HASAN: Start Teddy Bridgewater

Photo Credit: Brian Curski

The Minnesota Vikings are going to activate Teddy Bridgewater this week, per multiple reports. When that happens, the prevailing opinion of national reporters is that Case Keenum will continue to start, at least for one week against the Washington Redskins.

The Vikings would be best served starting Bridgewater as soon as possible.

There are, of course, caveats to that declaration. If Bridgewater’s movement is unduly restricted in practice or he simply does not look like the quarterback he once was, the Vikings should muddle through with Keenum, something they’ve done capably to get to a 6-2 record.

But the Vikings are already banking on the idea that Bridgewater can become a capable starter in the NFL, and he should get the opportunity to prove — or disprove — it to any extent possible.

There are a number of reasons to consider playing Bridgewater as early as possible.

The Vikings genuinely do not know who they have in Bridgewater. At only 24 years old — 25 on Friday — he is only 50 days older than MVP candidate Carson Wentz.

That’s to say that there’s no inherent lost cause due to age that should restrict Bridgewater from developing with enough time to hit peak performance later in his career. A second contract at this point would be wise from an age perspective and the Louisville alum might have a lot of talented football left in him.

By contrast, Sam Bradford at 30 years of age likely only has one more contract left in his NFL career — one put in jeopardy by his knee injury.

If Bridgewater flashes high-level potential for the Vikings, it would be better to find out now and lock him down before he hits an open market and another team gambles on the young passer. The San Francisco 49ers paid a second-round pick to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, and he has one year left on his contract. The 49ers haven’t won a game yet and aren’t a threat to make the playoffs, so general manager John Lynch essentially traded a valuable draft asset for an exclusive negotiating window.

The Vikings have a similar situation — with a quarterback a year younger than the 49ers’ newest acquisition — and should see if that situation is worth exploiting. If Bridgewater struggles to show any potential, they can more comfortably move on from the young passer and spend an early pick on a quarterback from this year’s draft — perhaps giving current Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson an opportunity to recur his role as Bridgewater’s successor.

That doesn’t necessarily mean playing immediately; the Vikings may as well be able to find out who they have in the final few games of the season. But there’s a good chance that it could take a few games to fully understand who Bridgewater is as a quarterback now.

I asked Cian Fahey, a quarterback analyst for ESPN and host of the Nickel Package Podcast, about the decision facing the Vikings, and Fahey was pessimistic about Bridgewater’s initial play quality.

“It typically takes a quarterback time to regain confidence in a surgically repaired knee,” he argued. “It took Sam Bradford about 10 weeks to fully recover from his second ACL tear; he was a bad quarterback during that stage but thrived over the second half of that season.

“That’s the quandary with Bridgewater. There’s a strong chance he’s worse than Keenum in the short term but he needs to play if he’s going to be valuable in the long term. In the long term you know you’re not winning a Super Bowl with Keenum. You’re probably not with Bridgewater this year either but he offers you a better chance”

Bradford seems to be the worst-case scenario. Joe Flacco immediately returned to form in 2016 from his 2015 ACL tear, a time lag of 295 days between injury and first start.

(Photo Credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

Other passers may offer more clues.

Donovan McNabb played at a Pro Bowl level before his ACL tear in 2006 and though he didn’t make a Pro Bowl again until 2009, played much like his older self a few weeks into the 2007 season, with a standout performance in Week 3 — a perfect passer rating on 26 attempts against the Detroit Lions. It took 309 days between injury and a high-level performance for McNabb.

Carson Palmer suffered the first of two ACL tears at a similar time, in January of 2006. A Pro Bowl year for the former Cincinnati Bengal, Palmer returned to the Pro Bowl the next year in a season where it didn’t take long to put together a classic performance. In Week 3, he threw four touchdown passes and two interceptions on 26 passes to beat the Steelers with a 98.2 passer rating.

That performance was only 206 days removed from his initial injury. That might even be too conservative, as Palmer had a lights-out preseason performance that year, throwing for three touchdowns on only 14 passes against the Green Bay Packers in late August — a month before his Steelers performance.

Later in his career, Palmer re-tore his ACL with the Arizona Cardinals in 2014, a year that he was on track for another Pro Bowl appearance. Instead, he had to settle for that appearance after the 2015 season, where he led the league in yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and ESPN total QBR. He dominated early on, with three touchdowns and no interceptions on 32 attempts against the New Orleans Saints for a passer rating of 122.8.

The lag between injury and highlight performance was 309 days in that case.

It would be unfair to compare Tom Brady’s 2007 to his 2009 season for a variety of reasons, but it should be noted that his first performance in 2009 was a doozy. Brady led two late-game drives against the Buffalo Bills to score two touchdowns in the span of 75 seconds to come from behind win the game by one point. He struggled early in the game but finished with a passer rating of 97.8.

That span of 373 days is one of the longest droughts between injury and highlight performance, but like with Palmer, represents the shortest possible time between the two events.

Though Bradford didn’t really turn it on with the Eagles until Week 8 — a span of 445 days — most quarterbacks either seem to return to form as early as possible or not at all.

Given that the Washington game will be 440 days after Bridgewater’s terrible leg injury, it may actually be time to see him put together a representative performance sooner rather than later, with the possibility of peaking in the playoffs.

The longer the Vikings wait, the longer it will take to determine whether or not the performance we’re seeing is truly representative of the player that the front office has to consider extending.

This also provides decent evidence that the Vikings would not necessarily be rushing Bridgewater back too soon. Essentially, 440 days would be at the long end of recovery time and four-and-a-half months longer than the recovery period between Bradford’s first ACL injury and his fateful re-tear.

While caution should be exercised in direct apples-to-apples comparisons given the more complete nature of Bridgewater’s injury, it should be noted that the Vikings were comfortable quite early on in the process with the young passer’s health — well before the Week 6 limit imposed by the rules of the Physically Unable to Perform list.

The only reason one would want to evaluate Bridgewater from long-term perspective is because there’s a very good chance that he’s better than Keenum is right now and has much more potential to grow.

I asked Derrik Klassen, a quarterback analyst for Football Outsiders, about this debate. His response was forceful. “If he is truly healthy enough to play, he should,” stated Klassen. “The Vikings sit atop the NFC North and beating Washington would likely secure the division, barring a disaster. A healthy Bridgewater, even if not quite as good as he was before injury, is better than Keenum. Bridgewater can better take advantage of Minnesota’s weapons and transition this offense from good to great.”

The biggest reason that Klassen cited for Bridgewater’s superiority was his ability to create better ball placement for receivers, creating yards-after-catch (YAC) opportunities. “Teddy [Bridgewater] will more consistently create YAC. Keenum forces tough catches; Bridgewater will keep players in stride. I also trust Bridgewater to protect the ball better. Keenum usually does that fine for his first few games, then unravels, and we have seen that in Minnesota recently, just like last year in Los Angeles.”

For reference, Keenum threw three picks in his first four games for the Los Angeles Rams last year, then threw eight picks in the next four games.

In 2015, Bridgewater’s passes led to more yards-after-catch than Bradford did in 2016 or Keenum has done in 2017, with 54.8 percent of his passing yards coming after catch, compared to 50 percent for Bradford and 46.4 percent for Keenum.

Much of this has to do, as Klassen referenced, with the high rate of contested passes. It just so happens that Diggs and Thielen are remarkably talented contested target catchers, ranking first and eighth in the NFL at winning contested catches. While injury has prevented regression to the mean for Diggs (for now), Thielen has seen his contested catch rate drop from when he was second in the NFL a few weeks ago.

Don’t expect these unsustainably high rates of difficult catches to continue, even though both receivers are incredibly skilled. Some of these will likely turn into incompletions as time goes on and a few will become turnovers.

It should also be worrisome that players who are known more for their separation than catch-point prowess are subject to so many contested passes. But Keenum’s poor accuracy has forced the Minnesota receivers into more difficult situations than their route-running talent warrants.

It might be easy to dismiss Bridgewater’s lead in yards-after-catch production to a short passing game, and though it’s true that he wasn’t a talented deep passer, he actually likely would have added to his YAC total with better deep passing as YAC generally increases at passing depths above 19 yards after decreasing steadily from zero to 14 yards from the line of scrimmage.

We can isolate the impact of YAC and passing depth solely by looking at how the three quarterbacks did in intermediate throws, where YAC is lowest and throws are often the most difficult.

Keenum and Bradford have had similar completion rates for passes thrown between 10 to 19 yards, with Keenum edging Bradford 59.3 percent to 57. But Bridgewater sits atop both of them with a completion rate of 65.3 percent on those passes, outgaining them with 10.7 yards per attempt on those throws, compared to 10 yards per attempt for Keenum and 9.4 for Bradford.

And none of this accounts for the differences in supporting cast, where Bridgewater dealt with worse playcalling, a worse offensive line and a less-developed receiving corps than Bradford or Keenum.

Matthew Coller at 1500 ESPN eloquently establishes the importance of those differences and the only additional thing to note is that both Bradford and Keenum had the best statistical games of their careers with Pat Shurmur as the Vikings offensive coordinator, while both Diggs and Thielen were healthy.

There’s an argument that Bridgewater didn’t throw many touchdowns in his 2015 season, and therefore he’s not particularly special, but that’s not a particularly complete argument; Keenum has thrown a touchdown on 3.0 percent of his passes, while Bridgewater threw a touchdown on 3.3 percent of his.

In fact, Bridgewater threw with a higher yards per attempt in 2015 than Keenum has this year, and with higher adjusted yards per attempt.

All of this is with a significantly worse offensive line — one that ranked dead last in advanced pass protection statistics, standard pass protection statistics and contemporary film-oriented lists — and a receiving corps that cycled through Mike Wallace and Charles Johnson before settling on a less-developed Thielen.

One interesting way to evaluate quarterbacks that strips away some of the problems that come with using touchdowns and interceptions as well as the issues that come with poor playcalling is evaluating performance on third-and-long. Because offenses tend not to attempt to convert third-and-13 or longer, it’s most appropriate to look at passes thrown on third down with between seven and 12 yards to go.

Bridgewater converted those third downs at a 38.1 percent clip, good for ninth-best in the NFL. Bradford, with a somehow even worse offensive line but marginally better weapons, converted third-and-long at a 26.9 percent clip, 27th in the NFL. Keenum, in a much friendlier environment, converted 28 percent of third-and-long plays into a first down, ranking 24th.

This demonstrates the mix of abilities that are generally desirable in quarterbacking while allowing us to exclude the influence of conservative or aggressive play callers — because every coordinator attempts to convert on third down.

Regardless, if Bridgewater is indeed a poor quarterback because of his talent or injury, it’s better to find out before the playoffs.

There’s a final strain of argumentation that’s fairly compelling; if the Vikings are doing so well with Keenum, why rock the boat?

Because the Vikings can do better.

Keenum has outperformed his role as a backup and is doing a good job keeping the Vikings on course. The Vikings are not winning games despite him, but neither are they winning because of him. Keenum has had a number of rough games that are not represented in the statistics.

The former Houston quarterback has benefited from the third-best drop rate in the NFL from his receivers, and that’s not likely to continue. He’s thrown a number of bad passes that should likely have been picked off and happened to luck out into mere incompletions.

Given the extraordinary locker room support that Bridgewater brings, it’s not likely that player dynamics would drive any disruption. Instead, advocates for letting Keenum play argue that he has generated momentum and/or earned the job in Bradford and Bridgewater’s absence.

But game-to-game momentum is a difficult concept to argue in favor of. The Vikings proved themselves that it’s a fickle concept at best after their collapse following a hot 5-0 start last year. The Kansas City Chiefs seem to be reinforcing that example this year.

Not only that, it’s clear that Keenum’s play hasn’t remained consistent from game to game. After struggling against Pittsburgh, he had the game of his career against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He then struggled mightily against the Detroit Lions.

His next good game was one where his momentum should have been disrupted, because the Vikings started a different quarterback and switched to Keenum mid-game, who helped pull the Vikings out of a loss into a win with sheer competence.

It doesn’t seem like the disruption to the starting schedule has had much to do with Keenum’s play, and it doesn’t seem like his play is even consistent enough from game to game for teams to rely on it as a decisionmaking tool.

Given that “quarterback wins” have abysmal predictive value, using the fact that the Vikings have won in the recent past with Keenum to argue that he should keep the starting job is a fool’s errand — especially, again, considering the Vikings’ ability to suck momentum out of seasons.

Keenum’s below-average play has resulted in significantly above-average offensive performance, complemented by a stellar defense. With Keenum, it seems like the Vikings have a very competitive team, if a weakness that could expose itself as a problem against talented teams.

Knowing that the team is good enough to make the playoffs only to acknowledge that they should struggle against the teams they’ll meet there seems to ignore the goal of the season: to win the Super Bowl.

The Vikings have a good team with a talented, productive offense driven by a bevy of skilled offensive weapons.

But, if the quarterback situation is improved, the Vikings could have a great team.

Great teams win Super Bowls.

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