The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
Exactly five weeks ago today, Teddy Bridgewater’s left knee caved and the quarterback crumpled to the turf in a freak non-contact injury at Winter Park. The Vikings’ Super Bowl hopes seemingly collapsed with him.
Some of his teammates surely feared it, too, as they spiked their helmets and cursed aloud in anguish. There are more NFL teams than competent QBs, and their promising young one was being hoisted into an ambulance and hauled off to a hospital to stabilize his dislocated knee.
“Obviously, we were in shock. Anytime anyone goes down like that, it’s a shock, much less your starting quarterback,” defensive end Brian Robison recalled late last night as team equipment staffers picked up wads of athletic tape and sweaty socks in an otherwise empty Vikings locker room. “But I don’t think our confidence ever wavered in what we could do.”
Sam Bradford, meanwhile, was in Philadelphia when news broke that a member of his QB fraternity had been lost for the season with a torn ACL.
Bradford was three days removed from a sharp preseason performance in which he completed 17 of his 20 passes and had turned his attention to Week 1 against the Browns. After all, as the starting quarterback for the Eagles, he wouldn’t be needed in their preseason finale that Thursday night.
Four days later, Bradford was boarding a private jet to Minnesota after the Vikings stunningly acquired him by trading a pair of premium picks to the Eagles, who were ready to turn the huddle over to No. 2 pick Carson Wentz.
Bradford had been traded for the second time in 18 months and would have to learn a new offense for about the 100th time in seven seasons. He would watch the season opener from the sideline eight days later before making his Vikings debut against the Packers the following Sunday night.
Given the circumstances, it should have seemed unlikely to even the most delusional of diehards that the Vikings would be 4-0 right now after last night’s 24-10 thumping off the Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. But here we are.
Bradford? Better than advertised. The Vikings? The best team in the NFC.
Sure, a fierce, fast and frenetic Vikings defense has had a lot to do with their perfect start. But his teammates marvel at how quickly the 2010 top pick got up to speed, leading the Vikings offense to 61 points in his three starts.
“From Day One you could see that he had a cannon for an arm. But the biggest thing I saw that second day is that you could tell he was already a lot more comfortable,” Robison said. “For him to be able to pick things up the way he did, you could tell that he was a very intelligent quarterback.”
After the trade, Bradford logged long hours at Winter Park. He was there on off days to learn the offense with quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. He stayed late after practice with his receivers. He was too busy to diversify his outfits and he let his wife, Emma, worry about finding a home to rent.
There was a flurry of new faces, new places, new plays and terminology.
Bradford said last night that there were times when he probably called out the wrong play in the huddle in some of those early practices. But a month after the trade, Bradford feels he has a pretty firm grasp of the offense. It helps that the coaching staff — which includes his offensive coordinator in Philly, Pat Shurmur — have changed up some of their terminology for him.
“We’ve changed some [play] names to make him more comfortable. There’s numerous things [we’ve changed], but he’s done a great job of studying, learning. This offense, we’ve had to adapt in a lot of things,” said coach Mike Zimmer. “Learning terminology … then protections, route combinations, run checks. There’s so many things. He’s done a remarkable job.”
In three starts with the Vikings, Bradford has out-played a two-time Super Bowl champ (Eli Manning), a former league MVP (Cam Newton) and the best quarterback west of New England (Aaron Rodgers). He has completed 69.5 percent of his throws for 719 yards, four touchdowns and an impressive 105.5 passer rating. Plus, Bradford has yet to turn the ball over.
Against the Giants, he completed 26 of 36 throws for 262 yards and a touchdown. He was at his best when the Vikings needed it most, hitting all five throws, including a 40-yarder to wide receiver Charles Johnson, to answer a fourth-quarter Giants touchdown drive with one of his own.
“Sam’s a baller,” said tight end Kyle Rudolph, who had another touchdown catch. “You can see him getting more and more comfortable now — not only at the line of scrimmage, but in the huddle as a leader of this offense and of this team. Guys kind of gravitate toward his energy now.”
About a half hour after the final whistle, the 28-year-old QB, wearing a black suit with the top button on his white dress shirt unbuttoned, seemed completely comfortable. He deflected praise and cracked a couple of jokes.
Asked about the whirlwind of the past month, the one that whipped up both Bradford and the Vikings and surprisingly plopped them down at 4-0, he admitted it has been a wild, improbable ride, one that is far from over.
“My mentality is to take things a day at a time,” he said. “But, obviously, to be where we are right now, I don’t think you can ask for much more.”
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. With Johnson having caught only three passes in the first three games, many wondered if Laquon Treadwell would see a bump in playing time. The top pick was indeed active, but it was 2013 first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson who got the extra work. Patterson played 36 of the 74 offensive snaps, his highest snap total since midway through the 2014 season. Johnson played 22 snaps and Treadwell got two late in the game. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, with 69 and 39 snaps respectively, still played more than Patterson. But his big role was an interesting development.
2. Right tackle Andre Smith played only six snaps last night before injuring his elbow. Jeremiah Sirles replaced him and finished the game. Alex Boone, meanwhile, played every single snap after injuring his hip last weekend.
3. The Vikings again rotated Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman and Trae Waynes at their two outside corner spots. Newman played 56 of the 66 defensive snaps, Rhodes got 45 and Waynes got 31. Slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn sat out only two snaps as the Giants went three-wide all night.
4. For the same reason, veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway played only two snaps because he does not play in the team’s nickel package.
5. Even though pass-catching tight end MyCole Pruitt made his 2016 debut after being sidelined by a knee injury, Rudolph again led the offensive skill position players with 72 snaps played. Pruitt played 13 in his return to the field and blocking tight end Rhett Ellison played 16. Fullback Zach Line played 24 snaps, his highest snap count since 2013, his rookie year.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I just think they like to win. I just think they like to compete and go out there and prove that they can be talked about as one of the best teams in the league. We still got a long way to go. We’re not handing out any medals tonight.” — Zimmer putting the team’s 4-0 start into perspective.
2. “Is that what they’re saying out there? Well, that’s usually what’s going on in my mind, too. So don’t worry about it.” — Bradford when a reporter told him 66,000 fans are yelling ‘Go down!’ every time he scrambles.
3. “I don’t think anybody should be pouting. When your number is called, just go make a play.” — Patterson, the receiver/kickoff returner/running back/gunner on not sulking when he was chained to the bench last year.
4. “I just have to understand if I sneeze the wrong way, it’ll be a flag, it’ll be a fine. If I tie my shoe the wrong way, it might be a fine or a flag. It is what it is.” — Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., via the Associate Press, on getting flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after jawing with Rhodes because Rhodes bumped him out of bounds.
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Sirles might be one of the best five offensive linemen on the Vikings right now. For the second straight week, Sirles, who has played every single position on the line in his three years in the NFL, came off the bench to replace an injured lineman. Against the Panthers, he took over for Boone at left guard in the second quarter and held up well, particularly in pass protection. In the win over the Giants, he subbed in for Smith at right tackle midway through their first-quarter touchdown drive and looked good the rest of the way. That group overall played the best it has all season, keeping Bradford clean and paving the way for the team’s first 100-yard rushing performance of 2016. That obviously was not solely because of Sirles, but he has shown the past two weeks that he deserves consideration for a starting role with others, particularly the man he replaced last night, struggling.
2. The Vikings defense is going to keep frustrating fantasy football owners all year. This talented group has reached the point where they can keep an opponent’s top weapon under wraps any time they want. Two weeks ago, the Vikings focused on keeping Aaron Rodgers on his heels but contained inside the pocket and pulled it off. Last week, they shut out big Panthers pass-catcher Kelvin Benjamin. Last night, they held Beckham, one of the top five wideouts in the league, to three catches for 23 yards. Players said Beckham was the top focus all week. And while Rhodes usually shadowed him when Rhodes was on the field, he had plenty of help. The Vikings often used their safeties in a two-deep shell and had one drive on Beckham’s routes whenever he broke inside. He didn’t have a second-half catch, much to the dismay of fantasy football owners who needed him to come up big.
3. The Vikings were wise for not bailing on Patterson before they had to. There is no doubt that Patterson has been a major disappointment since scoring nine touchdowns as a rookie. The current coaching staff benched him midway through his second season because he too often lined up at the wrong spot or ran the wrong route, and it was clear that Bridgewater did not trust him. While Patterson was clearly frustrated by his lack of a role on offense, he did not sulk. It took him a year longer than it should have to figure out what he needed to be doing in the offseason, but he showed up this spring hell-bent on proving his worth. The past two weeks, Patterson has provided added value as a gunner on special teams and he had five catches last night after snagging only two passes in all of 2015. Hopefully what he is doing will silence the critics who have questioned his heart.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. Has Sirles showed you enough to earn a chance to start somewhere?
2. What exactly were you yelling after kicker Blair Walsh’s latest miss?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. There is no doubt that middle linebacker Eric Kendricks has a chance to be a really good one. But his tackling has been an issue throughout the first four games of the season, as Zimmer worried it would be after Kendricks did not play in the preseason because of a wonky hamstring. Pro Football Focus pinned four missed tackles on him last night. None were bigger than when he let Giants running back Paul Perkins slip out of his grasp after catching a screen pass. Kendricks should have shut down that play. Instead, Perkins broke into the open field, picked up some blockers and weaved all the way down inside the 5-yard line. The 67-yard pass play and touchdown that followed briefly gave the Giants a glimmer of hope. But Bradford and the offense put a quick end to that, getting Kendricks off the hook.