During interviews for head-coaching jobs, one commonly asked question is for candidates to name a time when they faced adversity as a coach, and how they responded. Pat Shurmur, who interviewed with multiple NFL teams during the Vikings’ first-round playoff bye week, wouldn’t have needed to say much—the results are all over the film.
“You learn how to deal with adversity,” Shurmur said this week from the Vikings’ Winter Park practice facility. “If you have injuries, you don’t make them part of your daily conversation. Put the next guy in there and you go.”
Shurmur has had to do that, and then some. He took over as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator following Norv Turner’s resignation in November 2016; it was an injury-ravaged season in which Minnesota used eight different starting offensive line combinations. This year, Shurmer lost Sam Bradford, the starting quarterback for whom he’d designed an offense, in Week 2; and Dalvin Cook, the rookie running back averaging 4.8 yards per carry, in Week 4. But yet, the 13–3 Vikings enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a Case Keenum-led offense that ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring.
If you’d read that sentence last season, or maybe even in September, you probably wouldn’t have believed it. Keenum began his NFL career on the practice squad; the next year, in 2013, he went 0–8 as a starter for the Texans. He kept the seat warm last season for No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff with the Rams, then signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the Vikings this spring to help bolster their quarterback depth. But when Bradford was sidelined with his ailing left knee after the first game of the year, what happened next has been one of the best, and most unexpected, stories of this NFL season.
“We saw it behind the scenes,” Shurmur says, “but nobody outside the building would have predicted that Case would have been able to play winning football like he has.”
That’s not a knock against Keenum, but he is currently playing the best football of his career, at any level. He’s won 11 of 14 starts, more wins than in the rest of his NFL career combined. He’s completed 67.6% of his passes this year, second to only Drew Brees, and a full 13 percentage points higher than in his first season as a starter. He’s thrown 22 touchdowns to seven interceptions, a near identical ratio to Brees, whose Saints the Vikings will face at home in the divisional round this Sunday.
“The maturation of Case, I think in large part due to Pat,” says Vikings play-by-play announcer Paul Allen, “has been one of the most unique things I’ve seen in my 16 seasons calling games for this team.”
It’s a partnership that’s worked so well, there has been speculation it will continue on past this season in another NFL city, with Shurmur as a head coach and Keenum, a free agent this spring, following him. But they are focused on the here and now, in Minnesota, where they have plenty of business to finish. The Vikings have been known for their defense since they hired head coach Mike Zimmer in 2014, and this year is no exception; the defense ranks first in the league in scoring, allowing just 15.8 points per game. But in forging an identity on both offense and defense this season, the Vikings became the favorite in the NFC.
The identity was supposed to be a different one. Shurmur spent the offseason building an offense with Bradford, the 6' 4" pocket passer, in mind, while Teddy Bridgewater, the first-round pick who suffered a serious knee dislocation last summer, continued his rehab. When Bradford’s twice-repaired left knee flared up before the Week 2 game against Pittsburgh, Shurmur had to adjust. Keenum’s first start was shaky, the 26–9 loss to Pittsburgh in which he completed barely more than half of his passes, but that was not an indicator of what was to come.
“Nobody out there thought he was going to have success, especially after his game in Pittsburgh, but we’ve seen him in practice, we’ve seen him have success, we’ve seen him throw a hell of a ball on a consistent basis so for us,” says receiver Stefon Diggs. “We just had to continue to believe in him, and believe he could do it on a consistent basis, and in his next game, he showed out.”
Despite Keenum’s week-to-week status as a starter, which lasted into December, Shurmur steadily tailored the offense to what he did well. In Keenum’s second start, against the Bucs, he ran the ball six times. Against the Lions, on Thanksgiving, he ran it seven. His mobility became part of the game plan, both to extend plays and move the pocket to give him a better view of the field with his 6' 1" frame. Says Diggs, “the play is never over with Case, so you have to make sure you are running around to get open.” His legs also help him escape trouble; he was sacked on just 10.7% of plays on which he was pressured, the second lowest rate in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
One of Keenum’s best performances came in the middle of the Vikings’ eight-game win streak, a 38–30 road win at Washington, in which he completed 21-of-29 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, the first Vikings QB to throw that many scores on the road since Brett Favre in 2009. But he also had two interceptions on back-to-back drives in the second half, one of which came on an ill-advised pass he slung downfield, letting Washington back in the game.
“Now the next day, Mike Zimmer was pressed hard by the media, and he would not go down the road saying Case was going to be the starting QB next week,” Allen recalls. “And that’s with everybody knowing it wasn’t going to be Bradford, and Bridgewater had only just returned. And they were playing the L.A. Rams, Case’s former team. Between Zimmer and Shurmur always keeping a certain degree of pressure on Case, Case is one of those guys who responds when he has pressure.”
Keenum responded by completing more than 70% of his passes with a 100.8 passer rating in a 24–7 win against the Rams that helped the Vikings earn a first-round playoffs bye. “I think he’s still in the week-to-week mode in my opinion,” says Shurmur, making the simple point that both coaches and players have to perform well to keep their jobs. If there’s anyone who embraces that mindset, it’s a fifth-year quarterback who has bounced around the league.
The Vikings’ overhaul on offense began in the spring, when they secured two new starting tackles, Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers, in free agency and drafted center Pat Elflein in the third round. After injuries to Adrian Peterson and most of the offensive line withered the Vikings’ ground game to the worst in the league last season, the Vikings invested in running the ball this offseason. They signed ex-Raiders running back Latavius Murray to a three-year, $15 million deal and drafted Cook in the second round. The run game became more diverse thanks to the athleticism of the linemen, and the seventh-most productive in the league. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ playaction passing game has thrived, with Keenum taking more playaction drop backs than all but two quarterbacks in the league this season (ranking first is Tom Brady).
Shurmur’s best work has been in designing an offense that complements both the best defense in the NFL and his offensive players. In tailoring a scheme to Keenum’s strengths, he’s facilitated ways for him to get the ball to his playmakers. The Vikings use tactics like pre-snap motions and stack and switch releases, a Patriots staple in which receivers come off the line together, to define their routes and out-leverage defenders. As his targets come open, Keenum has been decisive in delivering the ball to Diggs and Adam Thielen, two of the better route-runners in the NFL.
“The best guys in the league play man-to-man, and when you put those guys in a bind as far as stacking and making them chase, it kind of puts the defense on alert,” Diggs says. “Because when you’ve got to a chase a guy all over the field, nobody wants to do that, then you’ve gotta worry about getting rubbed or any type of thing that’s going to throw a guy off. [The defender] is chasing, instead of just running straight the whole time.”
Shurmur is not one to reveal too much, so when he describes the offense as “doing what our players do well,” it sounds like a cliché. Except that simple concept is central to the Vikings’ success this year. Shurmur came up as a coach with the West Coast offense, but he’s blended concepts learned from working under Chip Kelly, his two years as a head coach in Cleveland, among other ideas. He gives Keenum input into the game plan, presenting him with three or four options for a given game situation, and asking for his opinion on which he likes best. Diggs says players are free to talk to Shurmur about plays that aren’t working, and he’ll either explain why it has to be done that way or work with the player to find a better way.
Diggs puts their offensive mentality similarly: Take what you can get. It’s a lesson that applies to both the small picture of individual plays, and the big picture of withstanding the loss of key players.
“We had a rough run last year of guys getting injured and things happening where we couldn’t control it, and we let it affect us to a certain extent,” Diggs says. “This year, I feel like the adversity that we faced last year put us in a position now that when a guy does go down, we don’t get down on ourselves; we kind of just figure out a way to make it work. We want to win games, and we find a way to do it.”
The Vikings certainly have this year. Keenum may not be the flashiest quarterback, and on a football Sunday in Minneapolis, U.S. Bank Stadium will have a lot more Bridgewater and Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith jerseys than Keenum’s No. 7. But he's found a way to win games, in a season that’s likely changed the trajectory of both his, and Shurmur’s, careers.