Peyton Manning was mostly a passenger on the Denver Broncos team that won the Super Bowl in 2015, a hindrance even. The Broncos won the Super Bowl in spite of their once-great quarterback who had decayed into a derelict state. For most of Manning’s career he was the reason his teams won. He elevated his offensive line by identifying alignments and tendencies before getting the ball out instantly or audibling to a running play that had a higher chance for success. Manning mostly played with great receivers, but they didn’t need to be great because he could throw them open with anticipation and precision. It’s why the Broncos’ 2015 season was so unusual.
The quarterback who had spent his career carrying inferior teams to undeserved heights was now being lifted up by Von Miller and company. Sure, Manning was better in the playoffs even considering his attempt to throw the ball through Kony Ealy’s chest in the Super Bowl itself. But during the regular season he threw for nine touchdowns and 17 interceptions, numbers that flattered his commitment to floating the ball above the heads of waiting defensive backs.
Although Manning’s team won the Super Bowl that season, 2015 was defined by quarterbacks elevating those around them.
Cam Newton won the MVP with Ted Ginn as his number one wide receiver. Ted Ginn and an offensive line that essentially functioned without offensive tackles. Newton repeatedly hit tight windows with anticipation while being accosted in the pocket. Carson Palmer moved stride for stride with Newton until a finger injury derailed him late in the season. Palmer was working with no margin for error behind a limited offensive line and in Bruce Arians’ extremely aggressive offense so that seemingly minor injury had a major impact on his output.
Once Palmer dropped out, Newton became the obvious choice for MVP but they weren’t the only quarterbacks excelling in spite of those around them. Tom Brady overcame an underperforming offensive line until he met that Broncos defense in the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers’ receiving corps lost Jordy Nelson so he was left with a group of receivers who couldn’t create separation and who believed catching the ball was optional. Russell Wilson had the most productive season of his career as a passer even with an ineffective-then-injured Jimmy Graham and an offensive line that had begun its downward spiral.
Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota, Ryan Tannehill and Tyrod Taylor could all be characterized as quarterbacks who were elevating those around them rather than relying on those around them.
2017 has been defined by the opposite.
Early in the year it was Alex Smith. Smith was The MVP early on. His team was unbeaten, his numbers were inflated and he had a marquee victory that everyone saw. Smith is more of an athlete than a quarterback. Andy Reid understands that. Reid built an offense that relied on misdirection, option and screen plays so Smith wouldn’t have to hold the ball in the pocket, react to pressure with subtlety or make anticipation throws into coverage downfield. He didn’t throw a pass 11-20 yards downfield at all in Weeks 2 or 3 because of the offense he runs. Once those misdirection plays became less prominent, Smith’s play and the offense’s production dropped off.
Not coincidentally, Doug Pederson is having success in a similar fashion with the Philadelphia Eagles. Carson Wentz is likely going to be the MVP this year. He has taken a step forward in his second season. He’s no longer one of the worst starters in the league, but he also hasn’t ascended into that top tier of passers either. Pederson’s offense features RPOs, option runs and clearly-defined route combinations with an emphasis on running the ball, He doesn’t have to carry his offense as a repeated dropback passer, mitigating pressure and making difficult downfield reads. Wentz just has to make enough accurate throws without turning the ball over, something he’s done very well since a rough start to the year. Throw in the best offensive line in the league and a dominant defense to make the Eagles one of the best teams in football.
Jared Goff’s turnaround in Los Angeles is very similar to that of Wentz. Goff was a truly atrocious rookie regardless of his supporting cast. In his second season Goff has grown into a below-average starter. His output has been that of something much greater thanks to a revamped receiving corps, a hugely upgraded offensive line and the impact of Sean McVay. McVay not only calls diverse and unpredictable plays that target the weaknesses of his opponents each week, he is even calling audibles for Goff at the line of scrimmage.
Each of the Chiefs, Eagles and Rams have offensive-minded head coaches. The Minnesota Vikings don’t. Yet the Vikings are the greatest testament to this year being The Season of the Supporting Cast.
Mention the name T.J. Clemmings to a passionate Vikings fan and you’re likely to get slapped. Clemmings played 83 percent of the Vikings snaps last season. He wasn’t supposed to. The 24-year old became the team’s starting right tackle when Andre Smith was hurt before moving to left tackle when Matt Kalil was hurt. He wound up playing more snaps than any other lineman on the team. He wound up destroying more plays than any other lineman in the NFL. Yes, the same NFL that featured Ereck Flowers at his worst.
Scheming around one offensive lineman isn’t impossible. Difficult but not impossible. Scheming around two is a huge challenge for the coach. Scheming around three requires a great quarterback and a great coach. The Vikings had to scheme around five.
By the end of the season, seven backup linemen had seen the field for the Vikings. Jake Long was signed off the street and instantly became the starting left tackle before tearing his ACL. Such was the quality of the Vikings’ backups that it was impossible to run a viable passing game. Sam Bradford took all the criticism for throwing the ball short, but it was a rare snap when he had the opportunity to hold the ball in the pocket long enough for his routes to develop downfield.
Even if fully healthy, the Vikings had built an offensive line for Norv Turner, an offensive line for Adrian Peterson. It was a group of big-bodied maulers rather than athletes who could move laterally or locate defenders in space. Turner wanted to run the ball from under center.
Pat Shurmer didn’t want to do that. Shurmur worked with what he could when he took over midseason last year but he didn’t want Turner’s line. As such, the Vikings entered 2017 with four new starters on a five-man unit. Those new starters were more athletic than their predecessors, allowing for a more diverse rushing attack and a more expansive screen game. Not only could they run outside zone plays, they could still trap defenders on inside runs or go into heavy sets and win with leverage. Shurmur’s new line would stretch the defense horizontally and open up options all over the field. The play calling no longer had to be predictable.
Pat Elflein has been at the center of everything good in Minnesota this season. Elflein is a rookie center who can regularly be seen leading the way on screen plays in the open field. He will be as big of a star as a center can be in time. Riley Reiff, the team’s new starter at left tackle, has proven to be one of the best free agent moves from the offseason, solidifying the pass protection at a spot that had been a major problem since the early years of Matt Kalil.
The Vikings revamped their offensive line in one offseason. Clean pockets are now expected in Minnesota. No longer do fans dread the quarterback dropping back like they had in the past. Running plays don’t always work, but the consistent execution of the line means that the result of plays hinges on what the running back does at an improbable rate.
Crucially, Elflein has played 100 percent of the snaps this season. Joe Berger has played 99.7 percent. Reiff has played 97.1 percent. T.J. Who?
With Pat Shurmur proving to be an unpredictable and balanced play caller, Case Keenum’s conditions in Minnesota are close to perfect. The pockets he operates in aren’t those that Sam Bradford operated in. A three-man rush is no longer a threat to the quarterback, a four-man rush is rarely a threat to the quarterback. If Demarcus Lawrence is across the line of scrimmage, he can’t expect to arrive in the backfield immediately after the ball like he could last season.
Keenum was never an awful quarterback. He was never Brock Osweiler. When he first got a shot in the NFL with the Houston Texans, he proved to be unaware of his limitations. He was a gunslinger who shot with the speed of soap bubbles. He had plus athleticism but wasn’t a great athlete and didn’t offer up any significant upside with his mental or technical ability. There was a level of poise that elevated him above other backup quarterbacks, as well as a propensity for missing throws and moving into pressure that kept him tied to those backup quarterbacks.
Decision-making is still a big issue for Keenum.
5.45 percent of his passes have been interceptable, one every 18 attempts. He has thrown 18 interceptable passes on 330 attempts. Only four of those passes have been caught by a defender, 22 percent. Matt Ryan was the only quarterback in the NFL last year to throw more than 200 passes and have fewer than 25 percent of his interceptable passes caught by a defender. Furthermore, Keenum’s interceptable passes have come in bunches. He has three games this season with at least three interceptable passes, two with four, and two more games with two interceptable passes.
His most egregious mistakes came against Washington in Week 10.
Keenum threw four touchdowns and had 304 yards in this game. He was widely praised for a great performance. He was the main reason that the game was close. The above play was the first of four interceptable passes he threw in the game, the first two weren’t caught but the last two were. The play involves a hard play fake that gives Keenum a clean pocket to settle in.
The hard play fake in this play has been a heavy part of the Vikings offense this season. Keenum has used a play fake on 27 percent of his dropbacks, that would have ranked first in the league last year. In this specific game he used play action on more than 50 percent of his passes while being accurate on 20 of 28 pass attempts (71.43 percent).
That first play was a bad throw, a missed throw more than a bad decision, but it was a warning sign of what was to come.
Adam Thielen’s motion and the defense’s subsequent response to it tipped Thielen off to the defense’s play call. He correctly slid his pass protection to the right in order to pick up the pass rush. Unfortunately, that was only half of the action. Keenum negated his sliding pass protection by then moving himself into pressure before panicking and heaving the ball into coverage deep downfield where D.J. Swearinger lay in wait. Swearinger was always on top of Kyle Rudolph’s route.
It was 35-20 at this point of the game. It was late in the third quarter. A sack here was fine. Throwing the ball away was even better. Holding it to give his underneath receivers an opportunity to make a second movement was the best option.
The last thing Keenum could do in this situation was throw an interception.
Playing with the best defense in the NFL comes with some benefits for the quarterback. His interception went unpunished. At least, his first interception went unpunished. As if they were Brady and Welker, Keenum and Swearinger connected again on his next pass attempt. This time Keenum failed to recognize the safety rotation, threw the ball way too late and too far inside. Swearinger could even wait on the ball to make sure he didn’t contact Rudolph before catching it.
This was a mental error from the quarterback but even if he had released the ball on time it wouldn’t have reached his tight end because of his limited arm strength.
Interception opportunities are going to remain consistent with Keenum. Relying on defenders to continue missing those opportunities is not a strategy the Vikings should be comfortable with. Limited arm strength, an aggressive mindset and limited acumen will always make the threat of a full-on meltdown game stronger. What has kept Keenum in the starting lineup ahead of the returning Teddy Bridgewater is partially luck from defenders dropping passes but also Keenum’s ability to execute the offense to a certain level.
Besides his awful decisions that lead to interception opportunities, he is generally able to diagnose coverages and understands where to go with the ball. His timing getting rid of the ball is less consistent but his athleticism allows him to escape the pressure he moves himself into at times. Most importantly, when Keenum misses he doesn’t miss wildly. He’s not an accurate passer but he throws catchable passes at a higher rate than most backup quarterbacks.
As the above chart shows, Keenum hasn’t really changed since last season. His accuracy numbers are not good. His two best games have come over the past two weeks. He accurate on 76 percent of his passes in each of those games and threw only one interceptable pass on 48 attempts. Keenum also had his best play of the season with a perfect touchdown pass to Rudolph on a corner route in Detroit.
Prior to those games he was below 72 percent in every game but one and below 70 percent in five of eight. If we subtract Keenum’s first game of the season, when he was 50 percent accurate, his accuracy percentage for the season is 68 percent. An awful number.
And yet, because Keenum doesn’t miss wildly when he does, he has allowed the passing game to function. That is because the Vikings skill position players are exceptionally good at catching inaccurate passes. Throwing the ball to Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph (Thielen especially and Rudolph less so than Diggs) is a lot easier than throwing the ball to say, Zay Jones, Jordan Matthews and Kelvin Benjamin. Thielen and Diggs excel at creating wide windows for their quarterback because of how they can create separation and offer wide catch radiuses at the catch point. Rudolph is less consistent catching the ball but moves more fluidly than most tight ends.
So far this season, Keenum has thrown 330 passes. On those 330 passes the Vikings skill position players have combined to catch 22 inaccurate passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns. 6.7 percent of Keenum’s attempts have been inaccurate completions, 14.9 percent of his yards have come on those plays. Last year only Matt Barkley eclipsed five percent of his attempts, only 13 of 33 quarterbacks eclipsed three percent. Derek Carr was the only quarterback to gain more than 10 percent of his yards on inaccurate passes, only eight quarterbacks eclipsed seven percent.
A huge percent of the passing game flows through Thielen and Diggs because Keenum has to rely on them to be effective. This was highlighted most in Keenum’s second game when the quarterback benefited from five created receptions for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Throwing outside is always a challenge for Keenum because of his limited arm strength. On the first play in the above gif Keenum does a good job to reset in the pocket and deliver the ball with his feet beneath him. He didn’t rush or panic, instead trusting his running back to pick up the blitzer. Keenum’s pass just glided away from him as he tried to make a high velocity throw from the far hash mark. Diggs’ ability to go down and pull the ball up allowed the ball to still be completed.
It’s the second play in the above gif that highlights an issue that is epidemic for Keenum.
When you combine a weak arm with a quarterback who can’t throw with anticipation, the ball is regularly going to arrive late and often too high inside. The Buccaneers blitz on this play, it’s picked up again, and Thielen has a matchup advantage in space. Keenum should see that Thielen will be open before he even enters his break. The quarterback has to wait until Thielen comes out of his break before delivering the ball and his pass floats, forcing Thielen to wait on it before showing off precise, quick feet to stay in bounds.
This tendency to throw the ball high, inside and late when searching for his receivers outside the numbers showed up on both of Diggs’ touchdowns. Similar to the Thielen play, Diggs has comfortably beaten the defender in space for his first touchdown but Keenum makes it a 50-50 ball. Diggs recognizes the flight of the ball early, allowing him to establish a good position before rising above the defender to pull the ball in. That’s a very difficult play you don’t expect any receiver to make consistently.
On the second play, Diggs is forced to rely on the defensive back missing the ball in the air as Keenum floats it to his back shoulder rather than leading him towards the sideline. Again, Diggs uses his body well and shows strength before escaping down the sideline.
Diggs and Thielen have combined for 1,603 yards and eight touchdowns so far this season. Those numbers undersell just how good they have been. They are the best starting receiving tandem in the NFL right now and Thielen has been the best receiver in football this season. Throw in an exceptional offensive line, impressive play calling/designs plus a dominant defense and even Case Keenum can be a winning quarterback.
Everything in the Vikings offense is functioning at a very high level except for the quarterback. The quarterback hasn’t needed to so far. What happens when he does?