Minnesota Vikings  

 

Case Keenum's play justifies keeping him as Vikings' starting QB

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LANDOVER, Md. -- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum picked the perfect time to play one of his best games of the year. Teddy Bridgewater, the former first-round pick, was finally back in uniform after a gruesome knee injury sidelined him for nearly 15 months. The Vikings were trying to push their current winning streak to five games, while creating more momentum in their run at the NFC North title. This could've been the moment when Keenum's flaws proved fatal. Instead, he told the world that the Vikings will have a tough decision to make.

The most notable aspect of Minnesota's 38-30 win over Washington wasn't the fact that Bridgewater is finally ready to start playing football again after what many described as a career-threatening injury. It was that Keenum morphed into a quarterback who looked capable of leading the Vikings in a way many expected Bridgewater to do. Keenum torched the Redskins in FedEx Field for 304 yards and four touchdowns. In doing so, he became the first quarterback to surpass the 300-yard mark against Washington's defense all season.

That kind of effort was more than enough to help Minnesota improve to 7-2. It also meant that Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has more questions to ask himself as Keenum proved why he should continue to lead this team for the foreseeable future.

"I've got a plan and we'll just see how it goes," Zimmer said, after watching his team set a season-high in points. "Sometimes plans change, but we'll see how it goes. We'll sit down this week and visit about it and then we'll go from there."

Zimmer knew the question about his quarterback situation was coming the moment he walked into his press conference. Keenum had just played lights out and Bridgewater had spent a good portion of his postgame time answering questions about being activated for his first game this year. It quickly felt as if Bridgewater's presence was the most important storyline of the day. It also wasn't fair to think Keenum's effort deserved second-class billing.

There's little doubt that Bridgewater is going to play at some point. The question Zimmer has to ask himself is when that makes the most sense for his team. That decision would've been easier if Keenum had disappointed or even been merely average against the Redskins. Since that didn't happen, we'll have to wait and see how long Keenum can keep his hot hand going.

There are two important things to remember here. The first is that Zimmer loves Bridgewater, who was the No. 32 overall pick in 2014 and the man who helped lead this team to the playoffs a year later. The second is that Keenum is a journeyman who is on his third team in four years, a player who had only seven touchdown passes this season prior to Sunday and wouldn't even be playing if the Vikings hadn't lost Sam Bradford -- the man who replaced Bridgewater last season -- to injury. As harsh as it sounds, Keenum has been a short-timer ever since he stepped under center in a 26-9 loss to Pittsburgh on September 17.

Now fast-forward to Sunday afternoon. The same man who wasn't supposed to even be leading the Vikings was firing passes all over the field against a befuddled Redskins defense. Keenum completed 11 of 14 attempts and threw three touchdown passes in the first half. He also helped lead Minnesota to a 35-17 advantage early in the third quarter. If not for two second-half interceptions, his day would've been about as good as it gets.

It says plenty that Keenum -- who's been used to holding down a job for somebody else and also being an emergency replacement -- could be so productive.

"Every situation I've been in has prepared me for the next one," Keenum said. "That's what experience is about and how you learn from your mistakes. For me, I compartmentalize [the situation with Bridgewater being available to play]. I'm here to do my job and that's to put this team in the best possible situation to win every week. Was I perfect today? No. But I think we did a good job."

When asked about the impact Keenum has had over the last eight games, wide receiver Adam Thielen added that "it's his competitive spirit and the way he prepares. It pushes us as teammates to do our job to that level. I just love the way he comes out. He wants it worse than anybody on the team. You need that from your emotional leader and your quarterback."

If this were any other team, the Vikings might suffer from relentless questions about what they should do next. After all, Bridgewater is immensely popular and he was the starter before he suffered a devastating injury to his left knee last August (he tore the ACL and dislocated the knee during a non-contact drill). He's also a generous soul who has helped Keenum lead this team over the last couple months. The relationship they've built speaks volumes about how both men have approached the situation.

Bridgewater understands the job will be his again someday. Keenum realizes that all he can do is continue to play his best and keep the Vikings winning.

"Case did a great job studying this week," Bridgewater said. "He's been doing a great job since he's been here in the film room. He's one of those guys who's around the facility from sun up to sun down -- one of the last cats to leave the facility. When you put the time in the way he does, you get nothing but good results when you're out on the field."

"[Bridgewater] is a fan favorite, and he's my favorite, too," Keenum said. "I may have a Teddy Bridgewater jersey at home. I told somebody on the field that Teddy definitely raises the 'cool' factor in the quarterback room tremendously. On the field, he's another set of eyes. It's great to have him knowing what's going on and being able to talk about certain things, whether that's protections, routes or coverages. He's a great team player and great teammate."

What Keenum didn't have to say was that his own margin for error will grow shorter with each passing week. Zimmer loves the efficiency that is Bridgewater's trademark, and both of Keenum's interceptions were plays that will drive a defensive-minded coach batty. The first involved Keenum throwing the ball into a group of four Redskins defenders, a decision that led to a pick by safety D.J. Swearinger in the third quarter. Swearinger also snatched another Keenum pass in the fourth quarter -- this one intended for tight end Kyle Rudolph -- and set up a Redskins touchdown by returning that interception to the Vikings' 2-yard line.

When asked about his quarterback's day, Zimmer acknowledged that "Case played outstanding," but also said, "I wish the two throws he had in the second half, he wouldn't have made, but he's an excitable guy." That's a savvy coach's way of saying that he likes his quarterback, but he's not about to fall in love with him. Keenum will need more days like he had against Washington to keep this job. The good news for him is that he hasn't looked this comfortable leading a football team in a long time.

This isn't the same man we saw in Houston or the one who was holding a spot for Jared Goff to slide into for the Rams. There are better results, more dynamic plays and a confidence that couldn't be missed on Sunday afternoon. In other words, Keenum looked like a guy who's more than ready to put in more work. If the Vikings are smart, they'll keep giving him more chances to look as good as he did in FedEx Field.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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