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.
I leaned against Cordarrelle Patterson’s locker stall at Winter Park last week as I asked the wide receiver for his thoughts on Sam Bradford, who was about to set the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record four months after the Vikings acquired him in a blockbuster trade.
Patterson had just finished gushing about how good Bradford has been when Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback he has replaced, strolled out of the trainer’s room and stopped at Patterson’s locker, probably figuring he could offer a way for him to escape a conversation with a reporter.
In the meantime, since Bridgewater last spoke publicly, he has watched Bradford make a claim to being his team’s long-term answer behind center, surely leading to other awkward moments in the locker room.
Bridgewater is revered there, his optimism infectious. This was supposed to be Bridgewater’s breakout year after a pair of steady ones to start his career. But the team’s four top pass-catchers, one of whom was Patterson, all set career highs in receptions while running routes for the new guy.
The NFL is a cold, cutthroat business, and passers are its most precious commodity. The biggest decision the Vikings must make this offseason is deciding whether to commit big bucks to Bradford or wait and see if Bridgewater can resume his career. Today, four months removed from his surgery, it’s still too early for them to know if he will ever be the same.
At the very least, the Vikings will keep Bradford, who threw for a trio of touchdowns in yesterday’s 38-10 win over the Bears, around for 2017.
Knowing they had him under contract for two seasons was why they were willing to fork over their first-round pick this spring and a fourth-rounder next year to get him. He is expected to have a salary cap number of $18 million after playing more than 90 percent of the offensive snaps in 2016.
But an argument can be made for the Vikings to approach Bradford about a contract extension after the season, potentially giving the former No. 1 overall pick the kind of stability he has craved after playing for about 100 different offensive coordinators and being traded twice in 18 months.
Not all fans agree with this assessment, but Bradford had a strong season considering the issues up front and that the Vikings finished the season averaging 3.2 yards per carry. While he had critical miscues in close midseason losses in Detroit and D.C., Bradford threw for 3,877 yards and 20 touchdowns in 15 starts with a career-high 99.3 passer rating.
Oh yeah, and Bradford completed a record 71.6 percent of his throws.
The Vikings feel that the 29-year-old is just scratching the surface of his potential. And he took a licking and kept on ticking, giving hope that he is durable enough to last over the long haul after injuring his shoulder in college and twice tearing his ACL during his five years with the Rams.
Bradford didn’t want to go there when asked if he should start in 2017.
“That is so far off my radar. I haven’t even begun to think about next year,” Bradford said. “Obviously, this year has been a whirlwind. … I’m definitely going to take some time and catch my breath for a while.”
Of course, to get the most out of Bradford in 2017, the Vikings will also have to add two or three new, capable starters along the offensive line, find a new between-the-tackles bell cow if they opt to move on from star back Adrian Peterson and figure out how to get something out of Laquon Treadwell, who caught only one pass in his disappointing rookie year.
But the most fascinating storyline of this offseason will be how the Vikings precede with their two passers. The decisions they make with Bradford and Bridgewater will alter their outlook in both the short and long term.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Wide receiver Adam Thielen had only one catch for seven yards despite playing 61 of 63 offensive snaps, falling 33 yards of 1,000 for the season. Veteran slot man Jarius Wright, underutilized all season, finished second among wide receivers with 43 snaps (and he caught his first touchdown pass of the season). Charles Johnson played 29 snaps, Patterson played 24 and former Gopher Isaac Fruechte got five on offense in his NFL debut.
2. A few fans have asked if there were financial reasons behind Thielen having only one catch. Money didn’t stop tight end Kyle Rudolph from being targeted heavily against the Bears. By topping 80 catches on the season, he triggered a $375,000 escalator in his contract for his 2018 and 2019 salaries. Rhett Ellison played 22 snaps and rookie David Morgan got 11.
3. Rashod Hill got his first action on offense, playing 49 snaps at left tackle after shaky starter T.J. Clemmings was knocked out of the game with an elbow injury. Hill, who was the fifth guy to play left tackle for the Vikings this season, appeared to hold his own. Brandon Fusco played every snap at right guard in his return from a concussion. Joe Berger slid over to left guard yesterday and Nick Easton made his fifth straight start at center.
4. With Andrew Sendejo sidelined for the season finale with a knee injury, Anthony Harris got the start next to Harrison Smith and played 42 of the 60 defensive snaps. Rookie safety Jayron Kearse played five snaps. And we also saw cornerback Terence Newman get at least one snap at safety.
5. Some seldom-used defenders got a little bit of playing time in the blowout win. Defensive tackle Toby Johnson played 13 snaps. Outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur got five. Justin Trattou played four and fellow defensive end Stephen Weatherly got one, his first and only on defense in his rookie year. Linebackers Audie Cole, Kentrell Brothers and Edmond Robinson were the only Vikings defenders who didn’t get in on D.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. “I think we did a good job of defending the pass. We played terrible against the run all game. They were gashing us throughout the game. But we were able to create turnovers, which kind of negated those big runs and we were able to keep our team in it and put our offense in good field position, and that’s a plus for us.” — outside linebacker Anthony Barr after Bears running back Jordan Howard rushed for 135 yards yesterday
2. “When we look back on this season, it’s going to be one we look back on [at] missed opportunities, not winning some close games there in the middle of the year. … I also think there are a lot of positive things for us to take out of this season. Dealing with adversity, battling through it, sticking together and persevering in the end are things that will help this young team in the future.” — Rudolph on the Vikings going from 5-0 to .500
3. “Why wouldn’t the season finish like that?” — Bradford on the pair of protestors who dangled from the rafters at U.S. Bank Stadium yesterday
4. “I guarantee you we’ll win a Super Bowl next year. We had a lot of injuries. I don’t think a team in the league had [as many] as us.” — Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery after the Bears finished with a 3-13 record
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. Rudolph was worth every penny of his sizable salary this season. In 2014, the Vikings signed the big tight end to a five-year extension worth $36.5 million and expected him to become one of the NFL’s top tight ends under their offensive coordinator at the time, Norv Turner. But his 2014 season was marred by injuries and he put up pedestrian numbers a year later, in part because he was asked to do a lot of run blocking. Some fans grumbled that the Vikings should move on from Rudolph, who had a $7.3 million cap number this season. They wisely stuck by Rudolph, who gave them the best season of his career and thrived under new play-caller Pat Shurmur. With 11 catches yesterday, Rudolph set a franchise record for his position with 83 on the season. And his 840 receiving yards were a career high. He didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but he was a top tight end this season.
2. Defensive tackle is a need the Vikings are going to have to address this offseason. Heading into 2016, the Vikings looked to have a pair of strong starters in nose tackle Linval Joseph and three-technique tackle Sharrif Floyd, with veteran Tom Johnson coming off the bench to help get after the quarterback. But Floyd played in only one game and could be let go during the offseason. Johnson is 32 and a one-dimensional player (though that one dimension is definitely useful). Fellow backup Shamar Stephen is a solid run stuffer but that’s it. The Vikings need to give Mike Zimmer a penetrating every-situation difference-maker, the guy they hoped Floyd would become, to pair with Joseph. As good as their pass rush was at times, it could have been great with a consistent pocket-pusher. And, as often was the case down the stretch, their run defense got gouged yesterday.
3. If this is it for Chad Greenway, the linebacker had one heck of a career. The Vikings drafted the South Dakota native with their first-round pick in 2006. After a torn ACL in the preseason cost him his entire rookie season, Greenway established himself as a cornerstone of the Vikings defense and a pillar in the community. In a decade in purple, Greenway totaled 1,101 tackles, 18 sacks, 11 interceptions and a pair of Pro Bowl nods. Yesterday, after he recorded two tackles against the Bears, Greenway got a loud applause from Vikings fans when he was shown on the video boards. “I wanted that moment,” Greenway later said. “I was happy I got that moment. Again, if I don’t get another moment on U.S. Bank Stadium field, I got that moment.” Greenway is expected to retire, and if he does it is great to see him go out on his own terms, which is not common in the NFL.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TUEDAY
1. Do you believe the here-we-go-again nature of this past season, with so much turmoil on and off the field, gradually took a toll on your players?
2. Do the Vikings still want Adrian Peterson in purple next season?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. After yesterday’s win, safety Harrison Smith talked about how a play here or there was the difference between the Vikings making the playoffs and watching them on TV. And he’s right. Had the Vikings not allowed Matthew Stafford to complete that 27-yard pass to Andre Roberts late in regulation of the first Lions game and Thielen not fumbled on that punt return against the Cowboys, they probably would have gone 10-6 and been the No. 6 playoff seed in the NFC. Instead, they will empty out their locker stalls at Winter Park this morning then head out into the winter.