It was just four years ago when four of the men who will play prominent roles during tonight's Thursday Night Football matchup were working together to lead the Minnesota Vikings on a magical run to the NFC Championship Game.
Those 2017 Vikings were led by journeyman quarterback Case Keenum, who stepped in for the injured Sam Bradford and was exactly what a loaded roster needed. Keenum played the best football of his career that season, with his gunslinger mentality allowing Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and the Vikings' other weapons to thrive. (Having the best defense in the league helped, too). Three of the people working closely with Keenum that year were offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, and injured backup Teddy Bridgewater.
Fast forward four years to this game between the 3-3 Broncos and the 3-3 Browns in Cleveland. The Broncos will be led by Bridgewater at QB, with Shurmur calling plays. The Browns will be led by Keenum, with Stefanski calling plays. It's a game filled with ties to the greatest Vikings team of the past 12 years, and it offers a reminder of a number of "what-if" scenarios for Vikings fans.
Let's run through how all four got to this point.
Keenum's big season led to him signing a two-year, $36 million deal with the Broncos in 2018, reuniting him with his former head coach in Houston, Gary Kubiak. He started all 16 games for Denver that season, but couldn't find the magic of the previous year, going 6-10 with nearly as many interceptions as touchdown passes. Keenum was traded to Washington, where he started eight games in 2019, and has spent the past two seasons as Baker Mayfield's backup in Cleveland. Mayfield has an injured shoulder, so Keenum will make his first start as a member of the Browns in primetime.
Bridgewater, who was one of the up-and-coming faces of the Vikings' franchise when they won the NFC North in 2015, had his career altered forever by a gruesome knee injury prior to the 2016 season. After spending his final two years in Minnesota recovering, he was briefly with the Jets in 2018 before ending up in New Orleans. Bridgewater went 5-0 when Drew Brees had to miss time in 2019, and turned that into a job as the Panthers' starter last season. He was then traded to the Broncos this year and beat out Drew Lock for the starting job. It's been an incredible run for 'Teddy 2 Gloves' to bounce back from that injury and remain a starting QB in the NFL.
The success of the '17 Vikings helped Shurmur land his second head coaching gig, this one with the Giants. But after a 9-23 record in two seasons, he was fired. Shurmur was scooped up by Vic Fangio to be the Broncos' offensive coordinator. Judging by the struggles of Denver's offense, Shurmur might be on the hot seat.
Someone who isn't anywhere near the hot seat is Stefanski. He was initially passed up for John DeFilippo as Shurmur's OC replacement in 2018, but stepped into the interim role when DeFilippo didn't make it through the season. Stefanski was the full-time OC in 2019 and helped lead the Vikings back to the playoffs. After a win in the divisional round that may have saved Mike Zimmer's job, Stefanski was off to Cleveland to become a head coach. He instantly helped turn around one of the most moribund franchises in American professional sports, leading the Browns to 11 wins and their first playoff berth in 18 years. Stefanski swept the major NFL Coach of the Year awards as a result.
There are two "what-if" scenarios to think about involving these men (neither of which involves Shurmur).
The first, and most tantalizing, is this: what if the Vikings fired Zimmer after the 2019 season and made Stefanski the head coach in Minnesota instead of Cleveland? Firing a coach after a playoff win is unusual, which is why it ultimately didn't happen. But perhaps the Wilfs should've known that the Vikings hit their ceiling under Zimmer in 2017, and made the bold move to keep the bright, young offensive mind in the building. In hindsight, that would've almost certainly been the right decision. It's only been a year and change, but Stefanski looks like he's going to be a quality head coach in the NFL for a long time.
The other is at quarterback. Following that '17 season, the Vikings had a few different options. They could run it back with Keenum, but that was worrisome because he had just one good season under his belt as a starter and had a rough performance against the Eagles in the NFC title game. They could turn things back over to Bridgewater, but that was a very risky option since no one knew what he would be post-injury. Instead, they spent big money to get Kirk Cousins in free agency.
That move hasn't exactly panned out, with just one playoff appearance in three seasons, but Cousins has mostly been as advertised, earning an extension and generally playing at a higher level than Keenum did in 2017. Still, it's worth wondering what things might've looked like if the Vikings kept Keenum and/or Bridgewater instead of going after Cousins. The QB play would've been worse, but it would've come at a much cheaper cost. Would that have allowed the Vikings to keep players like Diggs, Riley Reiff, and Xavier Rhodes going forward?
We'll never know how things may have changed if the Vikings had kept Stefanski two years ago or gone in a different direction at quarterback three years ago, but as we watch Keenum and Bridgewater square off in primetime, it'll be fun to think about.
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