Vikings

The Vikings Had a Lot Riding on Teddy Bridgewater; Now Their Plans Have Changed

Photo Credit: Luke Inman

On a roster cut day that, imaginably, was already not very pleasant for the organization, the Minnesota Vikings received news that made the release of veteran John Sullivan feel like a moot point.

Shortly after beginning team drills, just before 2 p.m., quarterback Teddy Bridgewater fell to the ground and clutched his left knee. Curse words were shouted by teammates out of frustration. Helmets were thrown. Everybody took a knee before being shepherded off the field. The running backs stayed by Bridgewater’s side in prayer. Practice was over.

Within minutes, an ambulance was on the scene to whisk Bridgewater away to the hospital with what we know now to be a dislocated knee and torn ACL. It’s a season-ending injury for the young quarterback who was expected to be a vital cog in the Vikings’ Super Bowl aspirations. Now instead of preparing to face the Tennessee Titans in Week 1, he faces surgery.

“We’re going to keep fighting.”

“No one is going to feel sorry for us, no one is going to cry,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, who, despite his message of strength, had to hold back tears during his press conference. “The Tennessee Titans or the Green Bay Packers, we can go down the schedule, no one is going to feel sorry for us if that’s the case, so I’m not going to feel sorry for us either. I’m not going to let this team feel sorry for itself. We’re going to grieve today and be upset about it. It’s more about our feelings for Teddy and him as a person and getting better than it is about anything else. Teddy’s a great kid and he’ll be back as soon as he possibly can.

“But we’re going to keep fighting.”

Bridgewater had seemingly grown leaps and bounds as a passer leading up to his third NFL season. He adjusted his arm angle, added some weight and improved his velocity. During the summer, he met multiple times with his receivers to build chemistry; a chemistry that had manifested itself through two preseason games. Bridgewater went 18 for 23 in two starts, throwing a pair of touchdowns against zero interceptions. A deep ball to Charles Johnson against Cincinnati gave fans hope his downfield passing had improved, and his two-minute drill against San Diego on Sunday was as crisp as the 23-year-old had ever looked in a game.

All of it dashed thanks to a non-contact injury.

The Vikings had rallied behind their quarterback this offseason as Bridgewater had blossomed, not only as a player but as a leader. The once-shy rookie was looking as comfortable in the locker room as he did in the pocket, and it seemed to be galvanizing the team. “Nothing phases him,” said receiver Charles Johnson late last week. “That’s why he’s one of the greatest under pressure.”

“The leadership that he brings,” said receiver Adam Thielen, “I think guys are more locked in when he’s in the huddle.”

A week early, Zimmer was appalled when the media inquired about possible disciplinary action for Bridgewater – before it was revealed that he’d missed a preseason game simply because of a sore shoulder. “He’s the nicest kid in the history of life,” Zimmer said confidently.

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It’s worth wondering if any other injury could have had the same damage to a team’s – and a fan base’s – momentum. Even if Adrian Peterson had declared his retirement from football – effective immediately – there would still have been hope that Bridgewater could carry the extra weight on his shoulders. Once thought of as the future of the franchise, the polite young man from Miami had morphed into the franchise’s present. The even-keeled quarterback was expected to take the Vikings to previously-unachieved heights, with players on both sides of the ball talking Super Bowl throughout the offseason.

Among Tuesday’s disappointments is the void left by Bridgewater and the disparate skill level of his replacement. On a team with great depth at countless positions, the Vikings failed to groom or sign a viable second-string quarterback. They may have tried with second-year slinger Taylor Heinicke, but he hurt his ankle kicking in a door before training camp. Now the Vikings must rely upon 36-year-old Shaun Hill to steer the ship.

They can still be competitive in 2016, but it will require a Herculean effort from the defense and the run game.

“I have confidence in him,” said Zimmer on Tuesday. “I have confidence in this football team. To me, it’s still about the football team. So if Shaun is the guy, we’re going to figure out, as coaches, we’re going to try to figure out the very best way we can beat the team that we’re playing that week. However we have to do it, if it’s running the ball 65 times or throwing it 65 times, it doesn’t really matter.”

The Vikings have lost a franchise quarterback to a knee injury before when Daunte Culpepper blew out several ligaments at Carolina in 2005 and was never the same. The difference is that those Vikings were 2-4 and had constantly felt the sting of underachievement during Culpepper’s tenure. These current Vikings had overachieved to make the playoffs in 2015 and were poised to solidify themselves as a year-in, year-out force to be reckoned with.

They can still be competitive in 2016, but it will require a Herculean effort from the defense and the run game.

Fans have been engulfed in victorious daydreams since the team’s unceremonious playoff exit last January, having visions of returning to the playoffs with the same core group and rewriting what Blair Walsh’s missed kick erased. Now, cruelly, they may never know what might have been. The Vikings have 15 free agents next spring and could look very different in 2017, even if Bridgewater returns at full strength.

Zimmer’s ultimate coaching challenge begins posthaste as he channels the great mentors of his past. Not just coaching great Bill Parcells, but also his late father Bill, who gave him wisdom from the Great Beyond on a Tuesday of distress. “In spirit, I’ve talked to my dad,” Zimmer said, pointing skyward, “and he always found a way to do it. So, we’re going to figure out a way.”

Photo Credit: Luke Inman

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