Monday night, Checkdown Charlie became Slingin’ Sam.
Sam Bradford, who last year was as accurate and limited as a wind gauge in a living room, started the 2017 season by emphasizing the principle of verticality. When he’s vertical, so is the Vikings’ passing game.
In the Vikings’ season-opening 29-19 victory over the New Orleans Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium, Bradford personified a modern football scouting term: arm talent. A year after setting the NFL record for completion percentage, he showed that there is more to his game than short-pass accuracy and self-preservation, completing 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while taking only one sack.
Bradford became the second Viking ever to pass for 300 yards, three touchdowns and an 80 percent completion percentage, joining Brett Favre. He completed seven passes for 15 yards or longer, two more than in any game last season, according to ESPN.
He produced a 143.0 passer rating, the highest of his career. After averaging 7 yards per throw in 2016, he averaged 10.5 on Monday.
“I think this is big for us,” Bradford said.
The reason for the Vikings’ newfound deep game? “Sam,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “Sam throws some great balls.”
Football is never that simple, and Bradford and his teammates noted that an improved offensive line and running game bought Bradford time, wore down the Saints defense and created matchups that the offensive coaches were able to pinpoint late in the second quarter.
Bradford played like a star. But not immediately.
For the first 19 minutes of the game, the offense looked as befuddled as it did in the preseason, and for much of the last 11 games of last year.
Late in the second quarter, the Saints led 6-3. That’s when three plays changed the game and perhaps perceptions.
The Vikings took the ball at their 26 with 5:21 left in the half. On the first play, Bradford was given a clean pocket and zipped a pass to Adam Thielen for 35 yards.
On the second play, Bradford made his most impressive throw of the night. As the pocket collapsed, he flipped a pass that seemed to zip past the helmet of a defender before landing snugly in the hands of Jarius Wright for 21 yards. Few quarterbacks can make that throw; fewer even attempt it.
On the third play, Bradford used play action to hit a wide-open Diggs for 18 yards and a touchdown. “I think that drive opened the door a little bit,” Bradford said.
Before that, he had faced constant pressure and his longest completion had gone for 11 yards. You could hear fans muttering “Checkdown Charlie,” the insult leveled at quarterbacks afraid to stand in the pocket and make downfield throws.
That first touchdown drive demonstrated what Bradford can do when upright. “I hope he has games like that for 16 weeks,” Zimmer said. “You know, I keep telling everybody that Sam is as accurate as there is.”
Bradford’s accuracy record — a 71.6 percent completion percentage — didn’t matter to many last year because of the Vikings’ collapse. It should have. Bradford threw accurately under duress, and accurately downfield when given time.
That’s why that second-quarter drive could prove so important for the 2017 Vikings. Bradford proved he can hurt a defense downfield.
If Bradford remains healthy and plays this well, Teddy Bridgewater’s comeback will result in him becoming a backup, or playing for another team.
Bradford performed like a franchise quarterback last year under duress. Monday night, given time to think, he performed like a star.
He emoted like one, too. Bradford showed more fire on Monday night than he did cumulatively in 2016. After his third touchdown pass of the night, to Kyle Rudolph, Bradford seemed to scream in the general direction of the Saints bench.
More emotion than usual, Sam? “Maybe,” Bradford said. “It was fun to be a part of that tonight.’’