In the way my brain is wired, I flashback to Aug. 30, 2016 regularly. That day was a dark day for fans of the Minnesota Vikings because it was the day a collective piece of their soul died. Teddy Bridgewater, the charismatic quarterback of the future, was two weeks away from hitting the field for the 2016 season, took a wrong step and suffered a career-altering non-contact knee injury early in practice.
With an injury so grotesque it reminded his surgeon of a war injury, the Vikings path as a young, up-and-coming team was drastically altered. Minnesota tried to lessen the blow with a pair of panicked moves to get a quarterback, including burning a first-round pick on Sam Bradford and backing a Brinks truck to the home of Kirk Cousins, but the quarterback position has never had the same upside than when Bridgewater was under center.
As sports have continued to be silent during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of what exactly would have happened if Bridgewater never got hurt grows louder for some Vikings fans. Nearly four years removed from the injury, it’s curious to see what the Vikings would have had and if they would have been better off.
Bridgewater before the injury
After the Vikings traded up to grab Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the wait was on to see when Bridgewater would take the field. The Vikings wanted to roll with Matt Cassel to give Bridgewater a “redshirt” in his rookie season, but that lasted two games as Bridgewater was thrust into action and his effectiveness was erratic as a result.
The first two seasons of Bridgewater’s career were eerily similar as they were played with the same offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, and the same cast of weapons. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen were still young (or not yet drafted), so Bridgewater had to settle for Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace. As a result, Bridgewater didn’t immediately have the stats that would make him an obvious fixture for the Vikings.
But there were some flashes that gave Vikings fans some hope, including a four-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears in Week 15 of the 2015 season. With a surprise NFC North title and a playoff victory that should have been if it weren’t for Blair Walsh, many were expecting big things from Bridgewater in 2016, which led to a sparkling preseason performance.
Such games should be taken with a grain of salt, but Bridgewater was the most locked in a Vikings quarterback has been since Brett Favre‘s 2009 season. An opening game performance saw him hit Charles Johnson for a long touchdown, but it would be his Week 3 performance in the first (unofficial) game at U.S. Bank Stadium that would get the Bridgewater hype train at full speed.
As Bridgewater walked off the field after a touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph, it felt like things were falling into place for a team that has struggled to find a franchise signal-caller since Fran Tarkenton retired. Instead, one wrong step and the Vikings were taking another spin on the nearly 50-year carousel.
What could have been for the Vikings
Bridgewater’s injury set off a series of moves that sent the Vikings into full-blown panic mode. Days after Bridgewater’s career seemed to be over, the Vikings sent a first-round pick to Philadelphia for Bradford. The former No. 1 overall pick would spend the 2016 season getting beat around behind a bad offensive line and then chucked three touchdowns in the 2017 season opener against New Orleans before seeing his own knee grind into dust.
That led to the Vikings catching lightning in a bottle with Case Keenum, whose carriage turned into a pumpkin when Derek Barnett, who was acquired in the pick given to Philadelphia in the Bradford trade, strip-sacked him in the NFC Championship Game. With a team as close as possible to getting to the Super Bowl, the Vikings went with Cousins, and the Vikings are stuck between being a legitimate contender and going 7-9.
But that brings us back to the original question: What if Bridgewater never takes that fateful step? Do the Vikings finally get to the Super Bowl?
It’s hard to say. The offensive line that Bridgewater was set to play behind in 2016 was the worst in the NFL and forced Bradford to throw three-yard passes to the point of setting the single-season completion percentage record. On the flip side, Bridgewater’s mobility in the pocket could have alleviated some of the pressure, and the emergence of Thielen and Diggs during that season would have finally given him some legitimate weapons to work with.
With a full season with adequate help under his belt, the weapons would continue to grow with the addition of Dalvin Cook (who has his own 2017 “What if?” story). Keenum’s mobility helped make the offensive line better, so there’s no reason Bridgewater wouldn’t have had the same effect. If the progression continued, the Vikings would have a 25-year old quarterback at the helm of a Super Bowl contender.
There might not have been anything that could have saved them from the 38-7 beating the Eagles could put on them, but there would at least have been long-term optimism instead of the “win now” mentality that led to the Cousins contract.
Where we are now
Entering 2020, this story could take a new life as Bridgewater begins the year as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers. If there’s one thing he’s shown throughout his career, it’s that he knows how to win games, compiling a 22-12 career record. With an underrated core of weapons in Carolina, there’s a chance he could show what the Vikings missed because of that fateful day.
Meanwhile in Minnesota, they’re not hurting at the quarterback position with Cousins, but it’s been a more high-maintenance journey. After not having enough weapons in 2018, the Vikings provided that in 2019 — but forgot to address the offensive line. Even after adding Ezra Cleveland in the draft, the interior line is still an issue, and we will have to see if that’s enough to get Cousins to the proverbial next level.
What actually happens this year will provide another layer of intrigue. If Bridgewater blows up, Vikings fans will have another thing to write down on a painful list that rivals the back of the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback jersey. If not, perhaps Vikings fans could have a sigh of relief depending on what Cousins does. Regardless, Bridgewater’s injury deprived everyone of a chance to finally have that long-term answer at football’s most important position.