Perhaps the most encouraging play of Vikings training camp to date is the throw from Kirk Cousins that ignited the two-day kerfuffle between Xavier Rhodes and Stefon Diggs.
Rhodes, the ultra-confident first-team All-Pro corner, was covering Diggs, the uber-swaggering “Minneapolis Miracle” receiver, on Tuesday. Diggs got half a step on Rhodes when Cousins flicked a deep ball with the ease, accuracy, velocity and timing for which the Vikings paid him $84 million over three years rather than re-sign Case Keenum, who got $36 million over two years from the Broncos and will be facing his former teammates in a preseason opener at Denver on Saturday night.
The touchdown and Diggs’ decision to throw the ball into the stands incensed Rhodes and led to a prolonged squabble that got both stars benched from Wednesday’s practice.
But what about that throw? Though Keenum displayed many qualities while helping the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game a year ago, he doesn’t have that effortless throw from the pocket in his bag.
“It’s not just Case [that doesn’t have Cousins’ arm strength],” receiver Adam Thielen said. “From a lot of quarterbacks I’ve played with, Kirk just has something a little different coming out of his hand, and it’s special. Some of the throws he’s made, we look at each other and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
The inevitable comparisons between Case’s and Kirk’s seasons will begin with Saturday’s brief appearances and continue into the regular season. Cousins faces considerably more pressure than Keenum, who assumes control of a 5-11 team that’s poised for an Eagles-like worst-to-first run in the AFC West.
“Everybody’s sleeping on us,” Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said this week. “I wouldn’t sleep on us too much no more. Not with our quarterback.”
As he did in Minnesota, Keenum reportedly has won over the locker room in Denver with his personality and work ethic. On the field, his first interception didn’t come until Day 6 of training camp. And few have followed since, which is a welcome development for a team that threw more interceptions (22) than every team but Cleveland (28) last year.
“I’m trying to end every drive with a kick, whether it’s a PAT, a field goal or a punt,” Keenum said. “I’m not Drew Brees. I’m not Peyton Manning. I’m not a lot of people. For me, I try to protect the football and get it to the right guys at the right time.”
The Vikings praised Keenum this week for what he gave them last fall while dodging and ducking defenders en route to 22 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 98.3 passer rating.
“Case was a winner,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
“He’s a gamer,” said safety Harrison Smith. “However a play needed to be made, he made it. I’m happy for him in Denver. He deserves it.”
“He used his legs to create plays out of nothing,” running back Latavius Murray said.
“I can vouch for his work ethic,” said third-string quarterback Kyle Sloter. “Every time I wanted to use the virtual reality headset, Case was wearing it.”
So far, Cousins has been showered with equal praise as a quarterback and much more as a pure passer. But the guy with the 26-30-1 regular-season record and 0-1 playoff mark knows how quickly things will turn the opposite way if losses mount for this Super Bowl contender.
“When you start to look at the key factors that would make it enjoyable to play for an NFL team, this place checks all the boxes,” he said. “That’s all well and great. But you better win football games.”
There are so many variables to each NFL season that it’s unfair to compare last year to whatever happens this year. For example, the Vikings already may have lost starting left guard Nick Easton for the entire season.
But, yeah, Kirk is right about that bottom-line judgment. He better win. Especially if Case finds ways to win Denver with a weaker arm as he did in Minnesota.
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org