Maybe We’re All a Little Too Invested

Teddy Bridgewater
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Teddy Bridgewater is not the Messiah. This statement is childlike in its obviousness, and indeed I feel a touch sheepish putting it in print, as if I’m standing on a hill and proclaiming, “the earth is not flat!”

But I lead with it for one reason: despite the overwhelming evidence that, to anyone’s best knowledge, Theodore Andrew Bridgewater is neither the redeemer nor the son of man, you wouldn’t always know it by listening to the Vikings faithful.

This is not a knock on Teddy; I quite like him, both for his personality and football acumen, and think asserting a person is probably not a Christ-like figure is a pretty rational criticism. My intent here is to say nothing about the man, or even, to a large extent, the quarterback, because I would be perfectly content to watch him lead our beloved Vikings to the playoffs—and potentially beyond—for years to come.

Rather, my issue is with the expectations and projections we as a fanbase have saddled Bridgewater with so early in his tumultuous career, to our own detriment.

I was at the San Francisco Airport on August 30, 2016, on a layover en route to Hawaii. My wife and I were on the very first leg of our honeymoon. I sat in a cushy chair in the United Club (we scored free passes) and drank a bourbon, watching planes take off and land when the news broke. The remaining hour in the airport was spent frantically refreshing Twitter and making internal justifications—there’s no official diagnosis yet, we don’t have all the information, it could just be a really bad sprain, and so on—until, as we were packing up to board, the word came in; it was bad, yeah. It was really bad. It was “players are vomiting on the field at the sight of it” bad. Teddy wouldn’t be the quarterback in 2016. We knew that right away.

My wife, knowing me, gave me the requisite time to process the news. But on the plane, flip-flops in hand and beach towels packed away, she caught me in a long, blank stare and nudged my arm.

“This isn’t going to ruin the honeymoon,” she asked, “is it?”

The Situation

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say I was heartbroken. We all were. Finally—finally—it looked like we had a quarterback that could be the face of the franchise. Finally, the charismatic, capable young signal-caller who made coaches gush was on the Vikings’ sideline, rather than the opponent’s.

Finally, we may be able to go a few years—heck, even a decade—without the plodding, biannual search for a retread to plug in under center. Bridgewater showed poise and promise in his first two years in the league and seemed destined to take the leap in the all-critical Year Three. We had our guy.

And then the knee. And the puking. And the whispers of nerve damage and recovery timelines that were all over the calendar, from a year to never. We didn’t know the full extent of it—we still don’t—we just knew it was about as bad a non-spinal injury a football player can sustain. It was all very unbelievable.

But then it wasn’t, was it? Even before the shock of Bridgewater’s injury wore off, we were collectively encroached upon by another emotion: self-pity. Of course the quarterback of the future would sustain a gruesome non-contact injury in training camp. Of course that would happen. This is the Vikings.

And so it was a shock, but it wasn’t really a surprise. In a long, comedically sad narrative that includes words like Sterger, Pearson, roof, boat, Anderson, Walsh, Underwood, and switch, it seemed we would have one more to add: Teddy. There would be a recovery of some sort and a realistic chance at a comeback, but it was hard not to see it as a devastating setback for a player who would have been entering his prime.

That was August 30, 2016. I don’t need to tell you what happened between then and now because you were there for it. You saw the team scramble for a replacement, eventually paying a premium to bring in a mercenary to salvage the 2016, and possibly 2017 seasons.

You saw that mercenary help the team to a blazing start, beating the rival at home after being in town for less than two weeks, going 5-0 and turning heads around the league. And then, you saw things unravel, the team fall apart down the stretch, and turn heads for a different reason.

You saw the new guy struggle to operate with a paper-thin offensive line. You saw him get out of sync with his receivers. You saw him check down too much. You saw him set the NFL record for completion percentage in a single season, and you saw that no one seemed to care.

You saw the cliched ups and downs of an NFL season, but on a magnified scale, and you saw the new guy perform—I think we can agree—reasonably well, all things considered. And still, you pined for the other guy. You craved Teddy.

Or maybe you didn’t. I don’t know; I can’t actually speak for you, despite trying for the last two paragraphs. Maybe you’re not deeply attached to Teddy Bridgewater, the player, and the human being. You may be a rational, pragmatic sports fan, and if so, I salute you and feel I deserve some sort of prize for discovering you. But, I’m afraid, you are the exception among Vikings fans, not the rule.

The Reaction

For many of us purple faithful—dare I say the majority—there is a Teddy-sized hole that only the return of a healthy, smiling number five can fill. I can’t prove this, of course. I’ve done no studies or polls, and it’s based purely on a perception formed by spending too much time online and, less frequently, discussing the quarterback situation with real, actual people.

But what I’ve found is this: for a large swath of Vikings fans, Sam Bradford under center (or rather, in shotgun) is fine and acceptable. Reasonably pleasant, even, like an iced tea when what you really wanted was a soda; it’ll get you through the meal, and it beats water, but you can’t quite shake the thought of an ice cold Coca-Cola.

We accept Bradford, and we respect what he did on short notice last season. But we will not allow him—or any other quarterback, frankly—into our long-term Vikings fantasies. No, that spot is reserved for Teddy Two-Gloves, the charismatic, hand-selected signal-caller who always seemed destined to lead this team into the future.

Yes, there was the knee injury, but the reports on his recovery have been cryptic, which leaves ample room for speculation. If we try hard enough, we can talk ourselves into Teddy Bridgewater making a full recovery, maybe even some time in 2017.

We obsess over his positive traits; the intangibles, the clutch throws, the way he can make Mike Zimmer sound like a positive person. We ignore the paltry touchdown numbers, the lukewarm passings stats, and latch on to advanced metrics that prove what we desperately want to believe; that Teddy, and Teddy alone, is the key to getting this team over the hump.

We watch his highlights. We sing his praises. We “OMG!” over every short video of him standing on two legs. We remember the quarterback he was, the one he was becoming, and above all, yearn for the return of Teddy Bridgewater.

And in doing so, we’ve become a little pathetic.

The Problem

We love our guys, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of being fans. And we are of course rooting for a player afflicted with a freak, devastating injury to make a full and triumphant recovery. But as the dust settled on 2016 and the postmortems were completed, and we moved into the lethargic void of the NFL offseason, I saw something else emerge: blind devotion. A step or two beyond what can usually be expected from passionate football fans; namely, love and allegiance with an irrational slant toward optimism. But here, with the quarterback having only two seasons under his belt and still a strong uncertainty about his future, we’ve moved from allegiance to reverence. We now revere Teddy Bridgewater, in a fashion reserved only for people and things that aren’t directly in our line of sight; we lionize him like a historical dignitary, or a warm childhood memory.

To listen to many a Vikings fan talk about Bridgewater at present day, you would think he was a multi-year MVP candidate pre-injury—a Brady or Brees or Ryan type of figure—rather than a developing young quarterback who still needed to take a sizable step in order to leap into the upper echelon of the NFL.

But the truth is, we think of him as what we projected him to be, rather than what he actually was. Part of the reason Bridgewater injury was such a punch in the gut was the timing; he seemed on the precipice of stardom. That, though, was speculation. We’ll never know if he actually would have progressed in the way we hoped and expected, or if he will at all, until (and if) he comes back.

What we had was a good young quarterback with the potential to be great. That’s a bummer of an asset to lose, but we didn’t lose Aaron Rodgers (or Ben Roethlisberger, or Eli Manning, or others). And yet, there’s this yearning for Bridgewater that I have a hard time believing the Packers, Steelers, or Giants fanbase would wallow in even if their respective signal callers went down.

Teddy feels like the girlfriend we dated for six months; she was beautiful, yes, and she seemed to have wife potential, but then she went backpacking across Europe and has been increasingly ambiguous about if and when she’s returning.

She’ll either come back, or she won’t, but there’s no use staying up every night and thinking about her. At some point, we have to think about what we’re going to do if she doesn’t. At some point, we need to realize she’s not the only girl in the world.

I’m a simple man, and in football, I tend to think of things in simple terms. So when attempting to build a franchise for sustained success, I try to look at organizations that have already done so, and seek to approach any situation they way they theoretically would. Another way to say this is, “what would the Patriots do?”

In this case, attempting to project the fortunes of a young, unproven quarterback on to Tom Brady, possibly the best to ever play the position (and a player closer to the end of his career than the beginning), is hardly fair. But for the sake of the experiment, what would the Patriots do if Brady went down with a knee injury similar to Bridgewater’s?

We know what the team would do: they would keep their options open, leaving the door cracked for an eventual return while aggressively pursuing both short- and long-term replacements. They would take a pragmatic, emotionless approach, and would not be swayed by names or charisma or Instagram posts.

And, to his credit, I believe this is mostly what Rick Spielman has done regarding Bridgewater, as is most evident with the team declining his fifth-year option. From a management standpoint, I think the Vikings have handled it well.

But let’s return to the fanbase; how would Patriots fans respond if their beloved Brady suddenly carried with him such a bleak, uncertain future? Would they wallow in self-pity, lamenting the loss and holding out ever-present hope for a recovery? Of course not. They would say thank you, Tom, for everything, and good luck with the recovery. They would shrug and say he’ll either be back or he won’t, but even if he isn’t, it won’t matter. We’ll win a championship with Jimmy Garappolo.

And they would be right, and that’s what makes Patriots fans so darn annoying, but I digress. The point is, the only way to win at this game in the long term is to be judicious, and player-agnostic, and ruthless (see: Lawyer Milloy released, 2003. See also: Super Bowl XXXVII Champions). When you make decisions with emotion, it often makes a nice story, but it rarely makes the product on the field better.

The Path Forward

Teddy Bridgwater is three main things to Vikings fans: a first-round draft pick, an extremely likable young man, and a player who showed the potential to develop into a high-caliber NFL quarterback. These are important traits, and everything seemed to be trending in the right direction before the injury.

But our attachment to him has exceeded the real, tangible factors in play, and we need to take a step back and ask ourselves why we remain so, so invested in the idea of him, and sometimes use that allegiance as a mechanism to casually deride the team’s current quarterback—the one who is actually playing, and producing.

The answer, to me, is simple: we like Teddy Bridgewater. We just really, really like him. And we should like him, as he’s given us every reason to. But the like in some parts of Vikings Land is bordering on obsession, an emotion that never seems to lead to good things, in relationships and in football.

I like Teddy Bridgewater. I would like him to return fully healthy, and lead this team for years. But what I would like more is for the Minnesota Vikings to become a perennial power, to knock the Packers off their smug throne atop the NFC North—and keep them there—and to be a team that’s in the Super Bowl conversation most every year, like those bland winners in New England.

And to do that, you need to be constantly be thinking about what’s next. Not what was, or what might be, or what could have been.

The Vikings can go to a Super Bowl in the next decade. They have the talent, and the coaching staff, and the management. Whether that is with or without Teddy Bridgewater, however, is a prospect to which I will remain agnostic.