Simplicity the Key to Sam Bradford’s Crash Course

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

There was a reason Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford didn’t start in the team’s Week 1 game just eight days after arriving in the Twin Cities following a blockbuster Sept. 3 trade. Learning an NFL offense is hard enough in a full offseason; let alone in a week.

Even the 15-day window Bradford eventually had before his first start was short, but Minnesota’s coaches have regularly spoken of their awe at how quickly the former first-overall pick has taken to offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s playbook. “I don’t think we have anything that we’re running right now that we didn’t have in [when Teddy Bridgewater was quarterback],” Turner said last Thursday. “Some things get featured a little bit more, and every week since we’ve been here, there are new plays that go in for the team.”

Bradford admits, though, that the play calls were a “foreign language” in his first days with the team when he and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner would burn the midnight oil poring over Scott’s father’s schemes. The Vikings have utilized more shotgun formations and three-step drops with Bradford than they did with Bridgewater – likely a product of different running back personnel, a depleted offensive line and Bradford’s personal preference.

“I try to be pretty vocal about what I’m comfortable with, what I like, maybe what I don’t like and why I don’t like it,” Bradford said.

“I try to be pretty vocal about what I’m comfortable with, what I like, maybe what I don’t like and why I don’t like it,” Bradford said. “Coach [Norv] Turner has done a great job about listening. There’s been some times where I’ve said I don’t like something, and he’s said, ‘Well, think about it this way. We really like it versus this look so if we get it just try to get the ball here or there.’ That’s been awesome, too.”

The sagest NFL quarterback would probably sacrifice his non-throwing arm to have a stretch like Bradford is having now — zero turnovers through three games. Bradford’s ball security must be contagious, as no Vikings offensive player has coughed the ball up this season. Turner said that while he’d like to attribute the success to coaching — what coach wouldn’t? — it’s more likely Bradford’s attention to detail and decision making that are the biggest catalysts. “When you’re back there and the ball’s in your hand, it’s a risk-reward situation,” explained Turner. “And sometimes you see these interceptions, even if it was completed, it would be a six-yard gain or an eight-yard gain. It’s not worth the chance. There’s more risk than there is reward.”

The Oklahoma grad’s dearth of interceptions is in line with his career tendencies and resembles Bridgewater last year, who only threw nine picks. Head coach Mike Zimmer has said they’ve harped on ball control with Bradford, just as they did with the entire roster during training camp. But it doesn’t look like the quarterback is stressing when he’s on the field. In fact, he looks like a guy in control of the offense – his third new offense in just over a year. “I think he’s pretty comfortable with it,” said Zimmer. “Really the biggest thing is getting familiar with the terminology, that’s the biggest thing when he first came in. Terminology and trying to find out what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”

Photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media
Photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media

From a terminology standpoint, tight ends coach Pat Shurmur has been a big help. A former coach of Bradford’s in St. Louis and Philadelphia, Shurmur has been able to translate plays for the quarterback into a more familiar language. They’ve also taken it one step further by instituting code names to reduce the amount of jargon Bradford has to recite. Zimmer brought this up for the first time after Monday’s win against New York, but Turner shed more light on it Thursday morning.

Turner and his then-assistant Rob Chudzinski used code names in the 2000s with the San Diego Chargers during their two-minute offense to make it easier to run the hurry-up. Chudzinski then brought the idea to Carolina as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator and reared rookie Cam Newton with the simplified playcalling mechanism. Chudzinski then reunited with Turner in Cleveland, where Turner was shocked to see what Chudzinski had done. “’What have you guys done to this offense that I’ve been coaching for 25 years?’” Turner remembered saying to him.

But the longtime offensive guru adapted and now uses the same concept with Bradford. “If you can go out and call a play, and you call a formation, and you use a one-word name – warrior for example, dodge, warrior – you’ve called the protection, you’ve called the route for everybody,” said Turner. “That makes everything faster.”

a play entitled “5-72 H-Arrow F-9 Swing” would turn into a simple “Warrior.”

As Turner went on to explain, a play entitled “5-72 H-Arrow F-9 Swing,” to use his example, would turn into a simple “Warrior.”This relieves a burden on Bradford, who no longer has to recite the entire phrase, but it means the players have to do some extra homework and learn the code names, too. While the long-form plays provide most of the information needed to recognize protection schemes, routes and other elements, the code names do not. “Our guys have really handled the names well,” said Turner. “They’ve taken it on themselves to learn them and respond, and we’ve had very few mental errors with the names.”

Not only has Bradford taken care of the ball, he’s been the third-most accurate passer in the league with the third-best passer rating. Only Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garappolo – who’s only played one-and-a-half games – and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan rank higher.

Credit is deserved all around for Bradford’s early success. To Spielman, for pulling the trigger on the trade. To the coaching staff, for acclimating Bradford in record time. To the offensive line, for keeping Bradford off his back (most of the time). To the skill players, for protecting the football. And to Bradford, for making the best of a new and unexpected career twist. “I try to improve, obviously, with this being a new system a new situation,” he said Wednesday. “I think that’s even more important for me to come in, be open minded, learn from our coaches, learn from what our players have to say and just try to get better.”

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