What we can learn from Case Keenum's star turn and what's next

If you happened to be watching football with some less enthusiastic football-watching members of your family on Thanksgiving, you probably had to explain who exactly Case Keenum was as the Vikings quarterback sliced up the Lions. Maybe your aunt remembered Keenum from his time in college or your brother-in-law in Los Angeles saw him start a Rams game last season with 35,000 of his friends. Nobody would have looked at the Thanksgiving slate before the season and figured we would be talking about Keenum the following day.

Here we are, though, and it's not to talk about the 29-year-old as a flash in the pan. Keenum has been one of the most efficient and effective quarterbacks in football this season, and though you might expect a player with Keenum's track record to cool off after a few games, he is actually getting hotter. Two weeks ago, the Houston product dominated against Washington before throwing two late picks, which led to speculation that Teddy Bridgewater would soon reclaim his starting role. In the two games since, Keenum has thrown for 562 yards and three scores without an interception, good for a 110.0 passer rating and an opponent-adjusted QBR of 89.2.

With every week Keenum continues to play at a high level, it seems more and more likely that the once-undrafted free agent will be able to keep playing this well for the remainder of the season. Keenum has become one of the most fascinating stories of this NFL season, and his performance challenges or clarifies a lot of the theories you'll hear to explain professional football. Even if Keenum does fall back toward the pack and give way to Bridgewater, there's a lot to learn about the football universe from his role on a 9-2 Vikings team.

Let's run through a few of the Keenum arguments here before we take a look at his future, both inside and outside Minnesota.

Coaching matters

It's telling that the two biggest quarterback surprises of the 2017 season were on the same team last season and didn't play very well. Keenum began his 2016 campaign as the starter for the Rams before giving way to first overall pick Jared Goff. Keenum was mediocre, and Goff was worse. The difference in their combined numbers from 2016 to 2017 is truly staggering:

There isn't much of a reason to think that Keenum and Goff were put in position to succeed by Jeff Fisher's coaching staff. Keenum's offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2015 was Frank Cignetti, who had presided over stagnant beginnings to the careers of Aaron Brooks and Alex Smith before failing to improve Sam Bradford amid injuries. Cignetti was replaced in 2016 by Rob Boras, the team's tight ends coach, who hadn't called plays since he served as the offensive coordinator for a below-average UNLV offense in 2003. The quarterbacks coach in that two-year stretch was NFL veteran Chris Weinke, who previously worked at the IMG Academy and hadn't coached for a team at the college or professional level.

Things are different this season. Goff's breakout under new coach Sean McVay in Los Angeles is certainly no secret. In Minnesota, though, Keenum has succeeded under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was overmatched as a head coach in Cleveland. As an offensive mind, however, Shurmur's résumé includes seven years as a quarterbacks coach with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, a promising debut season with Bradford in St. Louis and three years as the coordinator of an above-average offense under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. Quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, meanwhile, has survived several coaching changes in Minnesota and coached nearly every position on offense for the Vikings over the past five years, which is a tellingly rare recent history for a positional coach.

Investing in infrastructure is probably better than throwing money at a prayer of a passer

Keenum wasn't exactly a highly desirable quarterback on the free-agent market this offseason. He ended up signing a one-year, $2 million deal with the Vikings to serve as the primary backup behind Bradford until Bridgewater returned, at which point Keenum would presumably have become the third quarterback. You don't need me to tell you that Keenum is making less than the vast majority of starting quarterbacks, but with $1 million guaranteed at signing, Keenum wasn't even making good backup money.

Quite clearly, Keenum was the best veteran quarterback signing of the offseason. Elsewhere, teams with a possible hole under center signed bigger-name options such as Josh McCown, Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley, Jay Cutler and Mike Glennon, the latter of whom will cost the Bears $18.5 million before he is released. Keenum had relatively similar statistics to those of the better options within that group over the past five seasons, but he just wasn't taken as seriously.

The Vikings benefited, in a way, by keeping their budget low. They didn't spend a ton of money to go after a backup, given Bradford's $18 million cap hit, and the millions of dollars they saved by going after Keenum as opposed to McCown, Cutler or Glennon went elsewhere on their roster. The premiums teams pay for an even lower tier of backup -- guys such as Matt Cassel and Matt Schaub -- are still more than what Minnesota paid for Keenum, and those quarterbacks are hopeless on the field.

General manager Rick Spielman took the more than $23 million the Vikings had on their cap for Adrian Peterson and Matt Kalil last season and applied it to offensive line upgrades. Minnesota signed a pair of new tackles in Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, who cost $13.6 million on the Vikings' cap this season. Minnesota also finally nailed a midround draft pick by nabbing Ohio State center Pat Elflein, who has started from day one and looks to be the franchise's long-term successor to John Sullivan.

With an offensive line and a pair of blossoming young receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, the Vikings gave Keenum everything he needed to succeed. Look at how quarterbacks such as Derek Carr and Dak Prescott excelled last season in similarly friendly situations before taking a step backward this season as their infrastructure crumbled. Keenum has gone the opposite route.

If you're going to take a flyer on a quarterback, don't look for the same sort of prototype you're chasing with the first overall pick

The excitement the Bears -- and others -- had around Glennon was that he looked like the exact sort of quarterback teams hope to grab coming out of the draft: a tall (6-foot-6) pocket passer with "A-plus arm talent." Never mind his below-average accuracy at both the college and professional levels or the middling sack rates he posted with the Buccaneers, issues the Bears could mitigate only by having him throw the league's second-shortest passes (an average of 6.11 air yards per throw) before he was benched.

The problem with going after guys with Glennon's sort of physical prototype is that quarterbacks who look and throw like Glennon and also can play quarterback at a high level almost always are drafted with one of the first picks. They don't fall to the third round. They don't get benched after two years for Josh McCown, and if they're really plausible franchise quarterbacks, the team that has them doesn't draft another quarterback with the first overall pick. Glennon was given every chance to succeed because he looks like an athletic CEO.

If you're going to find a quarterback outside the traditional places teams find quarterbacks, you're probably better off looking for someone with talent who doesn't fit the usual mold. Russell Wilson fell to the third round because he is 5-foot-11. Tyrod Taylor is 6-foot-1. Prescott is 6-foot-2 but came out of a run-heavy spread scheme in school. His predecessor, Tony Romo, was a 6-2 small-school product who succeeded with an unteachable style of extending plays. There will be exceptions, but even Tom Brady had to drastically improve his arm strength during a rookie season on the sidelines before he emerged as a viable quarterback.

Keenum is 6-foot-1, below the 6-foot-2 minimum some teams place on quarterback prospects. He didn't have a strong arm coming out of Houston, where he ran a spread attack. Keenum was accurate and outperformed the other quarterbacks on his various rosters in three of his four pro seasons with meaningful reps, but teams start from the perception that players who look and throw like Glennon will succeed and players who look and throw like Keenum will fail.

With that in mind, though it still might make sense to go after a guy who looks like Matt Ryan or Carson Wentz if you're drafting with one of the first few selections, as those players come off the board, you're better off looking for talent before size or arm strength.

The idea that there aren't 32 good NFL quarterbacks is overstated

Nobody would have said that Keenum was an upper-echelon starter before this season. If anything, they would have held up Keenum's 24 pro starts as proof that there weren't enough good quarterbacks to go around in the NFL. Yet here we are in Week 12, and Keenum ranks second in Total QBR and 10th in passer rating through 10 games and 330 pass attempts. If he isn't a good quarterback, he sure is doing a wicked impersonation of one.

You might argue that Keenum is in a great situation to succeed given the quality of his defense and his receivers, and I'd agree. If Keenum can look like a Pro Bowler in that context, though, we need to change the way we talk about scarcity. Instead of saying that there aren't 32 good quarterbacks to go around, we should be saying that there aren't 32 good situations for quarterbacks at any given time in the NFL.

As I've mentioned in the past, we -- NFL executives and fans alike -- overestimate our knowledge of and ability to scout quarterbacks. Before the season, how many people would have pegged Goff and Keenum to look like top-10 quarterbacks? Would we have given up on Goff after two years if the Rams hadn't fired Fisher and brought back their stifling offensive infrastructure? If the Cowboys had successfully traded up for Paxton Lynch, Prescott might be a backup behind Kirk Cousins in Washington with six pass attempts to his name. There are guys lurking on benches or struggling right now who will prove themselves to be useful NFL quarterbacks. We just don't know who they are until they get the opportunity.

What's next?

Can Keenum win a Super Bowl?

Sure, the Vikings are 9-2 and huge favorites to win the NFC North. With Aaron Rodgers hurt and the Vikings turning away Matthew Stafford & Co. in Detroit on Thursday, Minnesota is a 98.2 percent favorite to win the North for the second time in three seasons. It's hard to imagine that anyone would have believed the Vikings capable of winning the division with a quarterback like Keenum, including the Vikings themselves, given that they traded a first-round pick to acquire Bradford last year once Bridgewater went down in lieu of turning things over to a player of a pedigree similar to Keenum's in Shaun Hill.

It seems ridiculous to take things a step further and imagine Keenum holding up the Lombardi trophy on Minnesota's home turf in February, but the idea that there's a cutoff point among quarterbacks when it comes to winning a Super Bowl just isn't supported by history. It's one thing that Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl with the historically great defense of the 2000 Ravens. It's another to think of Eli Manning winning with the 2007 Giants during a season in which he led the NFL in interceptions and had a defense that finished 13th in DVOA. Or to think of Joe Flacco winning a title in 2012 with the league's 19th-ranked defense by DVOA.

Both of those defenses played better during the playoffs, and their respective quarterbacks put together glowing stretches of play in January. And that's all it is. Any quarterback can win a Super Bowl if he gets some help from his defense and gets hot for a three- or four-game stretch in the postseason. The ideal postseason run would look a lot like how the Vikings have performed the entirety of the season, and Keenum has been on a two-month hot streak.

Of course, the possibility exists that the Vikings make a deep playoff run without Keenum under center. It has seemed likely for weeks now that the Vikings will eventually turn back to Bridgewater. When Keenum threw those two late interceptions to put the lead in question against Washington, coach Mike Zimmer seemed to take his time and consider a change before announcing Keenum as the starter the following week.

I'm not sure there's a strong case to insert Bridgewater as the starter right now, and that's coming from someone who loves Bridgewater and thinks he's a franchise quarterback. It's not as if making the change to Bridgewater would unlock some new stylistic or schematic possibilities for the Vikings in the way that, say, swapping Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick worked for the 49ers or Patrick Mahomes for Smith might work for the Chiefs. Keenum and Bridgewater are both going to succeed with their accuracy at the expense of marginal arm strength while using their footwork and instincts within the pocket to avoid big hits.

At the same time, Keenum is doing a better job of playing the Bridgewater role than Bridgewater ever did in his NFL career. Keenum's numbers across the board in 2017 -- particularly his remarkably low sack rate -- top Bridgewater's marks before the torn ACL. While it's fair to say that Bridgewater possesses more upside than we would have expected Keenum to hold before the season, the best-case scenario for a Bridgewater campaign in 2017 would look a lot like what we're seeing from Keenum right now.

Given how he has played, it seems fair for the Vikings to give Keenum both the job and a reasonable leash on his role. He shouldn't be one bad game or one bad pass from being benched, though it seems fair to give Bridgewater the nod if Keenum pieces together a couple of mediocre performances. If the Vikings lock themselves into a playoff berth by Week 17, it would seem logical to name Keenum the postseason starter and give Bridgewater the final game of the season against the Bears to get loose in case he's needed during the playoffs.

Will the Vikings re-sign Keenum?

Perhaps most fascinating of all is what comes next. All three of the Vikings' quarterbacks are due to become unrestricted free agents after the season, and there's no clear favorite among the three as to who might come back for 2018. Bradford played well given the circumstances last season, and though his knee might give the Vikings pause in handing out a long-term deal, Minnesota might be amenable to a short-term deal. Bridgewater was an organizational favorite before his own knee injury and would likely come cheaply, given the missing years on his résumé. And given how Keenum has played, why wouldn't the Vikings consider giving him a raise and locking him in for the next year or two?

Most teams would love to have these sorts of problems and think the issue of infrastructure for the Vikings makes it less important for them to re-sign any of these guys. They don't need a ton out of their quarterback to win, and they've managed to succeed over most of the past three seasons with three guys who were either unwanted by most of the league or desperate acquisitions just before the season started. (Their one dismal stretch, the second half of 2016, came as the defense declined.)

I wouldn't say the Vikings can plug anybody in at quarterback and succeed, but as long as the coaching staff, the defense and the offensive line are here to stay, Minnesota might be better off opting for low-cost, high-accuracy options at quarterback and using the savings to re-sign future free agents such as Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs and Danielle Hunter. If that means giving Keenum a raise to $7.5 million per season or signing Bridgewater to a team-friendly extension, that seems smart. If it means importing a veteran (and possible free agent) such as Alex Smith or Tyrod Taylor who might be willing to take less money in search of a ring, that could work too.

As for Keenum, he has certainly graduated from below-level backup money to the highest tier of backups, which should put him in the $6 million to $7 million per season range this offseason. What comes next will determine whether he goes any higher. The league decided a long time ago that Keenum was likely to fail as a pro, and he spent most of his time in the NFL confirming that belief. Now that he's succeeding, he'll have to prove the consensus wrong time and again before he gets his chance. Even if Keenum isn't this good the rest of the way, he should land on a cushion of life-changing money when he falls back to earth.