Consider this: When Vikings GM Rick Spielman packed his stuff for Arizona and the NFL’s annual meeting in March, the quarterback who would lead Minnesota on a seven-game winning streak eight months later was available for almost nothing to every team.
And it wasn’t until after Spielman arrived in Phoenix, nearly three weeks into free agency, that he picked up the phone to engage in negotiations to bring Keenum to the Twin Cities. Spielman says now the Vikings liked how decisive he was in getting rid of the ball, and that he could make things happen with his feet, and that initial call led to a visit, during which the former Texan and Ram signed a 1-year deal.
That guy plucked off the scrap heap? He’s now 8-2 as a starter, and the 9-2 Vikings seem to keep getting better, which neither Spielman nor anyone else in the Vikings organization, admittedly, saw coming.
“I don’t think anyone did,” Spielman said yesterday from a jubilant, victorious Viking locker room. “That’s why football is such a great game. You get guys like Adam Thielen doing what he’s doing this year. You just don’t know. But sticking to our values in what we’re trying to bring into the organization, and having trust in this coaching staff that does an incredible job coaching these guys has paid off.
“Hopefully it’ll continue to pay off.”
The really amazing thing isn’t Keenum’s filling in admirably—he’s done that before, and the Vikings, and everyone else, knew he was capable of that again. “We thought he’d be a very good backup,” Spielman said, “just like the other teams that were looking at him.”
What we’ve seen the last three weeks isn’t just that. And yesterday certainly wasn’t just that. Quarterback was a real team strength for the Vikings in their 30-23 win in Detroit over a Lions team fighting to stay in the playoff picture. Keenum finished 21-of-30 for 282 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and a 121.8 rating. He was nails early on in helping build a 13-0 lead, and solid late, as Minnesota held off the rallying Lions.
In the three games since former first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater was cleared to return, Keenum has completed 71.1 percent of his throws for 866 yards, seven touchdowns, two picks, 8.93 yards per attempt, and a 114.0 rating. Keenum took a tough decision off the table, and the Vikings have won seven straight.
Maybe the clock will strike midnight soon. But for reasons illuminated for the national audience to see on Thanksgiving, the Vikings feel pretty good riding this Cinderella story until that happens.
In this week’s special holiday weekend Game Plan, we’re going to hook you up with another interesting look at NFL analytics; dive into the Raiders’ coordinator change; explain why the Saints showed another gear in their comeback win last week; dissect the Chargers’ resurrection; and take a quick spin abroad to wrap up this year’s International Series.
We’re starting, though, with the story of Thanksgiving Day in the NFL, which is becoming one of the stories of November in the NFL. It's the tale of what’s happening in Minnesota, where the Vikings used a nightmarish 2016 to fortify their foundation for 2017.
The Vikings lost their quarterback for the season (they thought Bridgewater may never play again) in an August practice, and injuries cost starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith 26 games, and Adrian Peterson all but three games. They switched offensive coordinators in October, and Zimmer’s eye issue (he wound up having eight surgeries) knocked him out for a game, and limited him in other ways.
When it was over, Zimmer and his staff identified issues that caused four losses by six points or less—red-zone penalties were one—and drilled them in the spring.
“It helped us learn and grow as a football team,” Spielman says. “To go back and look at a lot of the games, where we were, and then some of the games we did lose, I give credit to Coach Zimmer and the job he did teaching this offseason, and the points of emphasis on how we lost games last year, how we won games last year, that was his emphasis the whole offseason. And we practiced those scenarios.”
Still, part of this was going to have to be on Spielman and his staff, and their work was put to the test early. Sam Bradford looked incredible in a season-opening win, but suffered a bone bruise in the process. The Vikings lost two of their next three, and stud rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in game four, with Minnesota staring down the barrel of 2-2, and a repeat of 2016.
Groundhog Day never came, and not just because the Vikings built resilience into their mentality. They also built resilience into their roster.
With Peterson gone, the Vikings wanted a big back who could pick up yards after contact to pair with Jerick McKinnon. They wound up with Latavius Murray, who’s carried the ball 15 times or more in each of the Vikings’ last six games. Murray had 84 yards and a touchdown on Thursday, and he’s definitely softened the loss of Cook.
On the offensive line, the signings of tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers have worked out, but the team also needed depth. So last November, they plucked Rashod Hill from Jacksonville’s practice squad. He’s started the last three games with Remmers healing from a concussion, and without the nuclear winter that last year’s line injuries led to.
And then there’s Keenum. They sunk two first-round picks, a fourth-rounder and around $20 million in 2018 cap dollars into Bradford and Bridgewater. And yet, it’s the guy who cost them no draft picks and $2 million who’s gotten them here.
At this point, as Spielman explains, it’s become part of the team’s mentality. “In our learning as we go through the adversity this year, guys have to be able to fill in and not miss a beat. Even last week, you saw it, with (safety Anderson) Sendejo out, and Anthony Harris making a huge play for us to swing the momentum of the game against the Rams.”
The resilience shows in other areas, too. In Detroit, it came up as the Lions battled back. On a third-and-3 in the fourth quarter, with the lead cut to 27-23 and the hosts carrying all the momentum, Golden Tate collected a short throw from Matthew Stafford and was swarmed by three Vikings as he took a step back short of the sticks, forcing a punt. On the Lions’ next possession, Xavier Rhodes secured the win with a spectacular pick.
In the end, Minnesota held Detroit without a first down for the final 14 minutes of the game, while churning five of its own out to grind the clock down to zero.
So in one way, Keenum’s the story here. In another, the bigger picture is how everything, including a talented young core hitting its prime, is working around him to facilitate his play. And no matter who you want to credit, the Thanksgiving game just gave everyone more proof that the biggest beneficiaries of last year’s bad fortune in Minnesota were the guys who were the victims of it.
“It’s a totally different team, it’s a totally different mentality,” Spielman said. “It all starts with Coach Zimmer. Last year with what he was going through, it seemed like he had an eye surgery every other week, wasn’t there versus Dallas. And you could tell, even when we started in the OTAs, that he was back. And his leadership of this football team, what he does with this group, was back.
“And I think we have a good core group of young guys that are pretty good players.”
That much, we all knew coming into the year. That Keenum is one piloting them to all this, though, is something else.