Case Keenum has struggled being 'The Man' in Denver so far

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Case Keenum signed with the Denver Broncos in March, he declared it “a dream come true.”

And why not? The Broncos presented Keenum with his first chance to be a team's unquestioned starter.

Toss in a family photo or two with Keenum, as a child, wearing the jersey of John Elway, his current boss, and you had quite the story.

The Broncos now approach the halfway mark of their season Sunday -- in Kansas City -- at 3-4, chasing the 6-1 Chiefs and the 5-2 Los Angeles Chargers in the AFC West race. And Keenum has had big-play moments -- three of his eight touchdown passes have gone for 40 or more yards -- but he also has head-shaking moments, as he is second in the league with nine interceptions.

Only New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold has thrown more picks (10), and of the six quarterbacks who have thrown at least eight interceptions this season, only the Cincinnati BengalsAndy Dalton plays for a team that currently has a winning record.

It raises the question of whether Keenum, who arrived with expectations that Elway called, “as big as you can have,” is pressing to play up to his starter-like contract for a team that hasn’t played to its own preseason predictions.

“I think Case has played better and better,” Broncos coach Vance Joseph said. “ ... I think our players trust him, they believe in him. We have things we can do better, coach it better ... but when it comes to guys believing in our quarterback, and what he can do, they believe in Case.”

Keenum had quite the regular-season introduction for the Broncos. He threw three touchdowns (and three interceptions) in the opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

And in the Broncos’ 2-0 start, Keenum led two comebacks for the Broncos, and he was 9-of-13 passing for 126 yards combined on the two game-winning drives. But since then, as the Broncos’ offense has run hot and more often cold, especially in the scoring zone, and so has Keenum.

Keenum went three consecutive games without a touchdown pass, including in two of the four Broncos’ losses, following those two Broncos wins. Even in the Broncos’ 45-10 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night -- the most points in a game by the Broncos since the 2014 regular-season finale -- Keenum had quality moments, including a 64-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders.

But the Broncos also had five three-and-outs against the Cardinals and scored two of their touchdowns on defense.

“When you look at it, it is in the red zone, red zone efficiency,” Keenum said. “It’s scoring touchdowns and not having negative plays down there, especially turnovers.”

Five of Keenum’s interceptions have come in the opponent’s territory when the Broncos have been moving toward potential points. Three have resulted in given the ball back inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

And given Keenum had just seven interceptions with the Minnesota Vikings last season in the heat of a playoff race, it points to his decision-making in a new offense with his new responsibilities. Even last season, with a career-best 3,547 passing yards and 22 touchdowns, Keenum was an injury replacement in Week 2 for the Vikings.

New York Jets defensive end Leonard Williams went as far as to say Keenum looked “scared” in the Jets' Week 5 win over the Broncos when Keenum was sacked four times.

“You look at guys that have been in offenses for two, three, four, 10 years ... You just have seen so many different plays and so many defenses, you know what tends to get open,” Keenum said. “First time throwing with these guys, these are definitely not excuses. I’m not sitting here making excuses, but I think we’re getting better. That’s the goal, and it takes time.”

For his part, as Keenum has owned up to the interceptions he also has pointed a finger at himself for many of the sacks the Broncos have allowed, despite the struggles of the offensive line, at times, especially when the Broncos have tried to put Keenum in his comfort zone, playing more in shotgun and a three-receiver set. Only the Cleveland Browns have been flagged for holding on offense more than the Broncos’ 16 holding penalties this season. And overall, the Broncos still believe they can snap things back into line, as Keenum has won over his teammates to this point, as well.

Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has said, “Our best football is coming, we’re right there.” And offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has said the team is “overdue’’ to shake things loose on offense.

“We know what Case can do; we see it, we can make more plays, all of us, for him,” Thomas said. “But we can move the ball, and I feel like we can score more and will.”