A mother’s comforting words; a friend’s unexpected call; the reassurance that everything is going to be okay.
For Sam Bradford, such a moment came on the sidelines, captured quietly by ESPN’s Monday Night Football cameras. He sat exasperated on Minnesota’s bench, looking beaten down in the midst of his long-awaited return to the Vikings huddle.
Three weeks of rest weren’t enough to rejuvenate the quarterback’s chronic, bruised knee. From the moment he took the field, Bradford looked like a shell of himself; misfiring on normally automatic throws, grimacing in the huddle, and pulling himself off the turf more slowly with each subsequent sack.
By the midway point of the second quarter, Bradford could barely navigate the pocket, playing more like end-of-an-era Peyton Manning than the world-beater from Week 1. He limped to the bench after a third sack late in the first half, collapsing in defeat next to offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
Bradford appeared numb to the words coming from athletic trainer Eric Sugarman’s mouth, his eyes searching for elusive answers. Fans sat in silence at home, unsure what to make of Sugarman’s grave expression as he spoke to the oft-injured quarterback. Play-by-play announcer Jon Gruden, ever enthusiastic, assessed the situation with blunt clarity:
“I don’t think he’ll return to the game.”
Words weren’t necessary to understand the situation, though. The message came through clearly when Shurmur patted Bradford on the thigh; a gesture anyone would recognize as solemn consolation. Sitting at home, it was difficult to watch Bradford fall apart on the field, his legs becoming stiffer and less mobile with every hit.
The coaches surely knew he wasn’t 100-percent ready; Sugarman may have cleared Bradford, but even he must have known, deep down, that sending the quarterback to Soldier Field on a fragile knee was a mistake. Zimmer, through the lens of his tough-as-nails mentality, needed to see if Bradford could fight through the pain of a simple three-step drop — he could not.
And Bradford, the man at the center of last night’s ordeal, probably pushed harder than anyone to start the game. With the return of Teddy Bridgewater and potential contract negotiations looming, Bradford had no other reasonable choice but to tough it out.
Like any football player with vested interest in short- and long-term success, he needed the opportunity to prove his immediate worth and future value to the team, both in respect to production and health.
On both counts, he failed.
What I saw last night was a desperate man, one fighting (literally) on his last leg to remain relevant, today and in the years ahead. Sitting out would only fuel the franchise’s desire to turn back to a healthy Bridgewater this season; starting the game, albeit hurt, would at least give Bradford a shot at a prolonged audition for 2018 and beyond. But Bradford’s body, as it has in the past, failed him when it mattered most.
In front of millions in primetime, we watched a player’s body crumble under the pressure to rush back from chronic injury; we saw shoulders slump in pitiful acceptance of an injury that could, potentially, knock Bradford out of football for good; we saw him grapple, on live television, with his own fragility.
This doesn’t feel like an injury that’s going to heal before it gets any worse. After a week of practicing in limited fashion, Bradford still couldn’t make it through a quarter of football without aggravating the injury. He’s going to need time to recover and rediscover his comfort behind Minnesota’s offensive line, and the chances of that happening appear smaller by the day.
Like others, a part of me knew the clock was always ticking down to Bradford’s next injury. It’s not some mystical Vikings curse or Minnesotan bad luck; he’s a quarterback whose body isn’t fit for the rigors of the football field. Two ACL tears and the subsequent “wear and tear” on his left knee only confirm Bradford’s long-term outlook in Minnesota is shorter than anticipated.
Personally, I feel for Bradford. Sure, he’s made more than $1 million per game over the course of his career, but it’s a career rife with disappointment and pain. From seasons cut short to unceremonious splits with St. Louis and Philadelphia, he’s never lived up to the moniker of “first overall selection,” and I’m sure that stings. Some of that falls on Bradford, but he’s been the victim complicated circumstances and injury misfortune, no matter where he’s played.
Minnesota is no different, and to me, represents the harshest of endings for Bradford. I say ‘ending’ because I believe — as unfortunate as it may be — that Bradford’s taken his last snap for the Vikings.
This is probably emotion talking, but like others who may watch and probably played football, you’ve been in Bradford’s seat on the bench. You’ve had a coach grab you by the shoulder pads and tell you that things are going to work out, even when you know in your heart of hearts they won’t.
Shurmur’s been with Bradford a long time, and his moment of genuine consolation, caught so gracefully by ESPN, showed me everything I need to know about the quarterback’s future. It’s entirely plausible Bradford makes a full recovery — just look at Teddy — but we’re pining for the unrealistic at this point. I may be wrong, but I’ve been in Bradford’s shoes, and watching him come to the bitter realization last night was an absolute bummer.
I respect Bradford for trying to fight through the pain and I don’t blame Zimmer or Sugarman for allowing him to test the knee. I also understand the disappointment so many feel around Bradford’s short stint in Minnesota.
Today, though, I’m thinking less about No. 8 the football player and more about Sam Bradford the person. Get well soon, Sammy Sleeves.