone for an 80-yard score. Now, the Vikings did eventually score on this drive, as this was the drive that Keenum hit Rudy in the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown about four minutes of game clock after this play occurred, but it’s the kind of play that Keenum should be on the lookout for with a defense as weak on the back end as the Browns. (In fact, if you look at this tweet by Josh Mensch, it’s pretty clear that Keenum almost immediately realized how big of an opportunity he had blown by missing Diggs deep.)

Keenum had two throws that, if he had recognized an open receiver, would have gone for touchdowns. The above tweet by Mensch is the second. This play came much earlier on in the game, on the second drive of the game for the Vikings. This is a 1st and 10 play that ends up being an incompletion to Laquon Treadwell deep down the field. Treadwell is covered well right off the bat by his corner. Keenum initially looks to Treadwell right as he’s taking the snap, trying to see what the Browns corner does as Treadwell releases off the line. That initial look is what Keenum uses to decide his target, as he looks towards the left-center of the field and pump-fakes in an attempt to try and keep Treadwell free of that second coverage the safety would have brought.

That pump fake does two things. One, it draws the safety towards the receiver Keenum initially looked at, Treadwell, and he guesses correctly that Treadwell is Keenum’s target. The unfortunate thing for the Vikings is that the safety guessing correctly and racing towards Treadwell to provide deep support means that when Adam Thielen streaks past the linebackers playing in the middle of the field, he’s wide the GD hell open.

The line is doing an excellent job of keeping Keenum clear from pass rushers and he would have had easily an extra second in the pocket if he wanted it. If Keenum reads how flat-footed the linebacker that Thielen streaks past is playing while doing his pump fake, he could have reset and hit Thielen for a touchdown that would have kicked the Browns right in the cojones after they had just had a long play for a touchdown themselves. Instead, Keenum tries to make a throw I don’t know how many QB’s in the NFL can make (hint: it’s not many) and fit the ball into a miniscule window along the side line. The pass was incomplete despite a nice effort from Treadwell to tyr and haul it in and the Vikings had to settle for a field goal.

Accuracy and arm strength issues have, unfortunately, gone hand in hand for Keenum this season.

On this play, a 3rd and 5 at the MN 33 partway through the fourth quarter, Diggs is running a deep route to the outside and the Browns cornerback foolishly allows him a free release off the line. Meanwhile, the Browns have just two down linemen on the play but three other players signaling from their upright stance directly on the line that they will likely be rushing the passer. The Browns appear to run a zone blitz, with the nearest upright pass rusher dropping back into coverage (and likely committing what should have been an illegal contact penalty on Rudy, though the refs might not have called it because of how much it looks like Rudy is trying to sell the contact).

Diggs makes his cover man pay by getting behind him and has a step on the corner. The safety, once he sees where the throw is going, breaks on the play but he’s way too far away to make any kind of play if the throw is good. Sam Bradford made a throw just like this a number of times in 2016 and I think that if it’s him or even Teddy at quarterback, this is likely a completed pass. Unfortunately, Keenum’s arm and general ball placement is extremely shoddy and Diggs has to halt his route and make a body adjustment to even get his hands on the ball. The corner contests the catch because he had time to catch up on the route, the ball is tipped in the air and falls harmlessly to the ground incomplete. Should there have been pass interference called? Maybe. But it’s not a sure thing, especially on an underthrow like this, and Case and the Vikings shouldn’t have been hoping for it as an outcome.

Keenum’s mobility can also get him into trouble, as the Vikings found out to their detriment against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2.

Keenum has been fairly good this season when bailing out of the pocket to escape rushers. However, one bad tendency that has popped up every now and again throughout this season is when Keenum, instead of stepping up into the pocket, just keeps shuffling backwards. This tendency is showcased in the above tweet and it led to Keenum taking two of his five sacks on the season against the Steelers in his first start of the season. Keenum’s mobility is best showcased when he moves from side-to-side, not backwards, and that tendency to move backwards cost the Vikings 21 yards of offense because of the sacks.

There are also the stats to think about. While Keenum is having a career-best campaign in 2017, many of his numbers are equal to or worse than Teddy Bridgewater put up in 2015 or Sam Bradford did in 2016. Both Bradford and Bridgewater had better completion percentages than Keenum currently does, despite Keenum being in an offense that is basically constructed for him to succeed. Keenum is currently on pace to throw for 14 TD’s on the season, a number that was surpassed easily by Bradford and would equal both of Teddy’s two seasons.

Keenum’s career-best yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt are both worse than Bradford’s and worse than Teddy in yards per attempt and equal in adjusted yards per attempt. Keenum’s career-best QBR is .1 higher than Teddy in 2015 and 10.5 lower than Bradford in 2016. Keenum’s career-best QBR of 64.7 beats both 2016 Sam (59) and 2015 Teddy (60.4), but there’s also the fact that neither Bradford or Teddy has ever managed to experience this talented of an offense around themselves, and could easily be equaling or surpassing Keenum’s performance in this one stat.

Where to go from here

As well as Keenum has played for the Vikings in 2016, it is clear that he has left plays on the table. That’s not something that’s up for debate, that’s verifiable fact. And at a certain point, the plays that a quarterback like Keenum can sometimes leave on the field can cost a team points and even a game. Luckily for the Vikings, they have faced a fairly easy schedule thus far and have been able to go 5-2 in the games Keenum has played in.

Unfortunately for the Vikings, the only quarterback they have signed long-term on their roster right now is rookie Kyle Sloter. Not exactly a prime scenario for this team to be in. I think @BHeintzSKOL puts it best:

If there is anything working against Case Keenum starting the remainder of the season, it’s the idea that the Vikings still consider Teddy Bridgewater the quarterback of the future. That belief means that they need to see if he has recovered enough to be worth a contract in the offseason. If he plays well after coming in, then Keenum will have been a worthy transitional quarterback from Sam to Teddy. If, God forbid, Teddy struggles, then the Vikings will have to make alternative decisions with their quarterbacking situation.

Basically Keenum has played acceptably well, but since he hasn’t blown the Vikings away, they feel they need to see what Teddy Bridgewater has, because he has proven, when healthy, to be a better quarterback than Keenum while in a worse offense. Much as Vikings fans will hate it because of the element of change it implies, the last eight games of the season will give the front office an idea of exactly how much work needs to be done in the offseason with the team’s quarterbacking position.