Vik­ings’ Case fi­nally finds his place

Well-trav­eled for­mer backup QB Keenum leads Min­nesota into the NFL play­offs.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Lind­say H. Jones

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.

“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, laugh­ing.

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 sea­son 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. “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 line- up 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 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 ... 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 news 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 uses 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.”

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 first in 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.

“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.” Nick Foles Ea­gles quar­ter­back, on for­mer team­mate and Vik­ings quar­ter­back Case Keenum

USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Vik­ings quar­ter­back Case Keenum will make his first play­off start Satur­day. BRACE HEMMELGARN/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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