Breaking Down the Vikings Quarterback's Greatest Strengths and Detrimental Weaknesses
“I think 7-9 is a best-case scenario.”
I said those words on an episode of About The Labor after Teddy Bridgewater shattered his leg. This isn’t meant to slight Shaun Hill, but I simply had no faith in the Minnesota Vikings without a competent starting quarterback.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman probably felt the same way, so he decided to act: He sent first- and conditional mid-round picks to Philadelphia in exchange for seventh-year journeyman Sam Bradford.
Bradford filled in sensationally at quarterback for Minnesota. In 15 games, he completed 71.6-percent of his passes (which broke Drew Brees’ NFL record, by the way) for 3,877 passing yards and 20 touchdowns against only five interceptions. His performance in Minnesota’s home opener against the Green Bay Packers alone was arguably worth the conditional pick shipped to Philadelphia (which ultimately became a fourth-rounder).
Just think about what we’d have to endure from Cheeseheads if the Packers had beaten the Vikings in the first game ever played at U.S. Bank Stadium. We all appreciate you, Sam.
While the Vikings fanbase is probably hung up on Bridgewater — and rightfully so, given that Zimmer called him the “nicest kid in the history of life” — Bradford made a strong case to be Minnesota’s starting quarterback moving forward, regardless of Bridgewater’s health.
Assessing the Trade
Spielman made a gutsy move to pull the trigger on the Bradford trade. Giving up a first-round pick in exchange for an injury-prone quarterback who hasn’t lived up to first-overall pick-caliber expectations? NFL front offices almost always steer clear of transactions like that — especially when considering an inflated market value. If Bradford had gone down early in the season with a season-ending injury, this move instantly would have been perceived by many to be a bust.
But this was different. Minnesota had just won an NFC North title and displayed plenty of promise during the 2015 season. If not for a certain play in a certain Wild Card game last January, the Vikings would have been one of the final four teams in the NFC; and who knows, they would have had a chance to get redemption for their heartbreaking regular season loss against the Arizona Cardinals during the Divisional Round.
When a front office doesn’t establish competent quarterback play, other areas of the team suffer. A lack of consistency puts immense pressure on other units to perform at an elite level, game in and game out — and that’s likely what the Vikings would have done had they stuck with Shaun Hill or added Mark Sanchez or Michael Vick.
Instead, Spielman acquired the best quarterback available given the unfortunate situation. And instead of throwing in the towel on the 2016 season before it had even begun, he put his team in position to compete for a championship.
But this move isn’t just about this past season, however — and it never was.
Bridgewater’s injury was gruesome and initial diagnoses from trainers suggested he wouldn’t be ready to play in 2017, and potentially, ever again. Spielman addressed the most important position on any team by adding a mid-tier starting quarterback to an extremely talented roster, one that was already built for present and future success.
How is that a bad move, exactly?
It’s clear the season did not unfold as Minnesota personnel and fans expected — much of that is due to widespread injuries. Zimmer and his team certainly expected better than 8-8 back in August. But, how many games do the Vikings win with Hill or some other backup-caliber player? Six? They’re certainly not still in position to make the playoffs come Week 16.
While the immediate results don’t necessarily show it, this trade was absolutely the right move for the Vikings given the circumstances. Minnesota’s future is bright — and it’s brighter than it would have been had Spielman passed on acquiring Bradford.
It’s not really a secret that Bradford was an accurate passer this season. I mean, for crying out loud, he broke the NFL completion percentage record. Critics will say it was because he dinked-and-dunked his way down the field — and to some degree, that stance is accurate. But let’s not get the narrative screwed up here; Bradford was an accurate passer this season regardless of where he was throwing the ball.
Bradford’s downfield accuracy was criminally underrated as a whole this season, and it has a lot to do with the midseason change at offensive coordinator. The shift from Norv Turner to Pat Shurmur was abrupt, resulting in what appeared to be Bradford reflecting signs of expected uneasiness when shifting — even slightly — play-calling styles in a blink.
The first seven games of the season featured Turner’s Air Coryell system. This offense includes a downfield route on nearly every pass snap and is predicated on long-developing plays. Bradford’s downfield accuracy was absolutely on display in those games.
Most notably, Bradford found consistent success on fade routes down the left sideline. Watch the above clip and note how Bradford recognizes a single-high free safety, holding him just long enough (with his eyes and body positioning) before turning and dropping a 40-yard pass perfectly in stride to Charles Johnson.
Bradford was even accurate on throws down the field that fell incomplete. Johnson ran the same route against Carolina and Bradford was on the money, but the contact-fearing Johnson failed to haul in the contested pass.
Johnson makes this catch if he adjusts in stride and keeps himself on the ground. Instead, he leaps, allowing the cornerback to recover and break up the pass. But the point stands — Bradford was accurate on deeper routes during the first few weeks of the season with Turner handling the play-calling duties.
One more example of Bradford’s beautiful touch on the fade route was in Minnesota’s Week 5 win against Houston. The Vikings ran three verticals against Cover 1, and Adam Thielen beat cornerback A.J. Bouye (who should get paid a ton of money this offseason) at the line of scrimmage. Bradford dropped this pass perfectly over Thielen’s outside shoulder before the safety could rotate over.
The former No. 1 overall pick didn’t just hit on fade routes down the sideline — when given the opportunity, he was absolute money on a variety of downfield concepts despite generally poor pass-protection.
One of the most impressive throws I saw from any quarterback all season came in Bradford’s first game as a Viking. Diggs, assigned a deep route in a slow-developing play-action concept, ran a skinny post out of the slot on Packers cornerback Damarious Randall with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix shadowing over the top as Green Bay’s last line of defense:
With Diggs bracketed by both the underneath and over-the-top coverages, Bradford was given a microscopic window to work with and essentially zero room for error. Under such mental and physical pressure, he delivered an absolute strike 45 yards down the field, putting the ball in a spot where only Diggs could make the catch.
His debut against the Packers also included several other elite throws from the first-time Vikings quarterback. Below is another one of my personal favorites: Bradford squeezes the throw into the tiniest of openings to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
The scissors concept is a staple of the Air Coryell school of thought, and Turner used it here against what turned out to be a disguised Cover 3 defensive look. Rudolph’s corner route crossed Diggs’ post route, and with the Packers only rushing three, Bradford received adequate protection to deliver a pinpoint toss.
The same exact concept was used at Soldier Field on Halloween night and turned out to be Turner’s final touchdown call as Vikings offensive coordinator. Similar to the example against Green Bay, Bradford read the high safety and quickly threw a strike under pressure.
The departure of Turner sparked a complete 180 in Minnesota’s offensive efficiency and output. For better or worse, the Vikings transitioned from Turner’s arguably outdated edition of the Air Coryell to a timing-based, quick-hitting offense predicated on eliminating poor pass-protection.
The shift, however, wasn’t an easy one. While Bradford executed the game plan well, defenses were able to contain the offense by simply allowing underneath throws and tackling receivers short of the sticks. It’s partly why the Vikings offense was only able to muster 20, 16, 17, 16 and 15 points in the first five weeks after Shurmur took over.
The deep shots down the field were rare. And sure, the lack of protection definitely played a role in the play-calling as much as anything. But again, when Bradford was given the opportunity to deliver a deeper ball, he usually delivered.
Minnesota finally took a few chances against Jacksonville in Week 14 and (shockingly) exceeded its offensive point totals from each of the last five weeks against a very talented, if poorly coached, Jaguars defense. Bradford connected twice on passes of over 35 air yards and each led to points.
Bradford plays with the safeties here in Cover 2, staring down Rudolph on his corner route to open up the middle of the field for Diggs’ deep post. The throw wasn’t perfect — a perfect throw would have been six points — but it was on target and netted 45 yards, which was Minnesota’s longest offensive play since Week 2.
“Sammy Sleeves” also hit his signature fade route down the left sideline in this game. Thielen beat the press coverage and maneuvered his way along the sideline to snatch Bradford’s well-placed throw out of the air.
Even in the disaster that was the Week 15 self-destruction at home to the Indianapolis Colts, Bradford connected on one of his most impressive throws of the season. It was a 28-yarder to Rudolph and it was a beauty.
Rudolph ran a sort of out-and-up off the hard play-action fake and was one of two routes past the line of scrimmage against at least six Colts in coverage. This is what the field looked like when the ball was released.
Bradford’s accuracy was on display once again, as he found Rudolph between the three Colts. His pass missed the fingertips of an underneath defender by inches, falling only where Rudolph could make the catch.
Bradford’s accuracy this season was phenomenal. Even if he only managed seven yards per attempt, the man was pinpoint accurate wherever he was throwing the ball.
Jonathan Kinsely’s Deep Ball Project has become a respected source to evaluate and grade a quarterback’s downfield accuracy. Kinsley watches every throw from every quarterback and then assigns a grade based on his accuracy percentage and difficulty of throws.
Kinsley gave Bradford an ‘A’ grade and tracked his accuracy percentage on throws of 16 or more air yards and 20 or more air yards. The results are simply elite:
Finished Sam Bradford's 2016 deep passing. Sensational accuracy and placement.
FINAL GRADE: A pic.twitter.com/Uim57DJN6j
— Jonathan Kinsley (@Brickwallblitz) January 2, 2017
Being accurate on 67 percent of throws over 16 air yards and 59 percent of throws over 20 air yards with interception percentages of 1.5 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, is exceptional.
Accuracy was never really an issue for Bradford, but it’s worth pointing out just how accurate he is. He had no problem executing the shorter throws in Shurmur’s timing-based West Coast scheme. But when he was asked to make “NFL throws,” Bradford was superb.
Strength: Toughness in the pocket
I respect the heck out of Sam Bradford for the way he hung tough in the pocket this season, taking beating after beating each week. It’s a flat out miracle he made it through the season in one piece while the rest of the team disintegrated into thin air.
But it wasn’t just Bradford’s ability to hang tough in the pocket and repeatedly get up after taking a hard hit; it was his ability to consistently deliver accurate throws while under serious heat that impressed me. In some cases, he didn’t really have a choice.
The most famous example of this is the throw he delivered against Houston on a drag route to Jarius Wright. Texans pass rusher Whitney Mercilus charged into the backfield untouched and crunched Bradford. Only able to complete about half of his throwing motion because of the pressure, Bradford flicked a dime to Wright for a first down.
Bradford’s touchdown toss to Diggs in the home opener rivals the Wright throw. Packers interior lineman Mike Daniels comes in hot off a stunt and is virtually in Bradford’s facemask when the ball is released. Money.
Examples like this decreased as the season went on, thanks in large part to the shift to the Shurmur offense. We all know how little protection Bradford received on a weekly basis; yet, Bradford rarely let it affect his accuracy. There are a lot of starting quarterbacks who would have packed it in and taken the sack in the above two examples, let alone complete the throws.
A special kind of guts is required to stand in the pocket and deliver those throws. Bradford has it.
Weakness: Pocket Awareness
If you’ve made it this far, you might think Bradford is a future Hall of Famer. But I understand how to objectively analyze a quarterback, and Bradford has a couple of flaws that could be cleaned up going into the 2017 season.
Bradford isn’t the most athletic human being in the world; I think we all can understand that. It certainly doesn’t help that Bradford’s been under the knife for 13 (or something) knee surgeries.
The beauty of pocket awareness for a quarterback is that it doesn’t require exceptional athleticism. It simply requires an understanding of when to step up in the pocket and help the offensive linemen out.
This isn’t to say Bradford is to blame for the poor offensive line play this season. That’s actually not it at all. What I am saying is that Bradford’s lack of awareness in the pocket contributed to the number of sacks, hurries and pressures defensive lines were able to create.
In the above example, Bradford should already be feeling the pressure from both his blind-side and stepping into the pocket formed by the interior linemen. Instead, he waits too long to step up and takes a sack.
Remember the sack fumble at Lambeau that destroyed all kinds of Vikings momentum before halftime? There’s another example of Bradford failing to step up into a decent (enough) pocket.
I’m not dismissing T.J. Clemmings here whatsoever. He practically whiffed on Clay Matthews. But if Bradford had stepped up in the pocket, he would have at least made it more difficult for Matthews to force a fumble, which would have prevented the potential 14-point swing.
These examples popped up all throughout the season. In fact, often on completed passes, a turnover was inches from happening simply because Bradford had cement feet syndrome and failed to step up.
Case in point, the below example against the Giants. Bradford completed a pass here for a first down, but Olivier Vernon came within milliseconds of a strip-sack. Bradford had four yards of a pocket to work with here.
Bradford finished the 2016 season tied for third with 10 fumbles. He repeatedly puts himself at a higher risk of a fumble by gluing his cleats to the turf when he drops back to pass. Moving into 2017, Bradford will need to improve on increasing his pocket awareness and maneuverability.
Side note: It’s a complete coincidence that Clemmings is the one getting beat in each of these examples.
Weakness: Crunch Time Performance
One more criticism I have of Bradford is that he didn’t step up in crunch time in the way I hoped he would have this season. He had plenty of opportunities but didn’t take advantage when the Vikings needed him to the most.
On three occasions this season, Bradford assumed wrongly that a receiver would be open and it cost him big. The first example is from the Week 9 loss at Washington.
Minnesota was down three but had a little momentum near the end of the game. Shurmur dialed up a quick slant for Thielen on the left side. When Bradford takes the snap, he instantly looks right before coming back left to Thielen. And in one motion, he delivers the pass, assuming Thielen would come open. Instead, the pass hits defensive end Preston Smith in the hands, ending Minnesota’s chances at a comeback.
Just a few weeks later, Bradford ruined everyone’s Thanksgiving celebration by making a similar mistake against Detroit in a similar situation. Minnesota and Detroit were tied with little time remaining. Bradford was looking for Thielen on a short stick but failed to recognize the Cover 2. Darius Slay read the route from his zone and jumped all over it.
Unfortunately, this is what can happen in a West Coast offense that’s based on timing — you start assuming routes are open. Slay disguised his role well and Bradford simply didn’t recognize it.
The last example of Bradford’s failure to execute in crunch time is actually the two-point attempt against Dallas. While the false start by Jeremiah Sirles didn’t help, Bradford missed an opportunity on the play that would have sent the game to overtime.
Bradford appears set on trying to give Rudolph an opportunity to make the play in the back of the end zone. Meanwhile, Thielen comes open on the short crosser inside the five-yard line and absolutely would have scored with a decent throw.
The pass from Bradford sails over Rudolph’s head, into the stands, and the Vikings wind up losing by two. You can say what you want about the roughing the passer no-call on this play, but the Vikings would have been in overtime if Bradford had recognized Thielen in the flat.
Sam Bradford had his best season as a professional quarterback, both statistically and on film. And that’s not even considering the fact that he had to deal with the worst rushing attack in the NFL and extremely little pass protection.
He was statistically the most accurate passer in the NFL, not just this season, but in the history of the league. He was the foundation behind career seasons for Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph. He led the most effective aerial attack in Minnesota since Brett Favre (although that’s not saying a whole lot).
Most importantly, he’s provided the Vikings organization and its fans with security at the quarterback position after their franchise player went down with what looks like a two-year injury. That in itself is worth first and fourth-round picks.
Picturing Bradford after a full offseason with newly-promoted offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and some assistance to the offensive line is getting me all giddy.