When Minnesota Vikings starting quarterback Sam Bradford injured his knee in Week 1 of the 2017 season, the fan base immediately became concerned with the team’s future. Losing your starting man under center is no way to begin a season, especially when he had the highest pass completion percentage in the league the previous year. Despite being close to the league average in touchdowns, passing yards, and interceptions, Bradford still performed admirably and had the fifth most completions and sixth highest passer rating in the league in 2016. But, unable to return due to injury (his only other appearance that season was at Chicago where he had 11 pass attempts), Bradford’s starting role would be filled by then-backup Case Keenum. Keenum would turn into an overnight phenom in the North Star State, and it landed him a starting role in Denver the next season. But how did he do in the Mile High city, and did the Broncos make the right choice signing him?
After playing with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams the previous three seasons, Keenum signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Vikings on April 4, 2017. While with the Rams he had thrown 13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and averaged 6.8 passing yards/attempt. With a starting record of 7-7, he looked like a perfectly adequate backup.
No one in Minnesota ever dreamed that Keenum would become the starter that year and if he did that he would lead the team back to the NFC Conference Championship game for the first time since 2009. But he did, picking up an 11-3 record along the way with 22 touchdowns and finishing runner-up for the highest pass completion percentage in the league at 67.6%. Keenum was on fire, and with a miracle playoff win over the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional round, it looked like he’d lead the team back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1976. Unfortunately, the Vikings remembered they were the Vikings and suffered a blowout loss to Philadelphia, killing their chance to be the first team to win a Super Bowl at home.
Despite the season’s disappointing end, Keenum had stepped up and led the purple and gold to the NFC North division title (head coach Mike Zimmer’s second in four years), and that caught the eyes of several teams looking for new quarterbacks. The Denver Broncos, in particular, were seen as top contenders for the hot free agent playmaker. Their starting man was Trevor Siemian, who had finished the season on IR after starting 13-11 over the past two years. The two teams would shuffle quarterbacks, creating an interesting history between them:
- September 3, 2017: Denver Broncos cut QB Kyle Sloter.
- September 4, 2017: Minnesota Vikings added QB Kyle Sloter to the practice squad. (He is activated to the team 12 days later)
- March 15, 2018: Minnesota Vikings acquired QB Trevor Siemian and a 2018 seventh-round draft pick from the Denver Broncos for a 2019 fifth-round draft pick.
- March 15, 2018: Denver Broncos signed QB Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million contract.
While neither Siemian or Sloter saw the field during the 2018 regular season, Keenum would start all 16 games for Denver, and had moderate success.
The Broncos would begin the season with back-to-back home games, narrowly winning both (27-24 over Seattle, then 20-19 over Oakland). While the team pulled through on the skin of their teeth, a W is a W, and the city of Denver was feeling pretty good, having their sixth consecutive season with a 2-0 start, the league’s longest current streak. Then everything went wrong.
The blue and orange stampede would turn into an absolute mess, losing six of their next seven games. They barely lost to powerhouse teams like the Chiefs, Rams, and Texans, but also had a disappointing loss to the Jets, and only beat a near-dead Cardinals team. Entering their bye week midseason with a 3-6 record, it was safe to assume that Denver would miss the playoffs.
And then everything took a 180 turn. The Broncos won three straight games, including beating the Chargers in Los Angeles, and the Steelers for their first home win since Week 2. With a possibility to go 3-1 in their remaining schedule (Weeks 14-17), Denver had revived their chances of January football.
And then everything took a 180 turn again. The Broncos lost every game, including two games against teams (San Francisco and Oakland) with a combined 5-21 record.
The Broncos season was disappointing in many ways, and some significant franchise streaks were broken, but how much of that was Keenum’s fault? On the way to their first back-to-back losing season in over 40 years, Denver traded away one of their biggest stars, WR Demaryius Thomas, to the Texans (who they then lost to the next week), and suffered significant injuries like S Chris Harris Jr. and RB Phillip Lindsay. Would Denver have fared better if they had stuck with Siemian, or perhaps acquired a different free agent quarterback like Kirk Cousins or Alex Smith?
Here are the 2017 passing statistics for Siemian (since he played zero snaps with Minnesota this year), and the 2018 statistics for Keenum, Cousins, and Smith, sorted by age:
Clearly, moving on from Siemian was the right choice for Denver. The only other quarterbacks in 2017 who started at least 10 games with a worse completion percentage were DeShone Kizer, who went 0-15 with Cleveland, and Jacoby Brissett, who went 4-11 with the Colts.
Earning only $8 million this year out of the total $36 million in his contract, Keenum was much cheaper than Smith at $13 million, or Cousins at $22.5 million. Just by the numbers, it looks like John Elway (former Broncos QB and current VP of Football Operations) didn’t make the right choice. Keenum barely produces points more than Smith, and is picked off much more than either Smith or Cousins. He has comparable numbers in yards/attempt or yards/game, but he just can’t get it done in the red zone.
The red zone was a death sentence for Broncos drives when it came to passing, partially due to an extremely young receiving corps. After trading Demaryius Thomas, the only veteran receiver who was frequently targeted was Emmanuel Sanders, who sadly tore his Achilles in practice before Week 9, leaving the last quarter of the season in the hands of rookies Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and DaeSean Hamilton. None of them had 50 catches on the season, and Sutton, the team’s top receiver after Sanders, dropped 50% of his targets. Even when you include Sanders and Thomas, those five receivers combined for 15 touchdowns, the same total as rookie runningbacks Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Remove the vets and you have 7 passing touchdowns in 46 combined games for the rookies. Had Elway been able to snag Smith or Cousins, the team would have had a more talented and experienced arm who could compensate for the younger receivers and make crucial end zone passes. Keenum no longer had stars like Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs downfield; he had to bring his receivers up to his level and couldn’t.
In the end, I think Denver made the right choice signing Keenum and the wrong choices almost everywhere else. Using their #5 overall draft pick to sign DE Bradley Chubb greatly improved their defense, going from 22nd in points allowed in 2017 to 13th in 2018, but they could have also drafted quarterbacks like Josh Allen, who had 44 touchdowns in 27 games at Wyoming, or 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who started 6-1 for the Baltimore Ravens in 2018 and led them to narrowly taking the AFC North division title. They decided to trade their best receiver for the past six years to a team they played the very next week. They waited until the end of the season to fire head coach Vance Joseph and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave despite having the 24th ranked offense in the league in points scored. Keenum performed as he had for his entire career excluding his dazzling year with Minnesota. The team failed him. He wasn’t the best choice, but he certainly wasn’t a wrong one.