Denver Broncos convinced QB Case Keenum is ‘the best fit’
Broncos general manager and executive vice president of football operations John Elway, left, and head coach Vance Joseph, right, stand with quarterback Case Keenum during a news conference Friday at Dove Valley in Englewood. (
John Leyba / The Denver Post)
ENGLEWOOD — Von Miller set out on the recruiting trail around the time of Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, where he made the rounds on radio row to advertise the Broncos and to voice his interest in Kirk Cousins.
“He knows exactly how I feel about Kirk Cousins and what he would mean to our team and what he would mean to a lot of teams,” Miller told Dan Patrick that week. “… A lot of teams would literally kill to have a quarterback like that.”
So, naturally, Miller proceeded to stalk Cousins on social media, hoping their shared love of cereal and rainbows would lure the quarterback to Denver. He later told ESPN that “when you get a guy like that, you’re automatically in Super Bowl contention,” which of course, led to input from Emmanuel Sanders on Twitter — “The (Kirk Cousins) to (Demaryius Thomas) and myself combination would be dangerous!!! What y’all think?” — who sought fans’ input with a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Broncos guard Ron Leary gave him three thumbs up.
So surely this had to be awkward when general manager John Elway ignored their wishes and signed Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million contract to be the next starting quarterback of the Broncos.
“No, it’s not awkward. Von was the first person to reach out,” Keenum said Friday. “I applaud those guys for wanting to make their team better. I want guys that want their team to be great and that want to do everything they can to help the team. … I’m ready to step in that locker room and earn the right to be a leader.”
That last part of that answer is, in large part, why the Broncos bypassed Cousins in free agency and snagged Keenum before the market opened. It’s one of the many reasons Elway and Co. are convinced Keenum is their guy, despite mixed reviews from outsiders. And it’s a big reason the Broncos believe Keenum’s impressive 2017 season is only the start.
Thanks to an unlikely football journey and an impressive run with Minnesota, Keenum is a guy Elway labeled “the best fit” for the Broncos.
“He may be just hitting his stride right now,” Elway said. “A lot of times it takes different situations to get comfortable, obviously. Case was in a good situation last year with the Vikings. My plan is to put him in that same situation this year where he can be successful and have the year, if not a better year, this year than he had last year and continue on.”
A road less traveled
As arguably the second-most coveted free-agent quarterback on the open market, Keenum said he spurned the interests of other teams to sign a short-term deal with the Broncos, a team whose GM he idolized as a child and a team in desperate need of an offensive leader after two playoff-less years.
But his connection to the Broncos ran deeper than that. From the start, Keenum rarely had a team longing for his play. He received only one scholarship offer coming out of high school, from the University of Houston, and went undrafted by the NFL in 2012.
The team that did sign him was the Houston Texans, whose head coach was Gary Kubiak and defensive backs coach was Vance Joseph. After joining the Texans’ practice squad that year, Keenum was elevated to starter in 2013 in place of Matt Schaub — then lost his first eight games.
Keenum’s time in Houston led to time with the Los Angeles Rams, then back to the Texans, alternating between backup and starter, before signing with Minnesota in 2017. He was supposed to be a backup there, too. He ended up as a starter and hero with a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs in the waning seconds of a divisional playoff win against New Orleans.
“He is a battler and every week he is going to give his best shot,” Joseph said. “It won’t be too big for him. He likes to play and win and he’s going to be a great teammate. For our football team, he was the best fit. Every chance he’s gotten to play in this league, he’s been a winner.”
Shortly after stepping down as head coach of the Broncos in Jan. 2017, Kubiak rejoined the franchise as one of Elway’s top personnel advisors and played a significant role in the acquisition of Keenum.
Comfort can breed success. So too, the Broncos hope, does grit and a proven history of toppling the odds.
“I’ve been through a lot of different situations and I’m definitely better for it,” Keenum said. “There are some tough times and there are some really good times. To have a team pursue me — and like John said, to be their guy — that instills a lot of confidence in me and I am ready to be that guy.”
Keenum, much like undrafted linebacker Todd Davis and undrafted cornerback Chris Harris, was never really supposed to make it this far. But six seasons of fighting onto rosters and into starting roles caught the eye of the Broncos, who believe Keenum’s mentality will be contagious in the locker room and his skill will stabilize an offense in disarray.
“Gary’s relationship with Case and knowing Case, that was a big feather in Case’s cap,” Elway said. “As far as I’m concerned, an effect of what Gary thought of him really as a man and what he could in that locker room for us. We know that locker room is something that we’ve got to continue to work on. As you can see, the maturity that Case is going to bring I think is going to be tremendous for us.”
“I plan on being better than I was last year”
The last and only time Keenum played a football game in Colorado was Sept. 20, 2008, in Fort Collins. It didn’t go well. Not for Keenum, at least.
The Colorado State Rams were ahead by three when Keenum heaved the final pass of the game, a rainbow into the end zone that was intercepted by some safety named Klint Kubiak.
“Klint Kubiak came over from his safety position and I still remember the play vividly,” Keenum said. “We had a field goal in our pocket and I tried to get a little greedy and win the game on a touchdown pass, and he came down with it. I’m glad we’re on the same team now.”
Klint, the eldest son of Gary, is now the Broncos’ offensive assistant/quarterbacks coach. A photo of that interception is still on Keenum’s phone, a recent reminder courtesy of Klint.
Over the years, as Keenum bounced from team to team and weathered the storm of that 2013 season in Houston, his play has improved annually — notably his completion percentage. Year-over-year improvement is a goal and point of pride for Keenum. It’s also a major selling point for the Broncos, who have endured two seasons behind a rotation of starters and string of turnovers.
Last season the Broncos ranked second in the league with 34 turnovers that led to an NFL-high 140 points.
Last season, Keenum threw only seven interceptions to 22 touchdowns and completed 67.6 percent of his passes. Only Drew Brees was more accurate.
Asked Friday of the offense’s biggest point of emphasis for 2018, Joseph didn’t hesitate.
“Obviously taking care of the football,” he said. “That’s a major issue for any offense. We want to build our scheme around our players, so obviously signing Case, that’s a big upgrade for us right now in our minds.”
Though the Broncos have yet to dive into the system and the playbook with Keenum, their plan for 2018 is no mystery. With Bill Musgrave as their full-time offensive coordinator, the system is essentially Kubiak’s, with a focus on playaction and running the ball. Joseph said earlier they must do a better job of adapting to the strengths of their quarterback, but simply having a declared starter from the outset will help that process.
“I’m excited to get in there and start talking about what makes sense, what language I speak and what language they speak, get on the same page and figure out how to move the ball, how to get first down, how to score and how to win some ballgames,” Keenum said.
“I’m excited to earn the right to be a leader and I’m excited to be the quarterback of the Denver Broncos.”
After the team reached an agreement with Keenum, Miller took to social media again, this time with a photoshopped image of Keenum in a Broncos jersey and self-narrated video to sell him on the finer points of Colorado — like “the most beautiful rainbows mother nature has ever created” and “of course, Chipotle” and “most importantly, home of a 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker who will be a great teammate who will not hit quarterbacks in practice!”
With the video, Miller included a message to Keenum and new cornerback Tramaine Brock: “Welcome To Denver! Your Super Bowl journey starts here!”