We didn’t want this to happen. As a collective football-consuming, quarterback-watching public, we have been burned too many times before. And yet, just shy of a year after my colleague Claire McNear wrote a post entitled, “Sam Bradford, Greatest QB of All Time and Franchise Savior, Is Doing It Again,” I must follow her lead: After he shredded the Saints’ defense en route to a 29-19 Monday night victory, I can conclude that the Vikings’ oft-hailed, then oft-derided, quarterback is doing it again.
Bradford began his season with a typical collection of Bradford throws: safe, easy, and eternally destined to gain 5 yards on a third-and-8. He completed seven of his first 10 attempts, but for only 40 yards. And then he uncorked three consecutive beauties down the field, leading the Vikings’ offense to its first touchdown of the season.
This is one of the greatest passes I've ever seen and I've had the pleasure of watching Aaron Rodgers play in the league for 12 years pic.twitter.com/aOT1kYP0dR— Ben Cummins (@BenCumminsFF) September 12, 2017
By night’s end, he had added two more scores, completing 27 of 32 total passes for 346 yards. In his eight-year career, he had never thrown for more yards in a win.
Bradford enjoyed a similar, if less statistically resplendent, start last year after joining Minnesota in a trade just a week before the season in the wake of Teddy Bridgewater’s calamitous knee injury. He beat the Packers on a Sunday night, throwing for 286 yards and two TDs, but that start, like his whole 2016 season, was deceiving: The Vikings won their first five games before missing the playoffs, and Bradford simultaneously set the NFL record for single-season completion percentage while recording the second-fewest yards per completion among qualifying quarterbacks, ahead of only Brock Osweiler.
If there’s reason to hesitate before proclaiming Bradford a franchise savior once again, it’s that very recent history. There’s also the matter of his opposition on Monday night. It’s difficult to disentangle Minnesota’s dominance from the Saints’ incompetence, in the same way the Rams’ 46-9 win on Sunday could be equally about their rise and the Colts’ Andrew Luck–less fall. After one week, it’s impossible to tell.
Despite what New Orleans coach Sean Payton might hope, his team’s defensive issues are rampant, particularly in the secondary. The Saints last year allowed 4,380 passing yards (most in the NFL) on 7.9 yards per attempt (second-most), and a 98.1 passer rating, essentially turning opposing QBs into healthy Andrew Lucks. In the last three seasons, New Orleans’s defense hasn’t finished better than 31st in defensive DVOA overall, or better than 27th in defensive DVOA against the pass, and as The Ringer’s Robert Mays wrote in his Saints season preview, that side of the ball might be a lost cause at this point: “Based on New Orleans’s track record the past few years, there is no reason to believe that it can find and develop talent on defense.”
Bradford certainly benefited from a share of wide-open targets on Monday night. On his first touchdown, Stefon Diggs had half an end zone all to himself, and Adam Thielen frequently found himself uncovered near the hashes down the field. But the Vikings QB also made his share of impressive, pinpoint throws; he rarely missed a target’s hands and slotted balls through tight windows when such openings were all he had available. Last year, Bradford led the league in adjusted completion percentage on passes thrown 20 or more yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus, and he showcased that skill with a variety of throws—lofted back-shoulder tosses, lasers between defenders’ arms, last-second releases against pressure—on Monday.
His top receiver, Diggs, also excelled. The third-year breakout candidate, whose cleats paid homage to Randy Moss, resembled the Vikings legend at points: He hauled in an acrobatic touchdown grab just before halftime, tap-danced for a sideline grab in the third quarter, and posted a final stat line of seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Thielen joined him with nine grabs for 157 yards—the second-most, behind only Antonio Brown, of any receiver in Week 1.
Given the strengths lining the rest of Minnesota’s roster, these glimpses of an aggressive and dangerous passing attack inspire broader, January-oriented dreams for the Vikings. Even in last year’s 5-0 start, the Vikings tallied only 16 total plays of 20-plus yards; they reached 10 such gains on Monday alone. Imagine that brand of vertical offense appearing in U.S. Bank Stadium every week, complementing rookie running back Dalvin Cook, who took time to find his NFL legs but started churning yardage in the second half, ending the night with 127 yards on 22 carries. And imagine that kind of points output every Sunday, propping up a defense that simply overpowered New Orleans’s injury-riddled and inexperienced offensive line. Adrian Peterson ran for just 18 yards on six touches in his muted return to Minnesota, and Drew Brees didn’t find the end zone until the last two minutes.
The caliber of opponent couldn’t be more disparate, but Minnesota on Monday looked a lot like Kansas City on opening night. Both teams boast stingy defenses, a stable of young playmakers, and a traditionally conservative quarterback in the “game manager” mold, with all the baggage that descriptor entails. But Alex Smith threw circles around the Patriots’ defense, and Sam Bradford did the same to New Orleans. The two game managers managed the two best QB performances of Week 1, and it’s hard not to feel some excitement. There we go—Sam Bradford is doing it again.