CHARLOTTE – He's the quarterback of the NFL's hottest team, the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Month who has led his team to a four-game lead in its division. But Case Keenum still hasn't done enough to be named Minnesota's starter for the rest of the season.
And that fits the script perfectly.
"Prior to OTAs, he didn't have a single call," said Panthers wideout Russell Shepard, who has worked out with Keenum the past few summers in Houston, their hometown.
After four uninspiring seasons with three different teams, Keenum, 29, found himself unemployed this spring. Then Minnesota went shopping for insurance.
"The Vikings called him last minute and, from what he was telling me, a camp body, an extra body knowing they had injuries at quarterback with Teddy (Bridgewater) still being hurt and not knowing how Sam (Bradford) was going to come out," Shepard said. "Just to see him kind of take off, it's one of those crazy stories."
In hindsight, it's not all that surprising Keenum found playing time in Minnesota. Bridgewater, who missed all of 2016 with a serious knee injury, was expected to miss half of the season, and the Vikings weren't sure how long they could depend on Bradford, who had twice torn his left ACL.
But even with hindsight, it's still wild how the story has played out.
Keenum did little to change perceptions in his first three starts, going 1-2 in Weeks 2-4 after Bradford lit it up in Week 1 but was then sidelined by a knee injury. But ever since Keenum replaced a badly hobbled Bradford against the Bears in Week 5, the Vikings haven't lost. They've reeled off eight straight wins, and even though Bridgewater was cleared to return in mid-November, he's remained on the sideline. That's because it's impossible to bench a quarterback as hot as Keenum.
In four games with Bridgewater breathing down his neck, Keenum has completed 80 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a 124.1 passer rating. The latest chapter came Sunday in Atlanta when he threw two touchdowns and went 25-of-30 while completing his final 15 throws.
"I think I heard someone say that Case Keenum is doing a great job of managing their offense," Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks recalled. "I quickly said, 'He's not managing the offense. He's running the offense.'"
Lightly recruited out of high school, Keenum had just one scholarship offer. And according to Shepard, that opened up only because Robert Griffin III turned down the University of Houston for Baylor. But while at Houston, Keenum rewrote record books, becoming the NCAA's all-time leader in total passing yards, touchdowns, and completions.
Still, few NFL teams were interested in a 6-foot quarterback whose numbers were boosted at a school with a history of players who put up gaudy numbers before flaming out in the pros. So Keenum went undrafted, and through his first four seasons, it sure looked like scouts didn't miss much.
Before getting that call from the Vikings, Keenum was 9-15 as a starter. That included an 0-8 run with the Texans in 2013 and a 4-5 mark as Jared Goff's caretaker with the Rams last season. And maybe that's why many are waiting for the other shoe to drop in Minnesota.
"People don't have high expectations for him," Shepard said.
"When you don't have the résumé that certain guys have, nobody really wants to give you the credit when things go good. They want to give you credit when things go bad, but they don't want to give you credit when things go good."
With the Panthers in the thick of a playoff chase, they're obviously hoping that shoe will drop this weekend. But if you want to take it from one undrafted guy about another, the Vikings are more than just a stingy defense.
"We're like the misfits. We're like the rugrats," said Shepard, who went undrafted out of LSU.
"I know the challenges of being the guy that's undrafted, a guy that expectations aren't high for. You don't have the physical skillset that a first-round pick has or the franchise guy has, but when you can stay in this league and do it, it says something about your physical skillset and your mentality. He's a feisty dude, man. I'm not surprised at all."