The Vikings debuted a new chant to go with their new stadium and their new quarterback. Fans responded to the beat of a drum by clapping their hands overhead and screaming “Skol.”
Sunday night, the man most deserving of those cheers might not have been able to execute the motion.
Sam Bradford’s grotesquely swollen left hand kept him from wild celebrations but didn’t keep him from inspiring them. In his unveiling as a Viking, during the unveiling of U.S. Bank Stadium for a regular-season NFL game, Bradford displayed toughness and accuracy while becoming the newest moving part in the most unpredictable of rivalries.
Adrian Peterson rushed for just 19 yards before leaving because of a knee injury. The supposedly improved Vikings offensive line had trouble holding off the Packers defensive front. Bradford’s second-best receiver was a guy previously known for special teams play. And Bradford was running a new offense after two weeks of cramming, and taking his first snaps in ZygiLand.
The most common criticisms of Teddy Bridgewater were his cautiousness and inability to make big plays downfield. Bradford showed no cautiousness with his decisions or throws.
The most common criticisms of Bradford have been his durability, and inability to win. Sunday, he waved his injured hand toward the sideline and was examined in the locker room between drives but finished the game.
“It doesn’t say a whole lot about us,’’ tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It’s all about Sam. What he’s been able to do the last two weeks, it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen it before.’’
Bradford could not have been much more impressive under the circumstances. Or even if there had been no adverse circumstances.
He completed 22 of 31 passes for two touchdowns, no interceptions and 286 yards. He was both prolific and safe, even while dealing with a frequently bothersome pass rush.
Both of Bradford’s TD passes went to tightly covered receivers. He had to throw with touch and accuracy on Rudolph’s score, and his 25-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs had to be thrown high, where only Diggs could leap to reach it.
Diggs caught nine passes for 182 yards, most ever by a receiver playing with Bradford.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman traded two high draft picks, one a first-rounder, to acquire Bradford. There were cries that Spielman was mortgaging the future, but for good NFL teams the future resides in the present, and Bradford just made the present eminently more intriguing.
“He was unbelievable,’’ guard Alex Boone said.
The Packers seem to bring out the best in new Vikings. Randy Moss announced his intentions on a rainy night in Lambeau Field during his rookie season. Herschel Walker threw a shoe and parted the Packers defense in his first game after the fateful trade to Minnesota. Brett Favre’s first game against the Packers may have ranked as the best he ever played.
Spielman and Mike Zimmer have gambled over the past three weeks. Spielman gambled that Bradford would justify his high price, and do so quickly. Zimmer gambled that he could squeak out a victory at Tennessee with Shaun Hill at quarterback, and that his staff could prepare Bradford to win in a new offense against a quality opponent.
Zimmer said Sunday night that he wanted Bradford to play at Tennessee, but the closeness of the game didn’t allow it. “I don’t think this was the best situation for him, playing here for the first time,’’ Zimmer said. “But he made the best of it.’’
On the last play of the game, the Vikings faced fourth-and-3 with three seconds remaining. Bradford took the snap, ran right and lofted a pass that killed the clock, then continued to the Vikings sideline, where he began throwing high-fives. He found Zimmer, and the two hugged at the end of a night neither could have imagined a month ago, and that few present in the new purple shrine will soon forget.