Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater suffered a significant noncontact injury at practice on Tuesday, dislocating his knee and tearing his ACL, and while head coach Mike Zimmer initially declined to say whether his quarterback’s season was officially over, the outlook is clearly grim. The third-year passer was a popular breakout candidate entering the 2016 campaign, but those hopes have been shelved. The question now becomes whether the Vikings’ previously equally bright playoff hopes have been dashed as well.
Bridgewater had been enjoying a strong offseason that earned him effusive praise from Zimmer, who anticipated a more balanced offensive attack thanks to his QB taking more shots downfield, challenging defenders, and showing increased confidence when throwing vertically.
“I go back and look at the tapes from last year, and we’re running into so many extra guys in the box,” Zimmer had told SiriusXM radio earlier this month. “So the biggest thing is trying to take advantage of that when the opportunity presents itself. The more we can loosen up the defenses, the better we can run the football.”
First-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell was supposed to reinforce the team’s already promising young receiving corps, which includes Stefon Diggs, Charles Johnson, and Cordarrelle Patterson, and Bridgewater’s ensuing improved downfield passing ability was supposed to complicate matters for defenses that previously would have been inclined to stack the box against Adrian Peterson. Freed from leaning too heavily on their run game and defense, the Vikings were supposed to not only repeat as NFC North champions, but contend for the Super Bowl. That all looks like a pipe dream right now.
Minnesota’s offense has long been built on an elite ground game, finishing in the top 10 in rushing DVOA in each of the last six seasons and attempting the fewest passes of any squad last year. With the run game as their foundation, the Vikings have been able to bring Bridgewater along slowly before putting the weight of the entire offense on his shoulders. While he’s lacked the volume, he’s made up for it with efficiency: Despite being the most heavily pressured quarterback in the NFL last year, he was also the league’s most accurate passer. Taking away drops, batted passes, spikes, and throwaways, he completed 80.2 percent of his passes, and despite that constant pressure, Bridgewater took care of the football, with just nine picks. He combined dependability with the penchant for the big play — a glimpse of which we saw last week when he climbed the pocket, took off, and juked a poor Chargers defender in the open field to pick up 22 yards on a third-and-6, extending the drive.
Having Peterson, who ran the ball a league-high 327 times last year on his way to 4.5 yards per carry and 11 rushing touchdowns, gives the Vikes a baseline of production that few other teams can count on. But that was the past, and even with a back of Peterson’s caliber, losing Bridgewater on the eve of his coming-out party puts a cap on what the Vikings can hope to achieve in the future.
Optimists would surely note that the Broncos won it all in 2015 with a backup and what we could generously call the replacement-level version of Peyton Manning at quarterback. But it would be a mistake to say that because the Broncos won with defense, the Vikings can as well: Denver boasted one of the best defenses of the modern era; the Vikings fielded the 14th-ranked defense by DVOA last year. Solid isn’t the same as elite, and that defensive production will have to improve in 2016 if Zimmer’s team hopes to become another QB-less outlier in the tradition of last year’s Broncos and the 2000 Ravens.
Of course a defense, no matter how gifted, can’t throw the football, and the Vikings need to find someone to stand in as Bridgewater’s proxy. The in-house options are uninspiring: Bridgewater’s no. 2, Shaun Hill, stepped into duty for the Rams when Sam Bradford went down with a torn ACL in 2014 and started for Detroit when Matthew Stafford missed all but three games with shoulder injuries in 2010. Even after those two seasons and occasional spot-start duties in other years, the 36-year-old Hill has amassed just 49 career touchdown passes (to 30 picks). He’s familiar with the system after backing up Bridgewater last season, but he shouldn’t be starting for a contender.
Meanwhile, though rookie free agent Joel Stave has prototypical size and an NFL arm, those raw tools aren’t as valuable as Hill’s experience. Stave has never been consistently accurate as a passer and showed questionable decision-making at Wisconsin, compiling more picks (21) than touchdowns (20) over his final two years as a Badger. His performance this preseason has been equally underwhelming, as the rookie has completed just 58 percent of his passes, with zero touchdowns and one interception.
NFL teams always hope to fill vacancies from within when injuries occur, but the Vikings will surely look for outside help as well. As CBS’s Dave Richard noted, backups Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Christian Ponder have all previously played under Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Even though those options might seem terrifying, finding a signal-caller who’s familiar with Turner’s system would be a huge bonus, truncating the time he’d need to learn the playbook and adapt to the specific language Turner uses in his play calls. With Bridgewater’s injury coming a little more than a week before the regular-season opener, that might be the most important factor to Zimmer and Turner.
There will be other, non-Turner QBs to consider thanks to the myriad passers who may soon find themselves on the open market after roster cuts, including Josh McCown, Aaron Murray, Bruce Gradkowski, Mark Sanchez, Kellen Moore, Mike Glennon, Matt Barkley, Sean Mannion, Josh Johnson, Colin Kaepernick, and Tom Savage.
Of those names, Kaepernick easily has the most upside, both athletically and as a passer. His career has spiraled since Jim Harbaugh left San Francisco — he struggled mightily under Jim Tomsula, and his early returns in Chip Kelly’s offense have been poor — but a change of scenery might serve Kaepernick well. His downfield arm strength has never been an issue, and could make him a natural fit in Turner’s Air Coryell offense, which is built on attacking the defense vertically. However, Kaepernick has struggled in the intermediate and short areas, where his progression reading and touch passing have been spotty at best.
And then there’s Sanchez, who’s on the outs in Denver, and who might be a little more reliable than Kaepernick underneath, but doesn’t have the arm to challenge defenses downfield. In either case, Turner would be forced to adapt his offense to accommodate these limited skill sets.
Hey, there’s always Brett Favre.
That’s a long way of saying that in a Bridgewater-less world, all of Minnesota’s options are bad ones. Nobody’s going to trade a good quarterback, and the guys poised to get cut next week weren’t good enough to be backups elsewhere, let alone starters for a Super Bowl hopeful. Every current possibility has a low ceiling, so at this point, all the Vikings can hope to do is identify the guy with the highest floor. Given the learning curve that an outside quarterback like Kaepernick or Sanchez would face, the Vikings would likely be best served sticking with the guys they’re already paying to be their backups.
Zimmer gave Hill a brief endorsement on Tuesday, saying, “I have confidence in [Hill]. I have confidence in this football team.” Mostly, though, he chose to focus his energies on galvanizing his team for the upcoming struggle that playing without Bridgewater is sure to be.
“Everybody can count us out if they want,” Zimmer said. “I think that’d be the wrong thing to do.”
It’s a great message to champion to his team, but positivity can’t replace Bridgewater’s efficient passing, leadership, and experience in the offense, or the chemistry he’s developed with his receivers. Bridgewater’s injury has forced the Vikings to throw their plan for 2016 out the window, and now Zimmer and Turner have to adapt on the fly.