Is Case Keenum a One-Hit Wonder?

A lot has been made of the Broncos’ acquisition of quarterback Case Keenum. Does it represent a sizable upgrade over the three different starters that Denver trotted out last year? Or was it the offensive skill players and top-ranked defense that made the Vikings so successful in 2017, and Keenum was just along for the ride? The Broncos’ ability to rebound from their disastrous 5-11 season likely hinges on the answer.

The good news is that I’m not too concerned whether or not the Broncos will be better off with Keenum this season, and you shouldn’t be either. My cat would probably be an upgrade over Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch. The real question is did Case Keenum actually emerge in 2017 as a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL, or was his performance just an aberration? Will the real Case Keenum please stand up?

Alright, that was more than just one question, but you get it. I’d normally say that if your first good season as a professional quarterback doesn’t come until you’ve been doing it for six years, there should rightfully be some skepticism over whether or not it was a fluke. Of course, it isn’t always a one-off performance. Sometimes you have a case like Steve Young…

  • Started in the USFL
  • Had a failed stint as Tampa Bay’s starter
  • Was traded to the 49ers as Joe Montana’s backup, where he didn’t become the starter and post a quality season until his eighth year as a pro

…or like Kurt Warner…

  • Undrafted by the NFL and got a job bagging groceries
  • Moved on to the Arena League and made a name for himself
  • Was then signed by the Rams, but the Greatest Show on Turf didn’t arrive until Warner’s sixth year as a pro quarterback

…but those are few and far between. Then there’s a guy like Nick Foles, who everyone thought was a one-year wonder until he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy just five months ago, and he was in the same draft class as Keenum.

All of that is fairly inconsequential, of course, because we’re talking about Keenum’s career and his current situation. I’m sure many English majors have gone on to be successful writers after not doing anything with their degree for a few years, but I can’t sit here and say, “Well, it worked out for those guys, so I’m just going to eat Pringles on my couch and wait for someone to recognize my talent.” The point is that just because Keenum hasn’t been a good quarterback since he first stepped onto an NFL field, that doesn’t mean that his accomplishments are fleeting and that there aren’t more on the way. It also doesn’t guarantee that he’s following in the footsteps of Young and Warner.

Which is why I’ve decided to take an in-depth look at Keenum’s football career. Not just his stats or performance, mind you, but also the quality of his team and the presence of any factors that might have hindered his opportunity to win games. That will hopefully shed some light on what we can expect from Keenum’s first season with the Broncos. There may even be more self-deprecation, as I continuously remind myself that I have a useless degree and that I need to write a whole hell of a lot more than I currently do if I ever want to make it my profession. See, we’re off to a rousing start!

As we jump into this year-by-year examination, I want to make it clear that I have watched very little of Keenum play since he came into the league. I also rarely watch college football outside of CU and the occasional bowl game. And while I’m attempting to do as much research as possible here so that I can provide you with a factual and objective perspective, I’m more than happy to be corrected if I’m wrong on anything. Let’s get to it.

2006-2011: College career at Houston 

While I mainly want to analyze Keenum’s pro career, I lumped his college years at Houston together because I think they’re interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, that is a ridiculously long time to be in college for a football player. Keenum redshirted in 2006 and then tore his ACL during his senior year in 2010, so the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. All that extra time is undoubtedly one reason why Keenum is the NCAA’s all-time leader in career passing yards, passing touchdowns, and seasons with 5,000+ passing yards (3), but those achievements would’ve caught my eye regardless of how long the man was in college. It should also be noted that Keenum led Houston to a win in the Armed Forces Bowl in 2008, which was its first victory in a bowl game since 1980.

This all made it more than a little surprising when I learned that one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history went undrafted. From what I gather, despite his college accolades, Keenum’s draft stock was torpedoed by a few all too common critiques:

  • He was the beneficiary of the high-octane Air Raid offense at Houston, which almost primarily focuses on passing plays out of the shotgun and no-huddle
  • There was doubt about his ability to win games from the pocket and run more traditional offenses
  • He stands at just a “modest” 6’1″, which is much shorter than the prototypical height that NFL teams look for in their quarterbacks.

NFL.com even compared him to Russell Wilson, citing that he was undersized and needed to prove his prowess passing from the pocket. In hindsight, any comparisons to Wilson should have immediately been a bump for Keenum’s stock and that he didn’t have quite as much working against him as the experts thought. Nonetheless, those “concerns” prevented any team from pulling the trigger on him during the 2012 draft, and Keenum wound up signing with the Houston Texans as undrafted free agent.

2012: Loitering on the Practice Squad

Keenum didn’t even sniff the playing field during his rookie year, as he spent the whole season on the Texans’ practice squad. This means that he saw Matt Schaub throw a ton of pick-sixes during practice and games, thinking to himself, “Holy crap, that guy is our best quarterback? Sheesh.”

All kidding aside, the Texans went 12-4 that year and won the AFC South, but were eliminated in the Divisional Round by the Patriots.

2013: First Year as a Starter

If there was any optimism for the Texans after their strong 2012 campaign and a 2-0 start the following season, it was immediately quelled after a five-game losing streak. Things got so bad that Houston fans actually cheered when Schaub went down in week 7 with an injury. Backup T.J. Yates entered the game and promptly tossed a couple of picks himself. There was only one logical move for head coach Gary Kubiak to make: it was Case Keenum time!

So how did our boy do with his first shot at meaningful playing time? Well, overall it was a mixed bag. He started eight games that season and finished with 1,760 passing yards, nine touchdown passes and six interceptions. Not bad. The Texans also went 0-8 in all of those games. Real bad. Now I know that’s not the greatest first impression, but keep in mind that the Texans were a god awful team in 2013 and finished with a 2-14 record. That’s a tough situation for any first-year starter to salvage. Kubiak wound up getting fired and now Keenum’s biggest supporter was gone from the building.

2014: Does anyone want Case Keenum?

It certainly didn’t seem like it at the start of the 2014 season. Houston wound up dumping Keenum because they needed to make room for Ryan Mallett, which is equivalent to getting cut for a bag of used footballs. The Rams quickly scooped Keenum up, only to waive him two months later and stash him on their practice squad. Apparently, Jeff Fisher didn’t think Keenum was good enough to compete with the likes of Austin Davis and Shaun Hill. If Keenum’s biggest accomplishment in 2014 was not letting his confidence become completely shot, that would be perfectly understandable.

But that’s when Houston came calling again. After Ryan Fitzpatrick broke his leg and the Ryan Mallett experiment didn’t pan out (to the shock of many, I’m sure), the Texans decided they missed Keenum and signed him off of the Rams’ practice squad. He started the last two games and although he posted a modest stat line (435 passing yards, two TD passes and two picks), he led the Texans to back-to-back wins. That definitely should have earned him a chance to compete for the starting job next season, right?

2015: Wrong – Keenum dealt to the Rams

Houston was comfortable with Brian Hoyer, Mallett, Yates and Brandon Weeden filling out their quarterback room, leading them to give Keenum the whole, “It’s not you, it’s me” treatment as they traded him back to the Rams for a seventh-round pick. Keenum was stuck between two bad girlfriends, and now had to search for some NFL love in St. Louis once more.

On the plus side, Jeff Fisher made Keenum the backup to Nick Foles, which was the first time that our boy wasn’t starting the year on the practice squad. Progress! After Foles was benched, it was Keenum’s chance to shine and prove all his doubters wrong. He promptly suffered a concussion in his first start, was left in the game by Fisher, had to miss the next two games to recover and then returned to the starting lineup. All he did was take a 4-8 team and help guide them to wins in three of their last four games. That gave Keenum his first winning record as a starter at 3-2, and his stat line was also trending up (828 yards passing, four TD passes and just one pick). Coincidentally, he also preserved Fisher’s preferred record of 7-9.

2016: The Jeff Fisher Effect

For the first time in his career, Keenum was named his team’s starting quarterback. He had done well in his limited opportunity with the Rams in 2015 and this was truly his first shot to be the man, just as the team moved to Los Angeles. He seemed to take advantage, as the Rams got off to a 3-1 start that season. Things were looking up. Keenum had arrived and surely there was nothing that could derail his progress…

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Why it’s the Jeff Fisher Effect!”

Fisher would forego his usual “7-9 bullshit” for an abysmal 4-12 campaign, as everything for the Rams gradually fell apart. Keenum did the best he could to hold things together, starting in all four of L.A.’s victories and passing for 2,201 yards, nine TD’s and 11 interceptions. When Fisher is your coach and Kenny Britt and Tavon Austin are your best receivers, there’s only so much you can do. Still, I’m sure it was far from the season that Keenum hoped to have and he was eventually benched for Jared Goff. Fisher was ultimately fired and it was back to free agency for Keenum, still searching for his NFL forever home.

2017: The Vikings reopen the “Case”

After five seasons in the NFL, the NCAA’s all-time leading passer didn’t seem to be much more than a journeyman quarterback. He had made the best of some bad situations, but was also benched after his first opportunity as a starter. I doubt anyone thought twice about it when Keenum signed with the Vikings as Sam Bradford’s backup. I sure as hell didn’t. The man may be a genius though, because Bradford’s backup is always a lock to play at some point. That’s some 12D chess.

Sure enough, Bradford went down in week 2 with an injury and Keenum was called into action once again. Finally surrounded by a quality team and not having to look over his shoulder at anyone else, Keenum had the breakout season of his career. He finished with 3,547 yards passing and 22 touchdowns, both the most since his college days at Houston. The Vikings had their best record since 1998 and punched their ticket to the playoffs with a first-round bye. Keenum then led the Vikings over the Saints, in large part thanks to the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Ultimately, the Vikings lost to the Eagles in the NFC Championship, but the success that Keenum and his team achieved far surpassed everyone’s expectations. And despite everything he did for them amid the possibility that he had finally hit the turning point in his career, the Vikings chose not to resign Keenum because they had goo-goo eyes for Kirk Cousins. Enter present day.

While his pro career before 2017 doesn’t come anywhere close to what Keenum accomplished last year, there were still the stretches of play here and there that suggested that Keenum could hack it in this league. His ping-pong between the Texans and Rams robbed him of a chance to get comfortable and build chemistry with his teammates. And although he did finally get that chance with the Rams, you have to wonder just how much of a role Jeff Fisher played in Keenum’s struggles there, especially after how much of an uptick Foles and Goff also experienced playing for better coaches. There’s certainly no taking away what he accomplished last season, as he emerged out of nowhere to become one of the top quarterbacks in the league.

So which version of Keenum are the Broncos getting? I believe if John Elway and Vance Joseph are looking for steady, consistent play from their quarterback, then they are going to be very pleased with Keenum. And while you can certainly make the argument that his performance was lifted by the talent of the Vikings’ offense, would it not also be fair to think that Keenum can do the same for the Broncos offense? There hasn’t been a competent quarterback around here since Peyton Manning hung up his hat. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are already giddy to have Keenum on board, and I’m sure that promising youngsters Jake Butt, Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton feel the same.

Nothing is for certain, but I have a feeling that Keenum will be a good fit here in Denver. If his success from last year carries over and the Broncos become a playoff team again, he may just find his forever home in the NFL. Most importantly, I think there’s enough evidence to the contrary for me to say that Case Keenum is not a one-hit wonder, and should he turn out to be the second coming of Steve Young or Kurt Warner? Well, you’re not going to hear anyone in Broncos Country complaining about that.

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