On the day after winning another quarterback competition he was supposed to lose, Case Keenum refused to gloat. He sat in a hall at the Washington Redskins practice facility, tugging at the straps of a backpack, his gaze placid, his demeanor unsurprised. He pursed his lips. His shoulders gave a small shrug.
“Nothing has ever been given to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This Sunday, Keenum will start a season-opening game for the third time in four years. In the other season, he took over in the second week and led the Minnesota Vikings to within a game of the Super Bowl, having thrown one of the most memorable game-winning playoff touchdowns of all-time.
Most players with records like this have long-term deals worth tens of millions of dollars. Keenum has a long line of releases, expired contracts and low-level trades. In a position normally dripping with entitlement, he might be the least pretentious quarterback in the NFL.
“He’s just got a knack for not giving the coaches a chance but to pick him,” said his father, Steve, a former coach of a small college in Texas.
Nothing’s been given to Case Keenum? How about being that rare coach’s son who never knew the license that comes with playing quarterback for his father? Or try winning that grandest of all prizes — a football state championship in west Texas — only to be a two-star recruit with one college scholarship offer? Or going to that college, the University of Houston, winning the starting job as a redshirt freshman, setting the NCAA record for career passing yards and going undrafted because the NFL thinks your outrageous statistics were the product of a contrived college system?
The words most often used with his name are “journeyman,” “placeholder” and “backup.” In seven NFL seasons he’s gone from the Texans to the Rams to the Texans to the Rams to the Vikings to the Broncos and now to Washington. His reputation is certainly not of a talented passer who can rip apart a defense. This summer, a former NFL head coach chuckled when asked about the Redskins’ quarterback competition.
“Let’s put it this way: I never spent any nights lying awake worrying about Case Keenum,” the coach said.
In the hallway of the Redskins facility, Keenum nodded. A smirk danced on his lips. There’s always been a battle he was supposed to lose, a place that didn’t think he was good enough — and somehow, he’s always found a way to win.
“That’s who I am, that’s what makes me who I am, the player I am,” he said. “I really do view myself as the guy who wins and that’s why I play. I talk a lot about ping-pong and Spikeball and we play pig or whatever — hit the crossbar or whatever, when we play quarterback [passing contests after practice]. I absolutely love winning and despise the alternative.”
Value of being unloved
Much of the NFL sees Keenum as a bridge to rookie first-round pick Dwayne Haskins, the way he was to Jared Goff during the Rams’ first season in Los Angeles. Impatient Redskins fans, anxious for Haskins, might hate the sight of Keenum’s No. 8 behind center in Philadelphia on Sunday. His name is mentioned as a reason Washington might win just three or four games this season. But there also is a value to being the unloved and unwanted quarterback in a sport where games are won less by dominance and more by avoiding — or overcoming — disasters.
On a team with defensive players who believe they are ready to win now and seem intent on scratching their way to victories, an unwanted quarterback who keeps winning jobs might not be such a bad thing. At least they know he is going to fight.
“He understands that there’s going to be adversity, that there’s going to be ups and downs and things like that,” tight end Vernon Davis said.
The Redskins coaches know. They had watched hours of game film on Keenum in the weeks after he almost took the Vikings to the Super Bowl. By then it was clear Minnesota wasn’t keeping the quarterback behind its best run in years. As usual, there was someone to like better, someone shiny and expensive who was not shabby Case Keenum, which is how the Vikings came to give Kirk Cousins $84 million guaranteed over three years.
But Washington’s coaches enjoyed watching Keenum. They liked the way he made decisions, the way he handled those moments when receivers are covered and the pass rush is coming. They liked the way he kept plays alive by maneuvering away from sacks and how he understood the concepts difficult for many NFL passers to grasp. Mostly, he got the idea that second-and-10 might be the best possible outcome he could get on some plays, better than trying to chase a first down that isn’t there.
And while the Redskins ultimately chose to chase a trade for Alex Smith, they remembered those tapes of Keenum. Then, this winter, with Smith sidelined by a career-threatening injury, Colt McCoy going through three surgeries on his broken leg and the draft still weeks away, they talked to the Broncos, who were giving up on Keenum following a 6-10 season. Another of those low-level trades was arranged.
He was insurance in case McCoy doesn’t get better, many thought. A safety net for Haskins, many said after the draft. But through minicamp and OTAs and training camp, Keenum was the first quarterback with the first-team offense. Soon it became obvious. He was going to win another battle.
“With Case, you feel his experience,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said. “You feel his presence in the huddle. You feel his ability to retain information from a meeting and take it out to the practice field and apply it. You don’t have to tell him multiple things over and over again.”
On the phone this past weekend, Steve Keenum heard the word “system” and his voice dropped. For a moment there was silence.
“Now you’re going to get the coach in me coming out,” he said in a weary voice.
System, he said, was a lazy word, the excuse NFL coaches and scouts and general managers came up with to say a 6-foot-1, 215 pound quarterback who was a two-star college recruit couldn’t possibly play in their league. Those 1,546 completions and 19,217 passing yards and 155 touchdown throws that were all NCAA records when he left school in the spring of 2012? They were a product of the gimmicky pass-heavy Air Raid offense that Houston ran.
“It was easy for them to say: ‘It’s got to be the system,’” Steve Keenum said.
But isn’t every NFL offense a system? Isn’t the West Coast offense, whose principles form the foundation of more than half the league’s attacks, a system? And what exactly is offense in the NFL these days? Eight years after the league wrote off Keenum as a product of a gimmick , the Arizona Cardinals made his college offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury, their head coach, with the idea of running something very much like that Air Raid offense at Houston.
“As a quarterback in college my offense was a system, it was a spread-it-out-and-throw-it-around, and I ran that system to perfection,” Case Keenum said. “And this is a system [here] too, and I’m trying to be a quarterback within this system. And the same if I was in a digit system, if I was in a pound-the-rock system, if I was in a spread-it-out system, if I was in a boots-and-keepers system, if I was in a wishbone system. I’m going to work my craft every day.”
There is a skill in the ability to move from team-to-team, learning a new offense in a matter of weeks and then playing it as if you had been doing so for years. Quarterbacks tend to be slow to pick up Redskins coach Jay Gruden’s offense, which is why McCoy had such a great advantage in knowing it. Even Smith was still working to make the fit seem natural when he got hurt last November. Keenum himself has compared learning Gruden’s system to trying to master Portuguese. And yet, he’s managed to understand it faster than most.
“I think his experience with lots of different offenses lends him positively to come in here and pick it up,” the team’s quarterback coach Tim Rattay said.
As he sits in the hallway, Keenum seems unfazed. He refuses to carry grudges about the past, figuring he’s better for all the fights. Rather than keep a list of those who let him go, he remembers those who gave him a chance.
“There’s a lot of ways of playing quarterback in this league and there’s a lot of ways of getting passes completed and putting drives together and scoring touchdowns and winning games,” he said.
It’s not the most exciting thing to say. It’s not what Redskins fans, desperate for an explosive offense, want to hear. It’s probably not the kind of thing that would come from Patrick Mahomes or Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. But it’s come from the fight, from a list of transactions as long as his career, from the two-star undrafted quarterback who keeps starting games in a league that never seemed to want him.