Vikings QB Case Keenum hopes to party like it's 1999 and he's Kurt Warner
MINNEAPOLIS — Case Keenum has a chance to be another Kurt Warner.
Just ask Warner.
"No doubt," he said.
During the 1999 season, the undrafted quarterback emerged from obscurity to lead the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV.
This season, the undrafted Keenum has gone from career journeyman to season savior, steering the Vikings to a 13-3 record and NFC North championship. Minnesota opens the playoffs at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, at U.S. Bank Stadium against New Orleans in the divisional round with its sights set on becoming the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Yes, there are some differences between the two quarterbacks. Warner played in the Arena Football League and had thrown just 11 passes in one NFL game before his Cinderella season at age 28. Keenum, 29, was on the practice squad with Houston as a rookie in 2012 but had made 24 NFL starts going into this season, winning nine of those games.
Still, Warner, a hall of famer, sees plenty of parallels as Keenum prepares to play in his first postseason game.
Warner's epic run came after he replaced Trent Green, who was lost for the season when he injured his knee in an exhibition game; Keenum's opportunity came when Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford suffered an early-season knee injury.
"Just the way that nobody expected (Keenum) to be here, the way he came out and played at a level that nobody foresaw, that he's sustained it for a long period of time," Warner said. "He's put himself in an unbelievable position to be able to not only make a run in the playoffs and possibly win a Super Bowl, because he's got a really good team around him, but also to set himself up for a chance to be a starting quarterback somewhere, whether it be with the Vikings or somewhere else, for the long haul.
"There's a lot of similarities in regards to the way this season has turned out (to Warner's in 1999). ... I was a lot more of an unknown, but an injury (also) put him in that position.''
During his surprising season, Keenum has been getting advice from Warner, now an NFL Network analyst. He said Warner has been texting him and has "had some good things" to say leading up to his playoff debut.
"(Warner) is somebody I've looked up to for a long time," Keenum said. "Obviously, solid player but solid guy, so I appreciate that."
Keenum and Warner didn't offer specifics about what Warner has texted. Warner did say he has bonded with the quarterback and has been "encouraging" him since first meeting Keenum last year when he was with the Los Angeles Rams.
Keenum began the 2016 season as the Rams' starter, going 4-5. He was benched, though, when the Rams turned the offense over to Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick in last year's NFL draft.
"I was out there actually doing a story on Jared Goff and (Keenum) went out of his way to come over and say hello," Warner said. "Obviously, I knew of him but just had not had the fortune of being introduced and having a conversation."
The two have exchanged texts ever since. Both are devout Christians, which is one reason Warner said Keenum sought him out. While Warner said that hasn't been the driving force behind their relationship, he foresees a possibility of having future discussions about their faith.
For now, Keenum will try to buck the odds the way Warner did during a season in which he was named 1999 NFL MVP and led the Rams to a 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV on Jan. 30, 2000.
It won't be easy. Since Warner won a ring, just one quarterback has taken a team to a Super Bowl win with no playoff experience in previous seasons. That was Tom Brady, who led New England to a 20-17 victory over Warner's Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI after the 2001 season.
Only two other quarterbacks since Warner's win have reached the Super Bowl without previous playoff experience: Jake Delhomme for Carolina following the 2003 season and Colin Kaepernick for San Francisco after the 2012 campaign.
Standing first in Keenum's way is New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees, who is one of the most experienced QBs in the NFL. Brees has had 12 playoff starts and won a Super Bowl eight years ago.
"In any aspect, common sense would say that experience helps you in anything you're doing as you go along," Brees said of being playoff seasoned. "The more you're in those situations, the more you have a grasp for what it's like and how to prepare for it and then how to play in that environment."
Brees won his Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2010, after having one playoff start for the San Diego Chargers in 2004 and two for the Saints in 2006.
Aside from Brady, who has added four more rings, the only other quarterbacks to have won a Super Bowl with no playoff experience in a previous year are Joe Namath of the New York Jets in the 1968 season, Oakland's Jim Plunkett (1980), San Francisco's Joe Montana (1981) and Chicago's Jim McMahon (1985).
Roger Staubach (1971) and Troy Aikman (1992), both of Dallas, won their first of multiple Super Bowls with no playoff starts in a previous season, although both had seen postseason reserve duty. Joe Theismann of Washington (1982) and Jeff Hostetler of the New York Giants (1990) won rings after having only previous playoff experience on special teams.
Opinions are divided among Super Bowl winners about how successful a quarterback can be in the postseason without playoff seasoning.
"I think it's important," said Bob Griese. "I certainly think a guy like Drew Brees who has been (in the playoffs) a lot has a big advantage over a guy that hasn't been there before."
Griese had a playoff start in 1970 and took Miami to the Super Bowl after the 1971 season before leading the Dolphins to Super Bowl wins after the 1972 and 1973 seasons.
Phil Simms had four postseason starts over two years before he steered the Giants to a Super Bowl victory after the 1986 season.
"I'll say this without question: I think the Vikings can go to the Super Bowl and they can win the Super Bowl with Case Keenum at quarterback," said Simms, an analyst for "The NFL Today" on CBS. "I don't sit there and say, 'Oh, boy, he's going to be a detriment to that football team.' He has added personality to that football team when he plays."
Keenum is 11-3 as a starter this season. He did not play when Bradford threw for 346 yards in a 29-19 victory over the Saints in the Sept. 11 opener before being sidelined with a knee injury. Since then, Keenum has started each game except Week 5 at Chicago, when Bradford aggravated his knee late in the first half and Keenum came on to lead Minnesota to a 20-17 win.
Now, Keenum will play the biggest game of his life.
"You'll have to ask me afterwards, but I'm excited," Keenum said of what he anticipates a playoff start will be like. "It's going to be a great atmosphere. Not many people get these opportunities, so I'm going to take advantage of it and I'm going to play just like I play every week, like it could be my last game."
Keenum did get a taste of the playoffs as a member of Houston's practice squad in 2012, standing on the sidelines for a pair of games. While that's far different from playing, Keenum at least said he was "learning" during what he calls his NFL "redshirt year."
In his first two playoff games for the Redskins, Theismann didn't play quarterback but said it was still valuable experience. He returned punts in a 1974 game and was the holder in a 1976 game; six years later, he won a Super Bowl as the starting quarterback.
"Playoffs are different," Theismann said. "It's a faster animal. That's the one thing that jumped out at me. The speed of the game changes."
As for Keenum's composure, Theismann believes it has been well tested and that should carry over to the playoffs. Keenum spent the final half of the regular season knowing that a bad performance could lead to him being replaced by Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota's starter in 2014 and 2015 who suffered a torn ACL in August 2016 and was activated in November off the physically unable to perform list.
"Every game for (Keenum) was a pressure situation because when Teddy got healthy, there was a question of whether they were going to play him," Theismann said. "He was battling to keep his job every week, so I don't see him coming apart at the seams (in the playoffs)."
However, Brad Johnson, a former Vikings quarterback who won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay after the 2002 season, said it could take some time Sunday for Keenum to get into a playoff groove.
"The adrenaline is going to be flowing and it's going to feel a little different than a regular-season game," Johnson said. "He's just got to keep his emotions in the game, and sometimes it takes a series to get into the flow of the game. You don't want to give the game away and make plays you can't make.
"But Case has played great football. He's had a storybook year, and the way you've got to finish it off is to win three more games and you win it all."
Johnson played for the Vikings from 1994-98 and 2005-06. His Super Bowl win came after he had made one playoff start for Minnesota in 1996, two for Washington in 1999 and one for the Buccaneers in 2001.
When the Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII 48-21 over Oakland the following season, they were similar to the current Vikings. Both teams finished No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense and total defense. That meant Johnson, like Keenum this season, didn't always need to put up gaudy numbers for his team to win.
Keenum had just two 300-yard passing games and averaged 243.4 yards in his 14 starts. But he was seventh in the NFL with a passer rating of 98.3 and fourth with an interception percentage of 1.5.
"At the end of the day, I would tell Case Keenum not to do anything differently," said Rich Gannon, the Raiders' starting quarterback in the Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers. "He's got to do the things that got him here, continue to make plays, (use) his legs, continue to make good decisions, continue to lead the football team, continue to manage situational football."
Could that translate into a deep Vikings playoff run despite Keenum being a postseason novice?
"Playoff experience is important, but it can be overrated," said Gannon, who played for the Vikings from 1987-92 and is now an analyst for CBS Sports. "You ask Kurt Warner, it didn't seem like he needed a whole lot of postseason experience to win that Super Bowl with the Rams."
Interestingly, after Warner gained more experience, he couldn't win another Super Bowl. In addition to the loss to the Patriots, Warner was with Arizona for a 27-23 loss to Pittsburgh nine years ago in Super Bowl XLIII.
Nevertheless, he'll always be known for that storybook season 18 years ago. Warner wouldn't mind seeing Keenum pull off something similar.
"Guys that maybe don't have a lot of experience, they can write their own story and they can make history," Warner said, "and Case is in a position to do that."
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