If the escalation of concern of Sam Bradford's knee injury was subtle over the last week-plus — from showing up on the injury report last week, to being limited in practice to missing the Steelers game to another few days of limited practice time this week — Friday brought a more dramatic jolt.
Per an ESPN report, Vikings fans read the words they never want to read about a starting quarterback: "second opinion … Dr. James Andrews … pronounced pain." Those were exact words in Adam Schefter's tweet about Bradford.
In my experience in life and in sports, you don't generally get a second opinion if you like the first one.
Not long after the reports started flying, the Vikings officially ruled him out for Sunday's home game against Tampa Bay.
The optimism level from 10 days ago, when the Vikings were coming off a Monday Night opener in which Bradford played his best game in purple and perhaps even as a pro, to where it is now has clearly dropped dramatically.
But while there is no direct good news in any of Friday's Bradford updates, there is at least this that could come from a second opinion: A better chance at some sort of clarity on this injury and the associated timetable for recovery.
When asked about Bradford's health after a 26-9 loss to the Steelers in which backup Case Keenum had played like, well, a backup, head coach Mike Zimmer offered a vague and perhaps facetious assessment that Bradford could return in one week or six weeks. Even a day later when Zimmer was in a better mood, he talked about how he didn't have a crystal ball to predict Bradford's return.
That exasperation had dual roots: It's hard enough to be without your quarterback; not knowing how long you'll be without him makes it even worse.
Not being able to diagnose the severity of an injury and waiting for it to heal — or not — puts a team in a holding pattern. That's particularly true of the Vikings, who have playoff aspirations and as complicated a quarterback situation as you could ever imagine.
Bradford is a free agent after this season with a history of knee problems. The QB he replaced, Teddy Bridgewater, is trying to get healthy enough to return this year. But Bridgewater still has to prove he's recovered from his own major injury and the Vikings have a contractual incentive to keep him inactive all season.
Keenum is a guy who can probably hold down the fort for 2-3 games – he should look better Sunday against Tampa Bay – but he's not a quarterback who will take you to the playoffs. Newly elevated backup Kyle Sloter is an undrafted rookie. Meanwhile, the best available free agent quarterback is Colin Kaepernick – a player many feel is being blackballed by NFL teams for his social justice stand.
But until the Vikings have a handle of Bradford's injury, it's hard for them to know how to proceed. Having Andrews look at it and deem the injury short-term would be ideal. Having him find something more serious that requires an extended absence would be bad for Bradford but would be the next-best-thing for the Vikings.
In the latter case, the onus would be on the Vikings and GM Rick Spielman to make a fascinating, difficult decision about 2017 and beyond. We'd find out a lot about what they think about their overall team this season and the urgency level Spielman is feeling. We'd find out what they think of Keenum and how healthy they think Bridgewater is at this point — and maybe even what they think of Sloter or available quarterbacks like Kaepernick.
Without clarity? It's more day-to-day, week-to-week until time potentially runs out on making an actual decision.