EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Case Keenum took the news of losing his job as well as one might expect.
It was November 2016, and the quarterback had just led the Los Angeles Rams to a 9-6 win over the New York Jets to snap a four-game losing streak. The team eyed the playoffs at 4-5 but was struggling mightily on offense, ranking 31st in yards per game and last in points per game. Two of those four victories came without scoring a touchdown
Former Rams coach Jeff Fisher remained loyal to Keenum for as long as he could, often deflecting blame from his quarterback for the team’s losses. But things weren’t getting better, and a switch was inevitable after Keenum threw nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions in nine games, coupled with the second-lowest passer rating of any quarterback who hadn’t already lost his job.
Entering Week 11 last season, Keenum was benched for Jared Goff, the future of the franchise the Rams traded up 14 spots to land with the No. 1 overall pick.
Fisher and Goff praised Keenum for the class with which he handled the situation. That didn’t mean it was one he agreed with.
“Honestly, I wasn’t happy,” Keenum told reporters last November. “I want to play. That’s why I play football … to be the quarterback, to be the guy with the ball in his hands. With that being said, I trust Coach Fisher. I trust the coaches and their decision. I’m a leader and a captain on this team. So I’m going to do my job. And my job is whatever they tell me my job is.”
That statement sums up the player who is responsible for leading the Vikings to a 7-2 record ahead of a showdown with his former team this Sunday — the fire of a competitor mixed with the composure of someone who knows his role.
Since Week 2, Keenum has essentially owned his job despite never officially being named the outright starter. When it was evident that Sam Bradford’s knee injury was going to be a long-term problem, Keenum was penciled in as his indefinite replacement.
But Keenum knew another shakeup was on the horizon. Just as with Goff, it’s expected that Teddy Bridgewater will eventually take over as the starter.
Mike Zimmer said Monday that he knows who his quarterback will be against the Rams. Whether Keenum, who is 5-2 in his starts, has done enough to hold onto his job for another week is up in the air.
In his first five years in the league, Keenum battled through some less-than-ideal situations with the Texans and Rams to prove he can be a starting quarterback, only to find himself pulled at various points and thrown back into the fire when things weren’t going well.
His journey is set in a constant state of limbo, his position as a perennial placeholder who maintains order until teams have the guy they want for the job.
Keenum knows the drill. It wasn’t what he expected in Los Angeles. It’s what he knew he was signing up for when he came to Minnesota.
How he handled the situation in Los Angeles as the Rams went on to lose their last seven games after he was pulled is evidence of why the Minnesota Vikings thought he’d be a good fit when they signed him as a backup in the offseason.
They knew they were getting a quarterback who could take over as a backup and knows when to step aside.
“Our guys upstairs do a great job of finding the right kind of guys to bring in here,” Zimmer said. “We’ve just got a great bunch of guys here that know how to be team guys, play together, work together. I think that’s really important. Case is really no different.”
Most of the questions Keenum has received this year point toward the future — namely how he’ll approach his role if/when Bradford and Bridgewater are ready to take their job back.
He was prodded for similar information last year, but as a starter who was constantly reminded that his job would soon go to someone else.
“I think a lot of things have prepared me in my life for future things,” Keenum said last week. “Last year, every interview I did was about Jared. I’ve been prepared, whether it’s Sam or Teddy or whoever else. I’ve been prepared for these types of situations. [It’s] just kind of water off my back.”
What he faced in L.A. has prepared him for the situation he now faces.
It’s why he’s kept the same approach for answering questions about his preparation, responses that usually go something like, “I hate to be boring, but I prepare the same way every week like I’m going to start.”
The cliché is rooted in reality. Keenum knows how quickly a backup-turned-starter-turned-backup again can be thrust back into the mix after being pulled.
That mindset has allowed him to stay in the present and not look too far down the road at games he may or may not be starting.
It’s taught him how to not play looking over his shoulder.
Unlike last year, Keenum hasn’t done enough to lose his job this season, but for circumstances out of his control, he still might.
Nothing has prepared him for if that happens more than what he went through within the past year. He didn’t start out this journey wanting to be a backup, but change has been among the few constants in his career. It’s been up to him to pull from his previous experiences to not let the uncertainty of a team’s next move get in the way of what he was brought in to do.
“You learn from things you did well, and you learn from everything that’s going on,” he said. “For me, I compartmentalize. I’m here to do my job, and that’s to put this team in the best possible situation to win every week.”