'Thank God we have Case Keenum': Browns coaches express confidence in backup quarterback after Baker Mayfield tests positive
Browns special teams coordinator Mike Priefer witnessed Case Keenum’s Minnesota magic in 2017.
With the Vikings from 2011-18, Priefer saw Keenum post an 11-3 record as a starter when they finished 13-3 and reached the NFC Championship, falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
That’s why Priefer and other members of the Browns coaching staff have such confidence in Keenum, likely to start Saturday’s must-win game against the Las Vegas Raiders at FirstEnergy Stadium after quarterback Baker Mayfield tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.
“Thank God we have Case Keenum, I’ll be honest with you,” Priefer said. “If you had a really young quarterback and an inexperienced quarterback it might be tougher. But Case is going to run the game plan exactly how it should be run, and I know the whole team has confidence in him.”
Browns coach Kevin Stefanski also tested positive Wednesday despite having received a booster shot. As of Wednesday, the Browns had 18 players, including nine starters, on the reserve/COVID-19 list, with six players, Stefanski, and acting running backs coach Ryan Cordell the latest additions. If Stefanski does not produce two negative tests within 24 hours by Saturday, Priefer will serve as acting head coach, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will call the plays against the Raiders.
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With his sixth team since he entered the league in 2013, Keenum called this situation "pretty unique."
"I would say nothing really surprises me about the NFL these days, though it just kind of adds one more thing to the portfolio, if you will, of just strange occurrences and different situations that come up," Keenum said in a conference call.
"That’s why you prepare every day to be ready to go when your number’s called, and looks like that number’s getting called."
Asked how players took the stunning news, with 14 players going on the reserve/COVID-19 list in two days, Keenum said, "I think it really hit everybody in stride, maybe not the guys who got put on the list. But for guys now getting an opportunity, it’s all eyes forward. It may be a lot more mental work as we do things more virtually and everybody has to be a pro and get ready to do their job on their own.
"We’re looking nowhere but forward. We have no time or energy to look behind us."
Earning a $6 million base salary this season, Keenum is 28-35 as a starter in his career, 1-0 in 2021. When Mayfield suffered a second injury to his left, non-throwing shoulder on Oct. 17, Keenum directed a 17-14 victory over the Denver Broncos on Oct. 21. On “Thursday Night Football,” Keenum completed 21 of 33 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown for a 90.3 rating.
“I have the utmost confidence in Case. He’s really a true pro,” Van Pelt said. “We’re very lucky to have him. He’s a guy that can come in and win one game or a bunch of games for you, he’s shown that in the past. Regardless of who he’s out there with, know that the moment won’t be too big for him. He's been there before. He’ll be calm, collected, be a great leader for us if he does play on Saturday.”
Keenum said this situation — with the possibility that the Browns may have only one full-squad practice, if that — is not much different than when he started against the Broncos with only three days in between games.
This time Keenum will be handing off to running back Nick Chubb, who missed the Broncos game, one of two he sat out with a calf strain. Chubb has already been on the COVID list for a Nov. 14 loss at New England.
Asked how it will be to play with Chubb, fifth in the league in rushing, Keenum joked, "Who?"
"Yeah, having a full Chubb back there is going to be really good," Keenum said.
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Keenum said before the Broncos game that he is built for moments like this. He explained Wednesday that's a product of his skillset, his coaches, and learning from past experiences.
"I've taken all those things and I wrap ‘em up and put ‘em in my toolbelt and it makes me who I am," he said. "I go out each day with confidence knowing all those things I’ve done in the past and all the work I’ve put in ... I get to go put it on the line and enjoy doing what I love to do.
"On Saturday, rain, snow, sleet or whatever comes our way, which it looks like it’s going to be a fun one, we get to go out there and throw the football around. So I’m excited to do that."
In his stops around the league, Keenum spent only one season with the Vikings, but earned a fan in Priefer.
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“Obviously I feel bad for Baker, he’s the leader of this football team as our quarterback. Losing him hurt,” Priefer said. “But the great thing about Case, he’s an amazing young man. He’s always stepped up to the occasion when his name was called. He’s always been there. He led us to the playoffs in Minnesota. … He filled in against the Broncos and did a phenomenal job.”
Van Pelt didn’t sound worried about the mobility of Keenum, 33. Keenum had four carries for 7 yards against the Broncos, but picked up two first downs on a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter that put the Browns up 17-7.
Keenum scrambled up the middle for 5 yards on fourth-and-3 from the Denver 6, and also gained 1 yard on a third-down quarterback sneak.
“You saw him against Denver run for a big first down in the red zone, so he still has the ability to use his legs,” Van Pelt said. “Case, there’s not going to be anything that they show him that surprises him. His experience level, his ability to see defense, see what’s coming, that will help him a lot as well. He plays on time with the ball, he’ll get that ball out of his hands.”
Middle linebacker Malcolm Smith said the Browns realize Saturday’s matchup against an AFC opponent is virtually a playoff game, but he has faith in Keenum and the others who will be called on.
“We are deep talent-wise. We have veterans in the depth positions who can play the game," Smith said in a conference call. "I am looking forward to seeing Case sling it a little bit.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.