As the Minnesota Vikings head into the weekend for their date with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, a question regarding the quarterback position looms for the club, the answer becoming more pertinent with every theoretical victory that brings them closer to a home Super Bowl.
Case Keenum has been the focus of a great deal of analysis since the regular season concluded, and rightfully so. A career backup for the majority of his career about to embark on his first playoff start with an offense that saw a regression in its production towards the tail end of the season, how Keenum will perform under the brightest lights he’s ever been under remains a mystery. For fans who prefer a more in-depth look at the performance of their favorite team, it’s a conversation worth having.
In terms of an actual “controversy”, however, there is none when it comes to Case Keenum’s status as the starting quarterback as long as the Vikings’ season is still alive. The timetable for a decision to pull Keenum in favor of Teddy Bridgewater has long since passed, and Case performed well enough to retain the starting role into the postseason. To me, the merits of the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could be debated, but the divisional round of the playoffs, where a loss sends you home to begin preparing for the draft, is no time for experimentation or shaking off the rust of inactivity.
It’s safe to say that after a 13-3 regular season, Mike Zimmer isn’t anywhere near the hot seat, but a deviation from the winning formula, even if a player like Sam Bradford offers more in terms of arm strength or accuracy, would immediately erase any clout the head coach had earned during this successful season if it resulted in a loss in any postseason match. It’s a gamble that would require more, ah…audacity than even Case Keenum has.
The true and bizarre QB controversy in Minnesota revolves around Sam Bradford and Kyle Sloter. Sam Bradford returned to practice on January 2nd, opening a three week window in which the Vikings must decide to either place him on the active roster or return him to Injured Reserve. If a Super Bowl is in the Vikings’ future, they’ll be forced to make this decision by January 23rd.
It’s entirely possible that even if Bradford is activated, Teddy Bridgewater will remain the immediate backup behind Keenum, as he’s had more recent practice time with the team and even a short-lived stint against the Cincinnati Bengals in a blowout win for the Vikings. You could make the argument that Bridgewater, who was clearly the superior to Bradford in terms of mobility before he dislocated his knee, would be a more seamless transition from Case Keenum in the event that the starting quarterback had to exit the game.
That being said, it’s been nearly two years since Teddy Bridgewater played a full game. In his appearance against the Bengals, he had nine total snaps, three of which were kneel downs to end the game, and one which was deflected off the hands of Jerick McKinnon for an interception. But most importantly: we haven’t seen him take an NFL-strength hit yet. Even if the Vikings were to declare Bridgewater as QB2, it’s entirely possible that an aggravation of his knee injury is only a single sack away.
It’s also possible that the Vikings would simply prefer to have Bradford as the backup. He’s the more recent of the two to play a full game and looked spectacular in the vertical passing attack against the Saints in the Week One contest, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. The majority who have watched the Saints recently would agree that the current iteration of their defense is vastly superior to the version the Vikings faced when Bradford was fully healthy, but it was nonetheless an impressive performance.
Minnesota is unique in the sense that their QB3 may be more important than anyone else’s in the playoffs, and while the chance of needing that many quarterbacks over the course of the postseason is still small, it’s likely greater than their opponents’.
So what’s the hold up?
Under normal circumstances, this would be no big deal. The catch here is that the Vikings already have a QB3 in Kyle Sloter, former Northern Colorado Bear, who had an impressive showing in the preseason with the Denver Broncos before being released and subjected to an intense bidding war between multiple teams for his services on their practice squad. The Vikings elected to pay Sloter a weekly salary of $20,000, over $12,000 more than the practice squad minimum, and eventually moved him to the active roster on September 16th in the wake of Bradford’s questionable status for the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and have kept him on the active 53 ever since. It’s probably fair to assume that if Sloter were to be released to make room for Bradford, another team would pounce on the opportunity to add him to their quarterback room for their offseason programs and potentially into the 2018 season.
It’s not a violation of NFL roster rules to have four active quarterbacks. The New York Jets did just that in the 2016 season with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg. The success of the 2016 Jets, however, ending with a record of 5-11, is perhaps reason enough to give someone pause before repeating one of their questionable moves.
It would be hyperbole to say that rostering four quarterbacks was the bane of the 2016 Jets, but having roster space for quality depth in the playoffs is important. Vikings fans who have watched games in the 2017 season have seen the effects of injuries to the offensive line or the troop of tight ends. In addition, keep in mind that most of these depth players make up the special teams units. Injury risk is high on kicking and punting plays, and it would be less than ideal to rely on first team starters for either offense or defense to fill in holes on special teams because of a depth deficiency.
On the other hand, Vikings fans are also familiar with what a team can look like with inadequate backup quarterback play. The difference between Shaun Hill in 2016 and Case Keenum in 2017 seems like an outlier in terms of comparison, as Keenum has performed beyond the expectations of a backup quarterback for most of this season, but even Keenum performing at his average level this season demonstrates the importance of quality depth at the team’s most important position. With the assumption that the Vikings will only be able to retain one of their quarterbacks into next season between Keenum, Bridgewater, and Bradford, it may not be wise to discard Sloter. The team’s interest in him alone should warrant enough faith to keep him for at least one more offseason.
The answer to the controversy, as with many personnel decisions pertaining to football, is that there is no objective “right” answer, but different options with varied risk and reward levels. In the case of Bradford or Sloter, it’s a question of short-term versus long-term gains.
Option 1 – Place Bradford on the active roster and cut Kyle Sloter, likely surrendering him to another team: The Vikings lose out on a promising prospect in Sloter, but have a far greater chance of winning in the postseason if a third (or second) quarterback is needed.
Option 2 – Keep Kyle Sloter and allow Bradford to return to IR: The Vikings keep a potential high-end backup (perhaps more?) but run the risk of having to rely on a quarterback in the playoffs who has never taken a regular season snap.
Option 3 – Keep both quarterbacks and hope depth doesn’t become an issue with the most promising team we’ve seen since Brett Favre’s first season as a Viking.
On a personal level, I’m more invested in this team’s chances at winning their first Lombardi Trophy than I’m concerned with the long-term depth at the quarterback position. And in all likelihood, this theoretical scenario never plays out. Case Keenum will probably remain healthy for the entirety of the playoffs. The Vikings could lose in either the divisional round against the Saints or in the NFC Championship game and make this entire conversation moot.
But you and I are Vikings fans. You and I know that the crazy, unlikely scenarios that would never befall another team are always lurking around the corner, making us wonder just what the team would do if the unthinkable ever happened.