When Joe Banner first heard back in early September that the Vikings, in a desperate position after losing Teddy Bridgewater, had traded their 2017 first-round draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford, he felt it was a bold gamble he himself would not have been willing to make.
During his 17 years as president of the Eagles, which ended in 2012, Banner displayed a patient approach to team-building in the hopes of keeping their window of contention open as long as possible. He was successful, with the Eagles making nine playoff appearances in an 11-year span and playing in five NFC Championship Games, though they never won a Super Bowl.
“My hesitation with the deal was driven by my philosophy, which is to never really go all in on one year, because anything can happen,” Banner said in early December. “Anything from a bad bounce to a bad officiating call to crucial injuries can derail a season. And they’re living it.”
In the days after Bradford’s first start, an impressive win against the rival Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings put left tackle Matt Kalil and running back Adrian Peterson on injured reserve. Right tackle Andre Smith joined them a few weeks later. Veteran tackle Jake Long, signed off the street, survived four games before his body gave out.
The Vikings, after winning their first five games, were officially eliminated from playoff contention last weekend. All the injuries that piled up along their offensive line, which made the offense unsalvageable, were the main reasons why the Vikings will be finishing their once-promising season Sunday with a meaningless home game against the Chicago Bears.
But one of the brightest spots in this disappointing season was Bradford. He took a beating behind what was left of that line and still delivered the best statistical season of his career. And, with another accurate afternoon Sunday, he could claim the NFL’s single-season completion percentage record.
Still, asked to look back on the trade, analysts have offered mixed opinions.
Joel Corry, a former NFL player agent who now writes about the business of football for CBS Sports, is in agreement with Banner about the gamble not being worth it. With a 7-8 record, the first-rounder the Vikings gave up for Bradford will land somewhere between the first 10 and 20 picks.
“I don’t think it’s been the win-win for both sides that it looked like it would be early in the season,” Corry said in early December. “I thought at the time of the deal it was a lot to give up but it’s a desperate situation. If they [miss the playoffs], then you have to question the move.”
But while Banner believes the Vikings paid too steep a price for Bradford, which included a conditional draft pick that will be a 2018 fourth-rounder because they did not make the playoffs, his criticism of the blockbuster trade has nothing to do with how Bradford has played.
“I’m in the school of thinking that Sam’s actually played well,” said Banner, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “That’s not to say he’s been perfect. Let’s make no mistake about that. But I think he’s played well.”
Former NFL quarterback Jim Miller, who hosts a radio show for SiriusXM NFL Radio, initially thought it was a “great trade” because he felt the Vikings had a strong roster and he believed that Bradford had played at a Pro Bowl level late in his lone season Philadelphia. His opinion hasn’t changed.
Miller feels Bradford “has done a great job,” especially when taking into consideration that the Vikings are averaging only 3.0 yards per carry behind the banged-up line and with Peterson playing just three games.
Miller has been most impressed by Bradford’s toughness and durability, the latter of which was a question mark throughout his career after a shoulder injury in college and twice tearing up his left knee in the pros.
“Just to stay injury-free was his big thing, the bridge he had to cross. I think he’s done that,” Miller said. “He’s taken a lot of big shots there. When you’re getting hit double-digit times in a game and you show that type of toughness, there’s no doubt anymore from that standpoint.”
‘He’s been amazing’
Privately, the Vikings feel the play of Bradford, which allowed them to remain competitive in most games despite being forced to trot out several different offensive line combinations, was the primary reason why they remained in the playoff hunt as long as they did. And they feel the former No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 draft is just now scratching the surface of his potential.
His 71.3 completion percentage is on pace to edge out Drew Brees, who was at 71.2 percent for the New Orleans Saints in 2011, for the NFL record.
But it has also been a source of frustration for some fans, who grumble every time Bradford throws short of the sticks instead of pushing it downfield. His average depth of target is the NFL’s lowest, per Pro Football Focus.
Still, with 3,627 passing yards, Bradford has the team’s highest total since Brett Favre in 2009. He has tossed only four interceptions in 519 throws, giving him one of the league’s lowest interception rates. And his career-high 98.3 passer rating ranks seventh among qualifying quarterbacks.
So, yes, coach Mike Zimmer said this week that even with the gift of hindsight the Vikings, who have lost eight of 10, would do the trade all over again.
“If you sat back and looked at all the things — being traded, trying to learn a new system, having a new coach, having to learn teammates … injuries on offense — I thought he’s done an unbelievable job,” he said. “Maybe this is the best year he’s ever had. If you put all those together and look at the things he’s had to deal with, I think he’s been amazing.”
Bradford, who at 29 is only one year older than Seattle’s Russell Wilson and two years older than Andrew Luck of Indianapolis, was not in the mood this week to reflect on his whirlwind first season with the Vikings.
Asked to identify one area where the offense needed to be better, Bradford said, “That we scored more points. I think that’s pretty obvious.”
The Vikings are currently 26th in scoring offense, with Bradford throwing only 17 touchdown passes, which ranks 21st in the NFL.
Winning would justify trade
Keep in mind, though, the bold Bradford trade was never about just 2016.
Sure, it kept alive their Super Bowl hopes after losing their top quarterback during the preseason. But General Manager Rick Spielman was willing to give up what he did only because of the uncertainty with Bridgewater.
“To be honest with you, that played a huge part in this deal, because we have Sam Bradford under contact for two years,” Spielman said in September after making the trade. “Teddy has to get his surgery and go through his rehab. I think everybody knows how we feel about Teddy.”
Before suffering that devastating knee injury in a freak noncontact accident at practice, Bridgewater seemed poised to have a breakout season, perhaps performing even better than Bradford has. But even now, four months after Bridgewater underwent surgery, it is still too early for the Vikings to tell if he has a realistic shot of being medically cleared before the 2017 season.
And there could be a chance the 24-year-old quarterback never plays again.
So the Vikings, who dispute the notion that they went “all in” on the 2016 season, traded for Bradford knowing they would have him for 2017, too. They plan to pay him his $4 million roster bonus in March to keep him on the squad. His salary cap hit is expected to be $18 million.
If Bradford is behind center again in 2017, they think he’ll be even better.
“When you bring a [player] in, typically they’re a lot better their second year than their first year,” Zimmer said, who can point to nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn as recent examples.
Most analysts agree that Bradford can be a capable quarterback here.
“I think the guy is plenty good enough to lead them to the playoffs and make the Pro Bowl,” said NFL Network analyst and former NFL General Manager Charley Casserly, who still endorses the Bradford trade.
But does Bradford have what it takes for the Vikings to go all the way? If he can do that, even Banner concedes that the price paid was worth it.
“Success in the end and the validity of the decision is really going to be whether they can win with him,” Banner said. “And that’s really going to be a function of their ability to get some of these players back or fill some of the holes with the assets they have left for next season, which is limited in terms of the draft now and a little bit limited in terms of the cap.”
He then asked, “So what can they do to get to the next level so that Sam is surrounded by the right assets if he is the quarterback next year?”
The Vikings will spend the coming weeks asking themselves the same thing.