THROWN FOR A WIN

Keenum lost his start­ing job last year with bad Rams, and he’ll prob­a­bly lose it again with good Vikings

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - SAM FARMER ON THE NFL

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Two months ago, this would have been the strangest sen­tence ever writ­ten:

The NFL game of the week is Jared Goff ver­sus Case Keenum.

The quar­ter­backs who were at the helm for last sea­son’s 4-12 Rams fi­asco are now di­rect­ing two of the league’s hottest teams, with Goff ’s 7-2 Rams play­ing at Keenum’s 7-2 Vikings on Sun­day.

Whereas Goff, the No. 1 over­all pick in 2016, is firmly en­trenched as the fu­ture of the Rams, Keenum is play­ing on bor­rowed time. He’s keep­ing the spot warm for quar­ter­back Teddy Bridge­wa­ter, who was ac­ti­vated for the first time last week af­ter suf­fer­ing a dev­as­tat­ing knee in­jury on the eve of the 2016 sea­son.

The Vikings haven’t an­nounced which quar­ter­back will start Sun­day — why give the Rams ex­tra time to pre­pare? — but they would be crazy to bench Keenum now, con­sid­er­ing he’s been an in­te­gral fac­tor in their five-game win­ning streak. He threw four touch­down passes in a

38-30 vic­tory at Wash­ing­ton on Sun­day, a per­for­mance so im­pres­sive that it wasn’t even damp­ened by his two in­ter­cep­tions at the end.

Goff has been out­stand­ing all sea­son, si­lenc­ing those crit­ics who had hastily writ­ten him off as a bust when the Rams went 0-7 with him as the starter in the sec­ond half of his rookie year. Los An­ge­les leads the league in scor­ing at 32.9 points a game — the pre­cise av­er­age of the 1999 “Great­est Show on Turf ” St. Louis Rams — and in the last two weeks Goff has seven touch­downs and no in­ter­cep­tions.

“Tal­ent-wise, I think Jared’s top tier in the league,” Keenum said last week, sit­ting with a re­porter in an equip­ment room at Vikings head­quar­ters. “He’s very tal­ented. He’s got some tal­ented guys around him.”

Keenum, the son of a foot­ball coach, is care­ful and di­plo­matic in choos­ing his words. He doesn’t want to delve into the de­tails of Goff ’s im­proved of­fen­sive line, which has gone from the league’s worst to one of its best; the resur­gence of Todd Gur­ley, who fi­nally has some run­ning lanes; the sud­denly sure-handed cast of re­ceivers, and, most im­por­tant, the coach­ing up­grade from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay.

Keenum said he har­bors no ill will about the Rams let­ting him walk, a fore­gone con­clu­sion when they gave up so much to move up to draft Goff.

“I could sit here and go through all the ex­cuses and have a pity party for my­self, ‘This is bad that hap­pened to me. This is out of my con­trol,’ ” Keenum said. “But I don’t see it that way. I see that I’ve made [31] starts in the NFL now. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Never more fun than now, when Keenum is fi­nally sur­rounded by an al­laround good team. Yardage-wise, the Vikings are fifth in de­fense and ninth in of­fense. They have won five in a row, a feat sur­passed only by the 8-1 Philadel­phia Ea­gles and 7-2 New Or­leans Saints, whose win­ning streaks have reached seven.

Keenum, pro­moted to the start­ing lineup in Week 2 af­ter Sam Brad­ford was side­lined with a bum knee, has far ex­ceeded the ex­pec­ta­tions of most ob­servers. He has 11 touch­downs, five in­ter­cep­tions, has been sacked only five times, and has a ca­reer-high passer rat­ing of 92.6.

Although he was not drafted out of Houston, and in six NFL sea­sons has bounced from the Tex­ans to the Rams to the Vikings, Keenum does not have the men­tal­ity of a backup. He’s not a play-it-safe dink and dunker. He boldly tries to squeeze passes into tight win­dows, which some­times gets him in trou­ble.

But he clearly has con­fi­dence.

“Case has been a win­ner his whole life,” re­ceiver Jar­ius Wright said. “Some peo­ple don’t re­al­ize, that plays a big part in win­ning and los­ing. You put a guy in there who knows how to win, and that’s hard to coach that to peo­ple.”

So what went wrong with last year’s Rams?

“That’s the mil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion, more than a mil­lion, re­ally,” Keenum said. “There’s a lot of things that go into win­ning a foot­ball game.

“It’s tough when you see mo­men­tum go­ing against you like we had. It’s a tough league and no­body’s go­ing to let up. It’s sharks smelling blood in the wa­ter. They were pounc­ing.”

And this year’s stun­ning turn­around?

“I’ve been around long around to know that you’re never sur­prised with any­thing,” he said. “Any week in this league there are so many things that can hap­pen. De­ci­sions made. Teams that should win, don’t. Teams that shouldn’t win wind up win­ning.

“[The Rams] are put­ting up a lot of points. I’ve only watched one or two of their games on film, but Jared is do­ing a good job. He’s get­ting the ball out and giv­ing his guys chances down the field, and they’re mak­ing plays for him.”

Keenum is care­ful to say he doesn’t aim to prove the crit­ics wrong about him, but to prove cor­rect the peo­ple who be­lieved in him. Still, he couldn’t sup­press a smile at the thought of fac­ing his old team.

“When I saw that we were play­ing the Rams, you def­i­nitely have that one cir­cled,” he said.

For­mer NFL quar­ter­back Rich Gan­non un­der­stands. He’s the pa­tron saint of backup quar­ter­backs, hav­ing played well enough as a No. 2 in Min­ne­sota, Wash­ing­ton and Kansas City to earn the start­ing job at var­i­ous points, yet never get­ting the chance to have a team he could truly call his own.

That’s un­til he got to Oakland and was handed the keys to the Raiders by a young Jon Gru­den. In the fi­nal game of the 1999 sea­son, Gan­non took the Raiders back to Kansas City and beat the Chiefs in over­time 41-38, a vic­tory that likely saved the job of the em­bat­tled Gru­den.

So Gan­non — who later in his ca­reer went on to be­come the NFL’s most valu­able player and lead Oakland to a Su­per Bowl — has a good idea of what Keenum must be feel­ing in fac­ing the Rams.

“I wanted to stick it to the Chiefs so bad; I liked a lot of those guys, but I just wanted to send a mes­sage to the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” Gan­non said. “But play­ing against your for­mer team, you’ve got to be able to con­trol your emo­tions. I’ve seen a lot of guys get so worked up that they go out and just play like garbage.”

The Rams still are fond of Keenum. For in­stance, at a char­ity auc­tion last year, gen­eral man­ager Les Snead bid for and wound up buy­ing a game-worn Keenum jer­sey from the team’s vic­tory over Ari­zona.

“Kara asked me if we should give it to Case, and I said, ‘No, I’m keep­ing this one for us,’ ” Snead said, re­fer­ring to his wife.

Snead is not the sen­ti­men­tal type. The cou­ple has moved six times in three years, part­ing ways with Kara’s pi­ano in one move, and their only TV in an­other. But he keeps that Keenum jer­sey, which hangs in his closet right next to his own jer­sey from his play­ing days at Auburn.

“The thing about Case is, if you don’t think he de­serves the job, he’s kind of prov­ing you wrong ev­ery week,” Snead said. “He’s earn­ing it.”

Mark Te­nally As­so­ci­ated Press

CASE KEENUM, who threw four touch­down passes Sun­day, har­bors no ill will to­ward the Rams but is look­ing for­ward to fac­ing them. “You def­i­nitely have that one cir­cled,” he said of the sched­ule.

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