Different Paths to Minnesota
Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Minnesota Vikings fans didn’t need to hear Mike Zimmer call Teddy Bridgewater “the nicest kid in the world” to know the truth.

Long before Zimmer effused praise on his then-starting quarterback, those following the team knew exactly what they were getting in Bridgewater in 2014; a top quarterback, an exceptional leader, and above all, a genuinely excellent human being.

For every success on the field – from his days as a four-star recruit to star quarterback for the Lousiville Cardinals – Bridgewater shined off it. His infectious smile, the heartwarming story of his mother’s victory over breast cancer, and his natural likability made him the perfect fit in quarterback-starved Minnesota.

Fans had waited years for a quarterback like Bridgewater to land with the Vikings. After seasons of misery rooting for the likes of Christian Ponder and Tavaris Jackson, Bridgewater’s drastic fall in the 2014 NFL Draft felt like a blessing from the football gods, who rarely bestow such gifts upon the Vikings.

He was a player who’d thrown for nearly 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns his junior year at Louisville and was a near-lock to be the first quarterback off the board. There was no way, at least in my mind, he’d make it past the 10th-overall pick. But an underwhelming pro day, spin from “inside sources,” and talk of Bridgewater’s “skinny knees” fueled his plummet to the bottom of the first.

That’s where Spielman made the trade to snag Bridgewater; a move he knew would instantly alter Minnesota’s playoff trajectory. Sure, the Vikings experienced some early bumps with Teddy under center, but his talents (and his potential) were undeniable; he set 91 rookie records his inaugural season.

Minnesota missed the playoffs Teddy’s rookie year, but charged back in 2015 to win the NFC North and clinch a postseason berth. To revisit the end of that campaign would be torture, so I’ll pass on the specifics and focus on the positives — namely, Bridgewater.

Despite operating in a limited scheme, behind a sieve of an offensive line and with a dearth of suitable weapons, Teddy saw increases in completion percentage, yards, and team wins. He didn’t take the “next step” some had envisioned but made Vikings football enjoyable again with his unique brand of quarterback play.

“Teddy Bridgewater is the nicest kid in the world.”

The highlight-worthy spins, jukes, and head fakes became necessary tools for Bridgewater, who often looked more like Houdini than the prototypical passer the Vikings had drafted. He regularly extended plays with his legs, spinning out of a collapsing pocket to locate a receiver down the field or finding a lane to squeeze through for a first down.

Bridgewater’s fearless, instinctual play won over the locker room, instilling further confidence he was the only quarterback capable of leading the Vikings to the Super Bowl. From the moment he arrived at Winter Park, he was universally praised—save for Mike Wallace—and embraced by an organization ready to make Bridgewater the beaming face of the franchise.

Like those in the locker room, fans latched onto Bridgewater’s humility, talent, and potential. His smile radiated throughout Minnesota, giving a snakebitten fanbase something, in turn, to cheer for when he was on the field.

On August 30th, their smiles disappeared, replaced with the familiar pangs of disappointment and disbelief.

Thanks, football gods.

One snap, like one draft pick, can change the course of a franchise forever. When Bridgewater collapsed in a heap at Vikings practice, the state of Minnesota let out a collective scream. Was this some cruel twist from the football gods themselves?

There are times when a gut feeling overrides any logic or reasoning. When I heard the word “non-contact” and saw pictures of an ambulance at Vikings headquarters, I just knew the incident was more than a minor injury.

Turns out, my gut feeling, and the intuition of so many others around the country, was correct; Bridgewater had dislocated his knee and torn ligaments, ending what should have been a breakout third season. But his head coach didn’t shudder in the face of adversity, and neither did Bridgewater. Shortly after news broke of the injury’s severity, Teddy issued a handwritten statement to the team, who later published it online.

“I want to thank the Wilf Family and the entire Vikings organization, all of my teammates, friends, Eric Sugarman and the amazing Vikings athletic training staff and the fans who have sent me messages and wished me well. Your thoughts and prayers mean a lot to me and have helped me in this difficult time. There are great players and great leaders in our locker room who are going to fight to the end to reach the goals we set for 2016. I will be there mentally, physically and in spirit to support them accomplish those goals.

In order to have a testimony, you have to have a test. I come from amazing DNA, I watched my mom fight and win against breast cancer. We will, as a team, attack my rehab with the same vigor and energy. My faith is strong, my faith is unwavering and my vision is clear. My purpose will not be denied.”

“Our” quarterback

As in life, letting go of something you love isn’t an easy task. Whether you’ve broken up with a lover or sworn off sugar, change is difficult. Teddy was, and remains “our” quarterback; it’s as if he were destined to land with the Vikings in the manner he did.

We felt, from the very start, that Bridgewater was a perfect fit in Minnesota. He was unwaveringly kind, impossibly humble, remarkably talented, and universally loved by all; except for a few vocal detractors.

For me, it was his first comeback drive—against the Cardinals in a 2014 preseason game—that sealed the “Bridgewater is the future” deal. Without a hint of emotion, and with the steely gaze of a seasoned veteran, he tossed an end zone fade to Rodney Smith, securing a 30-28 win for the Vikings.

Such moments became commonplace with Bridgewater at quarterback; the impossible throws and dazzling decisions showing up on a weekly basis. Maybe he missed a few deep shots and took a few too many sacks, but Bridgewater rarely disappointed. And if he did make a mistake, it was always with a smile and always on his shoulders.

As a fan, I related to Bridgewater, admired his maturity, and awed at his command of a competitive locker room. Few players, at least in my memory, have earned such league-wide adoration in such a short amount of time. It was evident, no matter where he played, that others respected and appreciated Bridgewater as a player and as a man.

So when he went down, and the well-wishes poured in, you knew the Vikings hadn’t just lost a quarterback; they’d lost the leader of their franchise. Mike Vick, Mark Sanchez, and a handful of other quarterbacks weren’t going to replace Bridgewater. Even Shaun Hill, an in-house option, wasn’t the “hero” fans wanted to see on regular season Sundays.

No player was going to mend the pain of losing Bridgewater, putting whoever landed in Minnesota in a near-impossible situation. For Sam Bradford, that meant erasing the bitter memories of the past and starting fresh with the Vikings, no matter the emotional walls the fanbase had erected around their hearts.

The mercenary

If I’d gone to Twitter the day of the trade for Sam Bradford, I’d have formed a slanted picture of Minnesota’s mercenary quarterback; a former first-overall pick who’d spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the field fulfilling his draft position. I’d have seen zoomed in pictures of his “throw face,” jokes about his “crazy eyes,” and tweets about his extra long sleeves.

Bradford’s the rental you’re forced to drive after someone’s stolen your dream car. He’s the girl that can’t compare to the one that got away. Replacing Bridgewater with Bradford was never going to be smooth; from the start, Bradford was an unknown, expensive commodity who’d cost the Vikings more than they could afford.

Unlike Teddy, Bradford didn’t have the heartwarming backstory or inspiring journey to Vikings headquarters. He’d become an enigma, a player with so much potential but such little production in his seven seasons. The Vikings knew they were getting talent in Bradford, but not durability, leadership, or proven success in the NFL. Trading for Bradford was a costly risk, one that took the heartbroken fan base months to reconcile.

Even to this day, after setting the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record, Bradford remains a bit of an unknown in Minnesota. We know he can throw the deep ball, hit receivers in stride, and thrive in the shotgun, but can he make his teammates laugh? Does he command the huddle? Is he here for the long-term, or is this simply a “contract job?”

Enough can’t be said of Bradford’s efforts this past season. Despite joining the team just weeks before the regular season, he absorbed Pat Shurmur’s playbook and turned what should’ve been sour lemons into delicious lemonade. Injuries and personnel changes aside, Bradford did more than enough in his first season with the Vikings to warrant a return in 2017. Zimmer even said as much following the team’s Week 17 victory:

“I think Sam has played great this year,” Zimmer said. “I think he has earned the right to be the starting quarterback…Sam has done remarkable with the things he’s done this year with all the things he’s had to do.”

Here we are

Still, there will be those who can’t accept Bradford as Minnesota’s “quarterback of the future.” He isn’t Teddy, and he never will be —that’s a fair assessment. But hanging on to the past, no matter how sweet, is a detriment to the present. Bradford doesn’t have Teddy’s gamesmanship or the reverence of his peers, but he’s proven to be the best interim option.

How long an interim period that is, unfortunately, has yet to be determined. Teddy could make a return next season, or, spend another year rehabbing what’s believed to be a serious injury. In his stead, we’ll likely get another year of Bradford, another year to swallow the bitter pill, and another year pining for a Super Bowl berth.

The forthcoming offseason is sure to feature a “quarterback battle,” and a large chunk of the fan base will surely side with “Team Bridgewater” if Teddy is somehow ready. I’ve struggled with the idea of letting go to embrace Bradford as the team’s current and future quarterback, but that’s exactly what’s taken place in recent months. The front office drew the line in the sand by trading for Bradford, ensuring he’d not only be under contract through 2017 but a safeguard during Bridgewater’s recovery. Even if Teddy does resume football activities in August, the Vikings are in a comfortable position to roll with Bradford.

Heading into next year, it’s clear Bradford is the best, and possibly only choice for the Vikings. He doesn’t enter the season with lingering injury questions – a shocker behind Minnesota’s offensive line – and showed he’s an adept vehicle for Shurmur’s quick-hitting pass attack. That logic may clash with my emotions, but the facts are simple; the Vikings don’t know when Bridgewater will be ready to take the field and have a quarterback perfectly capable of resuming his starting duties.

Although Bradford isn’t the quarterback we envisioned leading the Vikings, he’s done his part to convince the fan base that he’ll only improve if given the opportunity. Much like the Vikings gave Bridgewater a chance by drafting him in the first round, it’s time we trust Bradford as more than an expensive mercenary or part-time option; he’s the presumed QB #1, whether we like it or not.

They may have taken different paths to Minnesota, but Bradford and Bridgewater are both deserving, qualified quarterbacks of the Vikings.