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Case Keenum: the hero Broncos Country needs right now

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A team desperate for leadership, stability, and competence at the quarterback position gets just that with Case Keenum.

NFL: Denver Broncos-Minicamp Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest, Case Keenum was not my first choice at quarterback for Denver this offseason; in fact, he was probably my fourth choice.

I liked the option of Kirk Cousins when rumors came out that Denver was in the race early in the year, and think he will end up doing very well for Minnesota. I loved Baker Mayfield, and know he will eventually end up doing well in the NFL (if Cleveland can not be Cleveland for a change). I liked other young quarterbacks like Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold, and was especially tempted by the idea of Denver being able to have a quarterback on a rookie contract.

Yet, here we are; Case Keenum is the starting quarterback for 2018, and I have come to realize this is exactly what Denver needed. Yes, this means I am admitting I was wrong. To be fair, I never had anything against Keenum specifically, I just didn’t like (still don’t like) the idea of a stop-gap quarterback.

But I believe Keenum can be more than a stop-gap quarterback for Denver, and more importantly is just what the doctor ordered for 2018. He joins a team who has been absolutely starved for talent at the quarterback position. So much so, that not only us fans but the team’s all-stars on both offense and defense have been growing increasingly frustrated and vocal about the quarterback sized hole on the roster.

If you would have asked me three months ago what Denver’s biggest need at the QB position was, I would have said talent and leadership. However, after hearing and observing the team with Case on the roster, and digging into some of the numbers, I think it’s a little more specific than that.

Here is my take on the three biggest things Denver needs from the quarterback position this year, and how Keenum delivers on all of them.

Leadership

I have been on record since Peyton Manning (and later, DeMarcus Ware) retired that this team is in serious need of leadership, specifically on the offensive side of the ball.

Reports of fractures in the locker room after the 2016 season only grew larger in 2017 and overflowed into press conferences, and on the field. A rookie Head Coach and a worse offense just threw dynamite on the burning embers leftover from 2016’s disappointing 9-7 finish.

Throughout most of the season, Denver fielded an offense that not only lacked any type of fire or motivation, but also accountability as it executed poorly game after game, with zero corrections or improvement.

Of course, it’s hard to have any type of productive conversation around accountability, especially from the quarterback position when you start three different ones throughout the season. You can forget any type of leadership from that position when the guy in there could, and likely will, be benched the next week.

As for Case, the amount of quotes from coaches and teammates about him and his leadership of the team so far have been off the charts. Compare these quotes about Keenum to the kinds of things we heard about the position last year.

John Elway:

“I think his presence and the type of person he is and the leadership that we’re going to get out of that position is going to be huge.”

“[W]e were all in agreement that Case was going to be the target. He’s the best fit for us, and with his leadership qualities, if you look at Case’s history and what he’s done, he’s come through a lot being undrafted but he’s battled his way through everything. Everything we thought that Case had—not only what he can do on the field but what he can do off the field as far as leadership qualities, the grit that he has, the way that he plays the game and the way that he competes—he was the perfect fit for us.”

I have talked a lot about John Elway’s shift this offseason to really talking about the intangibles - mental toughness, leadership, and confidence being critical at the quarterback position. I think Keenum is great fit in that regard and that was a big reason why Elway was drawn to him.

Vance Joseph:

“It’s definitely a good thing to watch him lead the guys and watch the guys respond to him. It’s refreshing for all of us to be in the presence of a veteran quarterback who has command. I think everyone is loving the fact we have a quarterback in place that can lead this team from spot 1, and that’s good for all of us.”

Bill Musgraves:

“He’s a winner, number one. He approaches every day the same way—professional. Very much into it, and I think the guys have very much rallied around both on offense and on defense just because he’s the same guy every day. He’s consistent and definitely cares about his teammates.”

Players:

WR - Emmanuel Sanders

“Yeah, he’s a great leader. Every day—the majority of the days—he’ll come in and ask me and D.T. to go and watch practices and we’ll sit in the back room and watch film and go over what he’s thinking and what we’re thinking. I’ve been a part of two Super Bowl teams and that’s what it takes. That extra work that’s not mandatory, where guys are in there working out or working on their mental game. That right there, when it’s fourth quarter or when it’s fourth-and-5 or third-and-8. That’s the stuff that gets you over the hill.”

“He’s a leader. Every single pass that he’s thrown so far—I wouldn’t say ever single—but a majority of the passes, 95 percent or 98 percent, have been there. He’s confident in himself. He’s one of those guys that when he steps into the huddle, he’s that leader. You don’t have to second guess what his thought process is. We’re going to complete this ball. We’re going to keep the ball moving. I’m liking what I’m seeing from him so far.”

TE - Jake Butt

“Obviously, Case [Keenum] is our leader, our head man and the voice of the offense. He’s doing a great job commanding us, getting everybody lined up, making the right reads and making the good throws.”

WR - Demaryius Thomas

“The first thing is that he takes control of everything. Not just offense but the whole group. Offense, defense, special teams and all. He takes control of the huddle. I know that I was in the huddle one day and I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We’re missing…’ and he said, ‘I got this.’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So, it’s stuff like that. It’s good to have him around. We’re still working to get that connection going.”

“I think it energizes the whole team. From the defensive side of the ball, special teams and the whole squad.”

DL - Shelby Harris

“You have a bona fide leader. You have one guy that you can look towards—like, ‘This is our guy for the season.’ Don’t get me wrong, I thought [QB] Trevor [Siemian] was a great quarterback. I thought he did great things last year. And I think [QB] Paxton [Lynch] is a good quarterback. But when you have a QB battle, it’s like, ‘Who takes the reigns?’ Who’s the one who steps up and is the leader?’ But this year with [QB] Case [Keenum], you have a leader. You have a guy you can go to, a guy that has won games in the league. You saw what he did with the Vikings last year. So, it’s a great relief for our team to be able to have that guy for this year and hopefully for years to come.”

S - Justin Simmons

The guys have already rallied around him. I know he talks about how he wanted to come in and earn that leadership spot. I’m not speaking for him or for anyone on the offensive side, but I feel like he is definitely earning it, if not has earned it. Day-by-day already, just in OTAs, he’s taken full steam of the offense and has really gotten them going. He looked good. He’s starting to look a little comfortable.

LB - Von Miller

“It’s only been four hours. He’s a great leader. You can just tell by being around guys and by having conversations with guys. In 30 seconds, you can kind of tell what he’s going to bring. He’s going to be a great quarterback for us. He’s going to be a great leader. His locker is right across from mine, right where [former Broncos OLB] DeMarcus [Ware] used to be. I envision a whole bunch of magical moments between me and Case, holding hands and dancing around the locker room (laughing). It will be great. I’m a great guy in the locker room. He’ll be a great guy. All we have to do now is get the wins.”

OT - Garrett Bolles

“Oh absolutely, I’m grateful we have Case here. I think he brings a demeanor here. That season he had in Minnesota was not a fluke thing. It was 100 percent who he is. A man that has been benched and moved around multiple times and still fought his way to the top and took his team as far as he did. That’s a big picture in my eyes.

But he showed us in the offseason, before we even started OTAs. He’s bringing us along, we’re doing outings together—hockey games and all those things. He’s taking control. His does a great job bringing the other wives together, which I think is a big thing. We all get together and understand each other. Because that’s what a team is, understanding each other. If we understand each other then we get on the field, it’s easy.”

I mean come on! I get that it’s the offseason and these guys are being asked about Keenum and his leadership at every press conference, but to have all these coaches and players talking about Case the way that they are is such a stark contrast from the previous two years, and just really shows how deprived of leadership this team has been.

Keenum has jumped in full force organizing team outings for bonding, staying late after practices to watch film with his top receivers, and is continuing the Manning tradition of an offseason throwing camp.

As Emmanuel Sanders said above, these are the kind of little things that pay off once the season starts.

Stability

This component tags onto the leadership point a bit, but is more specific to the practical realities of having a true starting quarterback.

Coach Joseph summed it up nicely when asked about Keenum building chemistry with his receivers this offseason. “Yes, it’s working out. It helps to have a guy who’s your starter working with your first team. It’s the first time we’ve had this in three years. Yes, it’s absolutely getting better every day, but again, it helps to have a guy who’s a starter.”

Another instance when speaking specifically about Demaryius Thomas, he brought it up again. “Having [QB] Case[Keenum], that brings new life to a receiver. He’s been in an offense where they’ve had two years of quarterback battles. For a receiver, they don’t like that stuff. They want one guy and they want the timing to be right. He is really excited about Case.”

I am sure this is refreshing for Vance Joseph as well given that he was handed the dumpster fire that was Denver’s quarterback situation last year and had to make the most of it. Keenum coming in as a veteran presence and immediately being plugged in as the starter is huge for the offense, and is something, like Joseph said, Denver hasn’t had since Peyton Manning retired.

I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. I have never been a fan of quarterback competitions for this very reason. The quarterback is the de facto leader of the entire team, and when that is in flux, it throws everything else off. Additionally, your offense starts behind compared to the rest of the league who have had all offseason to build chemistry with their starting quarterback if they had him locked in from Day 1.

Just listen to how relieved veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders sounds about having a starting quarterback:

“I appreciate it, for sure. This is the first time in two or three years that I’m not standing up here talking about a quarterback debate. I remember when I got out here, I went out to the team store and I saw Case Keenum jerseys. I was like, ‘Thank God, I don’t have to deal with that again.’ Case is our guy. We can go from there. We can work our butts off, try to gain chemistry and try to put up points.”

“You can sit back and say we’re all professional football players and you’ve got to deal with that situation, but at the same time, obviously you can’t gain the same chemistry. You don’t have the same mindset. You have to talk to two different quarterbacks. When you’re going into individual routes, you have to go to one guy and then go with the next guy. You don’t really gain that chemistry. You’re not maximizing the opportunity. Now we’re maximizing the opportunity, and hopefully it pays off.”

Lastly, here’s where my opinion has shifted recently. I was a big proponent of Denver getting a rookie this year, given the talented class that came out in the draft. However, the more I began to look and think about it, I came to the realization that another young quarterback is the last thing Denver needed right now.

Why, you may ask? Outside of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, guess who the next most experienced skill player is on Denver’s roster? Jeff Heuerman, who has spent two seasons on IR.

Outside of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, all of Denver’s skill position players are on rookie contracts. This is a group who needs stability and a veteran quarterback to lead and help develop them so they can actually have a chance to show what they can do.

Competence

Lastly, more specific than just “talent”, Denver needs a quarterback who knows what they are doing and seeing, in the huddle and in the film room.

Keenum not only brings the veteran presence to the locker room, but he brings it on the field too. He’s proven he can win and play the position at a high level. He has also proven that he can operate well within the scope of an offense. He was a facilitator at quarterback for Minnesota - a role that I would expect he plays here too.

I wrote a few weeks ago about what Denver’s offense might look like playing to the wide receivers’ strengths. Next on the docket is a piece on how Case Keenum fits into that and is well suited to play his part.

Not only can Keenum fit within an offense, but he also shows command of an offense. Watching his film, it is clear that he knows where to go with the ball and is in control on the field.

He is a guy that is willing and able to give his input into the offense. Keenum mentioned that he and the coaches have already been talking about this. “They’ve been very open about communication there between myself and the coaches. It’s been great to have coaches that are looking to hear what I have to say in installing offenses. I think that’s your job as a quarterback—to see the defense as the offensive coordinator does and to see the defense as your quarterbacks coach does. Then when you’re there making decisions, you’re seeing exactly what you’re seeing on film. You know what to do when certain situations come up.”

His Bronco teammates have already noticed this in practice as well.

“He knows his stuff and he knows exactly what he’s looking for when it comes to the routes,” said rookie Courtland Sutton. “He comes to us all the time and is like, ‘Hey, on that one, I think it’s best that you do this, do that, and I think the ball will be in a better spot for you to get open.’ To have a quarterback like that who really knows what he’s talking about and who’s experienced things that I obviously haven’t experienced because I’m a rookie... He’s seen things that I haven’t seen, so anytime he’s talking to me I get to absorb all of that information. I really enjoy that and I’m really grateful that he’s coming over there and making sure we’re optimizing our reps.”

Garrett Bolles said that Keenum “gets in that huddle and demands.” He sounds like he’s the kind of guy that can help keep guys accountable on the offensive side, and is able to do that because he knows what to look for.

Demaryius Thomas spoke more specifically to how that looks on the field.

“The first thing is that he takes control of everything. Not just offense but the whole group. Offense, defense, special teams and all. He takes control of the huddle. I know that I was in the huddle one day and I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. We’re missing…’ and he said, ‘I got this.’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So, it’s stuff like that. It’s good to have him around. We’re still working to get that connection going.”

Chris Harris’ quote was my favorite, though:

Everybody I’ve talked to, receivers, they’re excited about him. They say he throws an easy ball to catch. That’s what you want to hear, they haven’t said that too many times since Peyton [Manning] was here. I think they’re pretty excited.”

There was a video that came out recently with Keenum breaking down the game winning play of the Divisional playoff game last year.

After watching that video, I mentioned on Twitter that I was just glad to have a quarterback that could call a play, break it down on a white board, and looks at defense before and after the snap. It’s all in good fun, but I actually wasn’t kidding that much.

I don’t think we can overstate the immense ineptitude that this team has been subject to at the quarterback position for two years.

So what does all this mean longterm? Will Keenum become Denver’s long awaited quarterback of the future, earning a second contract after his two-year deal expires? I have no clue.

The one thing I am certain of though - I am sure glad he’s here.