When Bill Polian heard the news on Aug. 30 that the Vikings, poised to be on the short list of Super Bowl contenders in 2016, had lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a season-ending knee injury, he could empathize with the dilemma that their longtime general manager, Rick Spielman, was staring down.
“I knew exactly what he was going through,” said Polian, a six-time NFL executive of the year.
In 2011, Polian’s Indianapolis Colts, who had made nine straight playoff appearances and were two years removed from their latest trip to the Super Bowl, were gearing up for another run when they got word late in the preseason that All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning would be out indefinitely because of a neck injury.
Unable to finalize a big trade for a capable starter, Polian watched the Colts start three other quarterbacks, lose their first 13 games and finish a league-worst 2-14.
Of course, that allowed them to draft can’t-miss quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in 2012. Unfortunately, Polian and coach Jim Caldwell were fired first.
“It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the franchise,” Polian said. “For us, it turned out to be not so good.”
So naturally, Polian endorses the bold move the Vikings made last Saturday to nab Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles, even though they gave up their first-round draft pick in 2017 and a 2018 conditional pick that could become a second-rounder should Bradford steer the defending NFC North champs to their first Lombardi Trophy.
“[Spielman] had no choice but to pursue that avenue. ... I knew he realized the price was going to be steep because he said as much,” Polian said. “To his credit, and to the credit of the Wilfs, they went ahead and paid the price and did what they needed to do to bring a quarterback in that allows them to continue to pursue the goal they have set for themselves and really add to what is a very good team.”
Now, those Super Bowl dreams, seemingly dashed when Bridgewater went down a dozen days before the start of the season, are back on with Bradford in the fold.
While Bradford isn’t expected to start Sunday against the Tennessee Titans, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick will have the best supporting cast he has had in seven NFL seasons. The Vikings and coach Mike Zimmer have assembled a stacked defense that could be one of the NFL’s best in 2016. And behind Bradford in the backfield will be college teammate Adrian Peterson, the best pure runner of this generation.
Zimmer bristled at the notion that the Vikings are “all in.” But Spielman and Co. have shoved a sizable stack of chips into the pot for what they hope is a special season.
Downs and ups
Many Vikings veterans were stunned by the Bradford trade.
Just a few days earlier, they watched Bridgewater, who seemed poised to have a breakout season in 2016, topple to the turf without being touched. As Bridgewater clutched his left knee, helmets were spiked and curse words were bellowed. They knew it was a serious injury, one that seemed likely to torpedo their title hopes.
“We were devastated for Teddy. The offseason that he had, the work he put in, all culminated with that San Diego game when he was just on fire,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “It’s an awful part of this business when guys go down with injuries.”
Then, last Saturday, their phones buzzed with the news of what Spielman had done.
“It’s been like a roller coaster. And I hate roller coasters. I barely fit on them,” said Captain Munnerlyn, the undersized cornerback with the oversized sense of humor.
“It’s been a roller coaster, but our front office made a big move, letting us know in the locker room that, hey, this is our year. This is our year to be the best Minnesota Vikings team, to make the playoffs and go on a Super Bowl run.”
Added Rudolph: “When our organization goes and gives up a No. 1 pick for a guy who’s super talented, it really shows us as players that we’re serious about winning right now and we’re going to do everything we can to win a championship this year. That really boosted the locker room, not only the morale but our confidence.”
And that’s bad news for the rest of the NFL, starting with the Titans in Week 1.
The Vikings return all 11 starters and most of their key reserves from a defense that ranked fifth in scoring, seventh in sacks and 13th in total defense in 2015. They don’t have a J.J. Watt or Von Miller-type defensive superstar yet, unless you count their brash head coach. But safety Harrison Smith, defensive end Everson Griffen and outside linebacker Anthony Barr are among the best at their positions.
If youngsters such as cornerback Trae Waynes, middle linebacker Eric Kendricks and defensive end Danielle Hunter can take a leap forward this season, look out.
“Always and forever, defense wins championships,” said Griffen, a team captain.
And if the new-look offensive line quickly jells and Peterson, who led the league in rushing last season, can keep on trucking at 31, Bradford won’t need to be a savior.
Plan B failure
Polian, in a similar situation in that lost 2011 season, came up empty trying to secure a capable replacement like Bradford. The Colts had been optimistic Manning would be ready by Week 1. But when his recovery from neck surgery stalled, Polian was left scrambling.
The Colts narrowed their focus to two passers, though Polian would not disclose who they were, saying it was “ancient history.” They were quickly told that one was unavailable. Polian said they had “substantive talks with the other club.”
“We made it clear that we recognized that we had to pay a price that many people would consider unreasonable,” said Polian, now an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio. “We thought it was going to get done. But in the end, because the team we were talking with kind of had a muddled quarterback situation at the time, they elected to not do the deal.
“Had they, we certainly would have done it and I think we might well have survived as a staff because the quarterback we were going to bring in was one who subsequently performed well when he got an opportunity to play.”
Instead, the Colts signed veteran Kerry Collins, who like Vikings backup Shaun Hill was physically past his prime. And Polian and Caldwell, now the head coach of the Detroit Lions, had to convince their deflated players they could still be champions.
“We tried to let everybody know the world wasn’t coming to an end,” Polian said.
The season quickly collapsed, though. Collins started three games, all losses, before a concussion ended his career. The Colts turned to Curtis Painter, then Dan Orlovsky.
Polian remains proud of how the players kept fighting, winning two of their last three games. Perhaps with that unattainable quarterback they might have made a run.
Spielman, meanwhile, was criticized by some analysts, including former Philadelphia Eagles executive Joe Banner, for mortgaging part of the future to get Bradford. But at least Spielman and the Vikings won’t be left wondering what might have been.
In Sam they trust
Asked to put a timetable on when Bradford might take over as the starter, Zimmer, pointing to the wild past couple of weeks, said there is no guarantee that happens. But Spielman didn’t surrender two premium picks for a $7 million backup QB.
The Vikings won’t have to drastically alter their offense for Bradford, who has been cramming like a freshman during finals week to pick up enough of the offense by Sunday. But he does have some key differences in his playing style from Bridgewater.
Bradford, who has twice torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, does not possess the mobility and pocket awareness that were two of Bridgewater’s biggest strengths. That is significant because the Vikings offensive line struggled in pass protection in 2015 and because since his 2010 rookie season Bradford has averaged an NFL-worst 3.5 yards per pass when pressured, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
On the flip side, Bradford has a stronger arm than Bridgewater and was significantly more accurate last season on deep passes, per Pro Football Focus. That’s why some analysts believe Bradford will thrive in Norv Turner’s vertical passing attack.
“I think he’s tailor-made for that type of system,” said former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, who is now an analyst for SiriusXM’s NFL Radio. “When the focus is on Adrian Peterson and the run game, that’s great. You can kind of transition slowly. But I think it really fits what his style of play is. So I thought it was a good move.”
Added David Carr, the former QB and No. 1 overall pick who is now an NFL Network analyst: “When he’s healthy, he can really throw the football well. And he’s a smart guy who is not going to hurt you with turnovers. I think he can be a really good quarterback, and I still think Minnesota can compete for a Super Bowl. It’s all there, man. … There’s no more excuses for Sam. He has to go out there and perform.”
Vikings players, all marching on the company line behind Spielman and Zimmer, say they have just as much confidence in Hill, a 36-year-old, to help them go all the way.
But the optimists outside the walls of Winter Park who made hopeful comparisons to Kurt Warner, who went from grocery-store shelf-stocker to Super Bowl MVP with the St. Louis Rams, didn’t watch Hill flutter passes down the field in training camp.
Yes, the Vikings paid a steep price, but the Bradford deal has salvaged their season.
“In any given year, you have teams that are legitimate contenders to win the division and advance in the playoffs,” said Polian. “And I think Bradford gives them that opportunity because everything else is in place.”