It is very Vikings-esque to have a confusing quarterback situation, just as it is very much like the Vikings to have a surprising player perform well enough at the position to fuel championship talk.
That happened in 1998, when veteran Randall Cunningham did it. It happened in 2009, when Brett Favre arrived late in training camp. Both of those Vikings teams — not like you need a reminder — came oh-so-close to reaching the Super Bowl.
I’m not here to say Case Keenum is playing at the level of either of those two QBs, each of whom was at least in the MVP conversation in those seasons. But there is this: If we look at objective measures designed to get to the heart of what a quarterback is contributing to a team, Keenum is playing at a higher level in 2017 than any Vikings quarterback since Favre in 2009.
Yes, Keenum has been better than Sam Bradford was in 2016. Yes, he’s been better than Teddy Bridgewater was in 2015 or 2014. He’s certainly delivered better than any QB play the Vikings received from 2010-13.
Before you dismiss this as nothing but a ridiculous hot take, let me explain:
There are no perfect metrics when evaluating the play of a quarterback in a vacuum, but three that aim to do a pretty good job are Total QBR (developed by ESPN) as well as Defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR) and Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), both used by Football Outsiders.
Total QBR, developed in 2011, aims to “incorporates all of a quarterback’s contributions to winning, including how he impacts the game on passes, rushes, turnovers and penalties” while also seeking to contextualize success or failure depending on game situations.
DYAR and DVOA attempt to do similar things, albeit with different formulas. DYAR is focused on total value, while DVOA is focused on value per play, but both are trying to add context beyond mere counting stats like yards and touchdowns (since a touchdown pass, say, when a team is down 38-10 doesn’t have the same meaning as one when a game is 17-17).
Keenum so far this season ranks No. 6 in Total QBR among all NFL QBs. He’s No. 5 in DYAR and No. 4 in DVOA. There are only three QBs in the NFL who are in the top six in all three categories: Tom Brady, DeShaun Watson and Keenum.
Bradford in 2016 — despite the general consensus being that he played well and despite him setting an NFL record for completion percentage — finished No. 17 in ESPN’s Total QBR standings, No. 16 in DYAR and No. 17 in DVOA. That’s decidedly average.
Bridgewater in 2015 finished No. 17 in Total QBR, No. 21 in DYAR and No. 22 in DVOA among NFL quarterbacks. Bridgewater ranked even lower in all three categories as a rookie in 2014.
No qualified Vikings passer finished higher than No. 16 in any of those three categories in any season between 2010 and 2013, and many finished much, much worse. You have to go back to 2009, when Favre was top-5 in all three categories, to find a comparable Vikings quarterback performance.
That said, this is not an argument that Keenum is better than Bridgewater or Bradford — only that his production and play for the first half of 2017 is better than what either of those QBs have produced as starters over full seasons with the Vikings. I should also note that Pro Football Focus isn’t as in love with Keenum as those other stats, grading him No. 15 among NFL QBs this season.
It’s also important to acknowledge that Keenum has had benefits this year that those two QBs did not have in past years. Most notably, the Vikings’ offensive line play this season has been light years ahead of the mess Bradford endured in 2016 and has been a considerable upgrade over what Bridgewater experienced in 2015.
Keenum is running an offense that seems more dynamic and unpredictable than in past years. The Vikings are playing to his strengths, such as moving outside the pocket (where he has the third-best QB rating in the league, per Pro Football Focus).
Bridgewater was hamstrung in 2015 by Adrian Peterson’s limited effectiveness out of the shotgun, which caused the Vikings to retool their offense around their running back. Bradford had no running game and no time to throw last season, leading to a short passing attack. Norv Turner was the offensive coordinator for all of 2015 and part of 2016 before bolting halfway through. Pat Shurmur has more pieces to work with this year and seemingly more imagination than Turner did.
Keenum, too, has faced some suspect defenses and has only had a 6 1/2 game sample size, whereas Bridgewater (16) and Bradford (15) had much larger samples the last two years. These things can even out over time.
What we don’t know is how this year would have played out with a healthy Bridgewater or Bradford playing the first eight games. We had a glimpse in the opener against New Orleans, when Bradford might have had his best game as a pro. But he didn’t stay healthy. Bridgewater appeared to be making strides in the 2016 preseason before his devastating injury.
Any decision the Vikings might make about whether to turn back to Bridgewater or Bradford — if and when either is fully healthy and ready to play — hinges on answering this question: Could either (or both) do more with this offense than Keenum is doing right now?
What we know for now is that Keenum has done more than just not mess up. He’s made a lot of plays that have led the Vikings to four consecutive victories and a 6-2 record at the midpoint of the season — fueling talk of reaching the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium. In those four games, his weekly QBR mark has been in the top 10 of NFL passers three out of four times. The other time, he was No. 16.
Keenum has produced at a higher level this season, using key metrics, than any Vikings quarterback since Favre in 2009.
Whether that’s enough for Keenum to hold onto the starting spot remains to be seen.