Sam Bradford, the Forgotten Minnesota Man
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

There goes Teddy Bridgewater, dropping back in the pocket and throwing the ball to one of his teammates, as if it were just another practice for No. 5.

Nine months removed from what could have been a career-ending knee injury, he shouldn’t be out here, looking like the quarterback the Minnesota Vikings drafted in 2014. Disbelief tells me; no, convinces me he should be in Eric Sugarman’s training room, fighting to put weight on what we believed to be a shredded knee.

The hype around the now-infamous footage tells me otherwise. Bridgewater’s not only recovering, but further along than I’d ever imagined on his journey back to playing football. It’s a remarkable turn of events for a young man many, including myself, thought would never set foot back on the field.

While I applaud and tirelessly cheer for Bridgewater, the buzz surrounding “The Return” ignores a simple, if inconvenient truth — Sam Bradford is the starting quarterback for the Vikings, in 2017 and likely beyond.

I couldn’t help but watch the video and feel for Bradford. Here was Bridgewater, a surefire question mark heading into 2017, getting the treatment and spotlight of a franchise quarterback. And behind him, Bradford stood, shoulders slumped – as if he hadn’t broken records and shattered expectations less than a year ago.

As much as we’d like to dismiss Bradford’s first season in Minnesota as “more of the same,” put in the context of his rushed arrival to Winter Park, it was quite the accomplishment. He absorbed Norv Turner’s complex playbook in a matter of two weeks, made his unforgettable debut at the Vikings’ illustrious new home in Week 2, and led a sputtering Vikings offense without the luxury of a serviceable offensive line or competent running game.

The Vikings may have finished a disappointing 8-8, but Bradford silenced some by staying healthy the entire season and navigating the tumultuous transition from Turner’s playbook to Pat Shurmur’s more West Coast-heavy attack. Minnesota relied on Bradford’s quick release to move the football, and for the most part, enjoyed the benefits of his stellar accuracy and decisive short-area passing.

It wasn’t all perfect, though; I myself had my doubts about Bradford after the move, originally calling him a spare tire on Minnesota’s “Super Bowl caravan.” The questions he’s failed to answer over the course of his career cast dark shadows over his future in purple and gold, and it’s perfectly reasonable to doubt if he’ll top his career-best 2016 performance.

Despite setting an NFL record in completion percentage, Bradford also gained the fewest yards per completion in 2016. The source of the statistic, Football Perspective, even published the article in the “Checkdowns” section of its website, further cementing Bradford’s reputation as a cautious signal caller. He didn’t show a willingness to challenge defenses and rarely attacked the “sticks” on third downs, increasing the amount of time Minnesota’s defense was on the field which eventually caused them to “run out of gas” by  the end of the year.

Knowing this—and guessing he’d struggle as the short-term mercenary quarterback—I boldly proclaimed Bradford would “never replace Bridgewater” as the Vikings’ starter, but my conviction on that statement is wavering.

Not because I don’t believe in Bridgewater and want him to succeed, or that I think Bradford is going to make a leap into quarterback stardom. But because my logical brain is rattling around anxiously in my skull. I can’t shake the thought that, despite his progress, Bridgewater is nowhere near ready to play. Nowhere near ready to compete with Bradford. And nowhere near ready to climb the pocket when live defenders are actually trying to plaster him.

And, there’s this from David J. Chao at the San Diego Union Tribune:

“If Bridgewater were a cornerback, his horrific dislocation likely would have ended his career. But as a quarterback, he should be able to return even if his knee is not 100 percent. He still will be more mobile than many quarterbacks, just not the same as before. It is likely, barring extreme improvement in the next two months, Bridgewater will start camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and will need to make steady progress to play in ’17. He has a reasonable chance to become a top quarterback again, but it will be hard to become a premiere runner again.”

I’m encouraged by some of Chao’s comments, but everything at this point is speculation; Bridgewater should be able to return and has a reasonable chance to become a top quarterback again. USA Today’s Tom Peliserro suggests the Vikings could reevaluate Bridgewater in October, but until then, this is Bradford’s job to lose. If he plays well though, Pelissero notes Bradford will “get paid somewhere.”

My guess is that somewhere is Winter Park.

I think deep down, all Vikings fans want Bradford to succeed; it’s common sense to want the starting quarterback to throw touchdowns and win games. If general manager Rick Spielman was willing to trade away a first-round pick for Bradford, I’d assume he’d be willing to sign the quarterback to a long-term extension after another above-average season.

For all of its emotion, football is a sensical sport, and even more so as you climb a franchise’s ladder. It’s also, in a sense, political. Front offices are generally going to make the safe, self-serving decision over the popular decision as demanded by fans. The video of Bridgewater gave fans hope and surely sparked optimism he’d be able to play in 2017.

But like Sam wrote last week, maybe we’re all a little too invested in Bridgewater’s career arc. I love him, you love him, and the Vikings love him. Regardless, pressure from the fanbase is not going to rush Bridgewater onto the field faster than his body will allow. There’s a reason Spielman declined No. 5’s fifth-year option, and it’s something we need to accept in the interim — Teddy isn’t ready, and neither is the team when it comes to his contract.

The constant tug-of-war between the two sides, Team Sleeves and Team Gloves, is growing tired. The beautiful thing is, the Vikings are in a solid position at quarterback heading into 2017. The team has a surefire starter and solid depth behind him, even excluding Bridgewater. Further, long-term decisions at the position don’t need to be made until at least October.

So all I ask is this: don’t forget about Bradford, the forgotten Minnesota man. He may be in the background, but he’s at the forefront of Minnesota’s 2017 success.