Let’s not kid ourselves: The most important player on the Vikings is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. If he has a good year, the club will do well; if he doesn’t, the Vikings won’t repeat as NFC North champions.
While NFL leading rusher Adrian Peterson might be the focus of the defenses around the league, Bridgewater is the only player who can elevate this team to an even higher level than its 11-5 record of last season.
So how does Bridgewater feel heading into his third season?
“Another year, more experience, to have another year I can’t wait to get going,” he said.
One of the keys in the offseason for Bridgewater and his receiving corps was heading down to Florida to work out and practice together. Vikings coaches believe Bridgewater can be an offensive leader, and he said those workouts were about developing better chemistry with a unit that struggled some last year.
“Just trying to continue to develop chemistry and timing with the guys, and just being more of a leader,” Bridgewater said. “That’s something we’ve been working on.”
Bridgewater was asked if that kind of offseason program can really make a difference for the offense this season.
“Definitely. Any time you get together on your own without the coaches is great,” Bridgewater said. “You get to take command, ownership, and lead your guys. You get a good feel for guys and what they’re like on the field and off the field.”
Looking for improvement
There’s no question the Vikings coaching staff and front office are putting their full faith in Bridgewater. Nobody on the team is set to benefit more from the offseason acquisitions on the roster than its starting quarterback.
The signing of free-agent offensive linemen Andre Smith and Alex Boone along with drafting wide receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round were moves that were all meant to help improve Bridgewater’s protection and make him more productive.
“I talk with the coaches, and they tell me little things I need to improve on and whatever they tell me I just try to continue to work and get better,” Bridgewater said.
He was asked if there’s anything specific he has been asked to work on. “Like I said, I talk with the coaches and I see what they want me to get better at and each day I come to work and I try to get better in those fields,” he said.
He was the third-youngest starting quarterback in the NFL last year, trailing only rookies Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay and Marcus Mariota of Tennessee, the top two picks in last year’s draft. The Vikings front office had to be pleased with Bridgewater’s improvement, along with the team as a whole.
In 2015, Bridgewater showed improvement from his rookie season, with his passer rating improving to 88.7 from 85.3 in 2014. Last year, he threw for 3,231 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also ran for three touchdowns.
That 88.7 rating was the seventh highest all-time for a quarterback starting 16 games as a 23-year-old, and was better than QBs such as Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck at the same age.
So it’s easy to see why the Vikings continue to believe he’s the future quarterback for this franchise.
Not looking ahead
Perhaps the biggest thing that Bridgewater did last year was take the team to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, and lead it to its first division title since 2009.
Still he said that if anything, the end of last season, a 10-9 wild-card playoff loss at home to Seattle, has left the team more determined than before.
“You know, what we did last year is in the past,” Bridgewater said. “We just have to build off of it and use it as motivation, the way the season ended.
“It’s June right now, and it’s too soon to think too far down the road. We have to continue to focus on the OTAs, got minicamp coming up soon, and just make the best of the opportunity each time we get to go out there and step on the field.”
One of the keys for Bridgewater and the Vikings, as I mentioned, is the offensive line — not only its depth but its health. And the Vikings QB has taken notice of how much the team has targeted that position and how important it will be.
“We have a healthy offensive line right now; it’s great to have healthy guys up front,” he said. “You bring in two veteran guys in Boone and big Dre Smith. It’s just great having that presence and adding guys. It creates competition up front, and competition makes the team better.”
He added that for him, it’s more than just the free agents — having center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt back after missing all of 2015 is equally, if not more, important.
“Oh definitely, especially when you get guys back who have plenty of experience,” he said.
Yes, the Vikings made a lot of additions to the squad this offseason, but there’s no question that this team will only go as far as its quarterback takes it.
• Cornerback Trae Waynes, the Vikings’ first-round draft choice from Michigan State in 2015, didn’t play much as a rookie, but defensive coordinator George Edwards said Waynes is doing a good job in the offseason and has recalled a lot from last year. Edwards added that Waynes continues to work on fundamentals and techniques and hopes he takes the next step.
• Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner was asked how nice it is to have two good centers in Joe Berger, who was outstanding last year, and John Sullivan, who seems to be back in Pro Bowl form after having to sit out 2015 because of injuries. “Getting Sully back is big. A veteran player who is really a good player,” Turner said. “And we all know Joe stepped in and played extremely well last year. Obviously we made other additions in the offensive line, so I think it’s an area we can improve greatly, and I think it will show up for the entire team.”
• Vikings safety Harrison Smith said he knew he could play in the NFL as a rookie. “I didn’t know if I was right or not, but I think you need to have some level of confidence whether you are kind of ignorant or whatever you are,” he said. “I think having that confidence at least allows you to go to compete at a high level and know you can make the plays. I think I have always had that, and I‘ve just tried to get better from that point.”
• Twins President Dave St. Peter was asked about pitching coach Neil Allen, who has been suspended indefinitely after being arrested for drunken driving. “Neil is getting the support that he needs, so I can assure you that is our sole focus, and it will be in the days and weeks to come,” St. Peter said.
• With Joakim Noah a free agent, there have been rumors about the former Bulls center teaming up with his old coach Tom Thibodeau. Bill Duffy, who represents Noah, told the Chicago Tribune: “Joakim and I speak on a daily basis about his future. There has been zero indication from him that he doesn’t wish to return to the Bulls.”
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org