Brian Sipe admittedly doesn’t keep up with the NFL as much as he used to. Nowadays, the former NFL MVP quarterback gets his fix elsewhere, having spent six seasons (2009-14) as the quarterbacks coach at his alma mater, San Diego State University, and currently assists his son-in-law with high school coaching.
He’ll catch a game here and there when his wife, Jeri, has the television glued to Fox or CBS on Sundays. Sipe has maintained a quiet life away from the NFL since his remarkable rise during the late 1970s.
Yet despite not being up to speed on the landscape of today’s NFL, Sipe -- along with the rest of the world -- knows about Case Keenum's incredible season.
As the 2017 MVP race picks up more steam, Keenum is currently ranked fifth in ESPN’s Week 14 poll, behind Tom Brady, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. The award, decided by a panel of 50 sportswriters at the end of the regular season, heavily factors in statistical achievements. Though Keenum ranks 14th in passing yards, 16th in touchdown passes and 12th in yards per attempt, it would be difficult and unfair to not put the quarterback of a 10-2 team in the conversation.
The parallels between Sipe and Keenum’s paths from college to the NFL are similar, but no line is stronger than how they earned their jobs as starters.
Sipe was drafted in the 13th round (back when the NFL draft was 17 rounds) in 1972 by the Cleveland Browns, was a member of the team's taxi squad -- a precursor to today's practice squads -- for two seasons before being elevated to a backup for the next two years and finally earned his spot as a starter in the 1976 season. Keenum went undrafted out of Houston and bounced back and forth between the Texans and Rams for four seasons before signing with the Vikings in the offseason.
Keenum became an emergency starter in Week 2 after Sam Bradford injured his knee the previous game. Despite a brief respite when Bradford came back in Week 5, it’s been Keenum’s job in leading the Vikings to first place in the NFC.
"I can understand Case if he says he's battling for his job every week because that's how I competed."Brian Sipe, 1980 MVP
Sipe got his spot when Mike Phipps went down with an injury in the Browns' 1976 season opener. Sipe led them to a 9-5 record, a six-game improvement from the disastrous season before. Phipps never got his job back and was eventually traded.
Sipe viewed his NFL career as an evolution of goals. Five seasons in, he had finally proven (to himself, at least) that he belonged.
“That year, my goal moved from just getting the job to hanging on to the job,” Sipe said. “That’s not always an easy thing to do, but my objective was to prepare, play my best, grow as a quarterback and establish myself as a starter in the NFL. That was my highest aspiration.”
He remained the Browns' starter for eight seasons and is still the all-time passing leader in franchise history with 27,713 yards and 154 touchdowns. His situation wasn’t the easiest to weather given the doubt he sensed inside the organization.
“I was always looking over my shoulder,” he said. “During the time I was the starter, they drafted another quarterback high. There were a lot of people in that organization that couldn’t believe I was the starting quarterback because I was 6 foot, 185 pounds, didn’t have the splashy credentials.”
The game after Phipps went down in the opener, Sipe bombed in Denver, which led Cleveland general manager Peter Hadhazy to call an impromptu news conference in the locker room.
“I overheard him telling the press that I wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL,” Sipe said. “I thought, ‘Well, he doesn’t really have a choice about next week, so why would he say something like this?’ Fortunately, the next week I lit it up and kind of lit it up the rest of the year. He acknowledged after the season was over with and I had won the team’s most valuable player award that maybe he had been mistaken that afternoon.”
Four years from that moment, Sipe earned the NFL’s MVP award during the 1980 season, a year where he threw for 4,123 yards and 30 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions, a 60.8 percent completion percentage on 554 attempts, and led the franchise to its first postseason berth in eight years.
It’s still strange for the quarterback to see his name on a list with the other greats from his heyday: Walter Payton, Terry Bradshaw, Earl Campbell and others. And when he looks back at his long NFL career, followed by two years in the USFL, Sipe doesn’t view the monumental award as his defining moment.
“To this day, I can’t believe I’m having this conversation,” he said. “That was never my aspiration (winning MVP). It was just to be a member of what I considered to be an elite group of athletes that were legit NFL players.”
For Sipe, it’s a culmination of the journey he took from a no-name player to where he ended up in the NFL. It was a career highlighted by moments like the night he got to shake hands with his childhood idol Rodger Staubach before the Browns and Cowboys kicked off in 1979.
“I remember being very emotional and then walking out ... just wondering, ‘God, how did I get here? Thank you,’” he said.
In leading the Vikings to their longest win streak (8) since the 1998 season, Keenum has robotically maintained his focus every week, regardless of not being named the outright starter.
"I’m going to be boring and give you the same answer. I don’t think it changes anything," Keenum said in November. "I’m boring. I’m going to answer the same way that I’ve prepared the same way and I’m going to take it a week at a time.”
That’s an approach that resonates with Sipe.
“I can understand Case if he says he’s battling for his job every week because that’s how I competed,” he said. “I never wanted anyone else under center. I got the job when somebody else got injured and he never got his job back. I guess that stuck in the back of my mind, and I never, ever thought about myself in a historical context. I was always thrilled every chance I had to start for the Cleveland Browns.”