Sam Bradford is a quarterback with an injury history who stayed healthy for the Vikings last season but missed three games early this season after hurting his knee sometime during a dominant Week 1 performance. He is also slated to be a free agent after this season.
Mike Zimmer is an NFL head coach in a very important season for both him and his team. He seems to have empathy when it comes to dealing with players, but he also seems to have a mindset geared toward an old-school approach — particularly when it comes to injuries.
Those factors seemingly converged over the last few days and culminated with this decision: The Vikings and Zimmer put Bradford on the field for Monday night’s game against the Bears.
It was painful to watch. It looked painful for Bradford. But here’s the thing: Short of getting the answer he wanted — that Bradford was back to his old self and ready to go for the rest of the year — Zimmer got the next best thing.
He got the answer he needed about Bradford, one way or the other.
That’s not to say it was a perfect decision we all would have made. It is to say that Zimmer — the old-school coach, a kind of guy that might ask the question “are you injured, or are you hurt” — leaned into the medical reports he says indicated Bradford could play and found out just where his quarterback situation stands.
Nobody but Zimmer knows exactly what he has been thinking over the past few weeks, but dissecting his words and tone could lead you to believe, at least, that the uncertainty of Bradford’s injury has been a frustration. It started when Zimmer said — facetiously, he would say later — that Bradford could miss one week or six weeks. Then there was the crystal ball.
There was this exchange with reporters on Sept. 22 — in the lead-up to Tampa Bay game, at a point when Bradford had missed just one game — after reports surfaced that Bradford went to get a second opinion (which turned out to be true):
Q: Did he have a setback yesterday?
A: No, not really. He actually did more yesterday than before.
Q: Was this something that kind of blew up overnight or this morning?
A: I just said it didn’t change. He did more yesterday than he did before.
There was this exchange just a few days ago as reporters tried to glean whether Bradford would be available against Chicago:
Q: Will that be pain management throughout the season?
A: I mean that’s pretty much what it is, but I’m hoping it’s not throughout the season.
The tests confirmed it wasn’t a structural problem that needed surgical repair. To an old-school coach, it becomes a matter of pain tolerance.
This particular coach entered the Bears game with his team sitting at 2-2 and already 0-1 in the division. A loss wouldn’t have sunk the Vikings, but it would have made life difficult. Lose and go 2-3, 0-2 in the division, staring at the Packers next week and the chance to fall to 2-4, 0-3 (kiss the NFC North goodbye). If a team with high expectations falls out of the race early, the season can spiral out of control quickly. A 3-8 finish to 2016 and another bad year in 2017 could be the kind of thing to stir up regime change rumblings.
Zimmer had gotten by with a serviceable backup in Case Keenum for the past few weeks, but a better QB might have beaten the Lions the week before. The backup to Keenum is Kyle Sloter, an undrafted rookie free agent. Teddy Bridgewater is eligible to return to practice after the game against Green Bay, but it is far from clear what impact he might have on the rest of the season.
So Zimmer decided that if Bradford was cleared to play — “We wouldn’t put him on the field if he wasn’t healthy enough to play,” he said after Monday’s game — Monday was the time to find out and answer some key questions.
Is this something Bradford can play through? Do the Vikings need to consider bringing in a more seasoned QB in the event that Keenum goes down and neither Bradford nor Bridgewater is healthy?
Now, should Zimmer have removed Bradford earlier Monday when it was clear the QB was neither comfortable nor effective? Yes. Does Zimmer run the risk of alienating current or future players — including Bradford, who we did not hear from Monday night — who think he rushed a player back on the field? Maybe.
If this is an injury the medical experts said should be getting better but was re-aggravated, as Zimmer said Monday after the game, was it too soon to try? You could argue that, but it’s entirely possible it would have been the same outcome regardless of when they tested it in a game.
Monday was a calculated, complicated and imperfect business decision. Zimmer found out what he needed to know about Bradford and he still managed to escape Chicago with a win after Keenum and his defense bailed everyone else out.
It’s not everything he wanted, but it was everything he needed.