Two forces that stream almost unabated through the modern NFL — player transience and a nothing-matters-except-the-guys-in-this-room insularity — have combined to create thousands of interactions like the one that will happen in New Orleans on Friday night: Vikings players will exchange pregame hugs and handshakes with their erstwhile franchise quarterback, the one whose career hung in the balance on a practice field three years ago this month, and attempt to drill him at every turn in a game that means nothing.

The Vikings players who watched Teddy Bridgewater suffer a catastrophic knee injury on Aug. 30, 2016, and return to the field less than 16 months later, did their best to walk the fine line this week. After telling the story of how Bridgewater took an interest in him when he was a rookie picking up Chick-fil-A for the veterans, giving him the cash for a sandwich and stopping to chat with him when he delivered lunch, defensive end Stephen Weatherly said, “He’s just a nice dude — but he’s going to have to get hit, though.”

Bridgewater, now in his second season as Drew Brees’ backup with the Saints, figures to play plenty in the preseason opener, which just so happens to be in the same building where he took his first regular-season snaps, against the team which had staked its future on him a few short years ago.

Even coach Mike Zimmer, who made no secret of his affection for Bridgewater during his time in Minnesota, had trouble staying in character this week. On Monday, Zimmer said the Vikings were “going to try to hit” Bridgewater, “just like we do any other quarterback.” On Tuesday, Zimmer was telling stories about when Bridgewater’s mother, Rose Murphy, called him after Zimmer’s father, Bill, died during Bridgewater’s second training camp in Minnesota.

“I was driving in the car. She called to give her condolences,” Zimmer said, with a hint of emotion in his voice. “It’s hard to say thank you and all that. So I said, ‘I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate Teddy.’ She stops me and says, ‘Coach, I didn’t call you to talk about Teddy; I just wanted to [send condolences].’ So that’s the upbringing that he’s had. I think that kind of carries over into every part of his life.”

Zimmer also said: “I wish him all the best in the world. I want to hit him like any other quarterback, but I don’t want to hurt him. He’s a great kid.”

Strip away the relationships involved if you like, either in deference to NFL custom or in an effort not to give undue influence to an Aug. 9 preseason game; the sight of Bridgewater lining up across from the Vikings will still be striking. Four years ago, as he was leading them to a division title in his first (and to this point, only) full season as a starter, who would have thought he would be playing against them?

Three years ago, who’d have thought he would be playing at all?

“Our statistics, when the injury happened, it was a pretty bleak outlook for him,” Zimmer said. “But you know, that’s the kind of kid he is. I talked to [Saints coach] Sean Payton today, and Sean said he’s the same guy — no restrictions, doing well. Teddy’s a competitor; he’ll try and stick it to us, just like we’re going to stick it to him.”

Backing Brees

Before the Vikings and Saints met last October, Zimmer said Payton told him “he thinks he’s got the future quarterback in the building” in Bridgewater. It remains to be seen when — or if — Bridgewater will take the mantle from Brees in New Orleans, given both players have contracts that can void after this season. Brees will be 41 in January; Bridgewater turns 27 in November, and is undoubtedly itching to start again, after being consigned mostly to mop-up duty since his injury.

If Brees opts to play further into his 40s, Bridgewater might have to decide whether he wants to continue to wait, or bet on whether the long-term prognosis for his left knee is sound enough to earn another team’s commitment. After Bridgewater signed with the Jets in 2018, Zimmer admitted “the reports I’d get back from the medical people weren’t as positive as I was” about his recovery.

Approaching the three-year anniversary of Bridgewater’s injury — during which he tore multiple ligaments and dislocated his left knee — the day still carries a surreal quality for those who were on the field with him. “It was crazy,” Weatherly said. “The ball was on the ground, he went to pick it up and it seemed like everything that could have went wrong, went wrong.”

What if?

Had it not happened, it is entirely possible Bridgewater could still be the Vikings’ starter, playing in the first year of a new contract after his rookie deal expired. Instead, Kirk Cousins — who threw for 327 yards against the Vikings on the day Bridgewater returned to the team’s active roster on Nov. 12, 2017 — is in that role, in the second-year of a fully-guaranteed $84 million deal.

Cousins, who turns 31 later this month, will be a free agent after next season, meaning the Vikings will likely have to start thinking whether they want to pursue another contract with him. His success figures to be closely tied with the futures of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, whose deals are also up after the 2020 season.

Fascinating as it is to think about, the butterfly effect of Bridgewater’s injury ultimately amounts to little more than a rich subplot for a preseason game. And so before the Vikings spend Friday evening trying to knock the not-so-long-ago face of their franchise to the ground, they will have a few minutes to wish him well.

“Those of us who know that kid, you wouldn’t doubt anything that he does,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “Really looking forward to seeing him. I think he has a bunch of fans in this building, so we will see him in pregame and say hello and then get to work.”

 

Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune.

ben.goessling@startribune.com