Super Bowl LII is only 80 days away. It’s coming to Minnesota before you know it. But if you follow pro football, you know a lot can happen in much less time than that. To properly illustrate this point, let’s go back just 65 days.
It’s late Monday night, Sept. 11. Your Minnesota Vikings have just disposed of the New Orleans Saints 29-19 in their NFL season opener at U.S. Bank Stadium. Quarterback Sam Bradford has calmed your fears about a lackluster pre-season, by looking laser sharp on this evening: 346 yards passing. 27 for 32. Three touchdowns.
As you walk out of the stadium that night, you’re elated to think your team finally has its franchise QB. It’s time to sign old Sam to a multiyear contract and be done with it. After all, Teddy Bridgewater is still months away from returning to the field following an injury a year ago that was so gruesome, his trainers thought he might even lose his left leg. Heck, maybe Teddy will never play again. And backup Case Keenum, who was dumped by the Los Angeles Rams in the off-season, is at best, a competent second stringer.
Or so you thought.
Fast-forward the tape, and there have been a few unexpected developments, now that Thanksgiving nears. In fact, the lives of four quarterbacks have been altered so dramatically since that night, that nothing makes sense.
- Sam Bradford: Just a couple of days after Bradford’s remarkable showing against the Saints, the Vikings began to hint that there might be a problem. A lingering soreness from left knee surgery was evident. Bradford would never look the same, remaining on the sidelines until attempting to play a few weeks later in Chicago, with disastrous results. It soon became clear that this was a chronic injury and eventually he was placed on injured reserve, ending his 2017 season. Say goodbye to that multiyear deal and sadly, maybe even his career.
- Case Keenum: After initially looking lost when thrown into a Week Two start in Pittsburgh, Keenum hardly seemed like the answer to the Vikings’ quarterback quandary. But given a few more days to get comfortable, he rebounded impressively against Tampa Bay. Keenum pleased the Purple pessimists by putting up three TDs and 369 yards passing in a romp over the Bucs. Then he bailed out Bradford in Chicago and engineered a comeback against the Bears. And despite some ups and downs, he’s now led the Vikes to five straight wins and a 7-2 record. That includes Sunday’s four TD triumph in Washington.
- Teddy Bridgewater: On Aug. 30, 2016, Bridgewater had high hopes as Minnesota’s franchise quarterback. But in a heartbeat, a freak noncontact injury tore tendons, dislocated his left knee and had him rushed to the hospital with serious structural damage. Even optimistic estimates had Bridgewater needing at least 18 months of rehab. Not to mention, little chance of ever regaining his previous form. Despite encouraging reports of his hard work, prayer and hours of therapy, Bridgewater was placed on the physically unable to perform list in September. That meant he would at least miss the first six games of the 2017 season. Plus, with Bradford assuming the reins in 2016 and displaying great accuracy, most figured Teddy would be traded if and when he was ready to play. But then Bradford went down, and Bridgewater’s name began to resurface. Defying the odds, he was back in uniform and activated in an emotional and heartwarming display in Washington last Sunday.
- Aaron Rodgers: Oh, yeah. There’s one other major player in this signal-calling saga. Regardless of who the Vikings planned to use this season, it was generally assumed that their path to the NFC Central Division title would always be blocked by that guy in Green Bay. A perennial All-Pro with tremendous touch and amazing mobility, Rodgers had only missed nine games in nine seasons. Until linebacker Anthony Barr firmly planted him to the turf on Oct. 15, breaking Rodgers’ collarbone and quickly tilting the landscape in Minnesota’s favor.
So here we are, more than halfway through the regular season, and everything is different. Bradford out, Keenum in, Bridgewater looming and Rodgers off the radar.
In the unpredictable and often dangerous world of pro football, the Vikings have somehow taken a circuitous route into contention less than three months before the Super Bowl comes to the Twin Cities. This despite losing their starting quarterback. Their promising rookie running back Dalvin Cook. And playing with a rebuilt offensive line.
But of course, no Viking season is complete without some level of controversy. Which brings us to Wednesday’s announcement by Head Coach Mike Zimmer that Keenum will remain the starter, at least for this weekend’s home showdown with the equally surprising 7-2 Los Angeles Rams.
The decision would seem fairly obvious, given Keenum’s big numbers in Washington and the uncertainty of Bridgewater’s readiness after so many months away from the job. Yet, as it began to become apparent that Teddy would at least be activated, Zimmer has done little to quell the rumors of a possible change. Stay with the hot hand in Keenum or give the job back to Bridgewater?
For days, Zimmer has teased reporters with talk of “a plan” for the stretch drive, while sports radio talk show hosts have fanned the flames and compared the pros and cons of the two quarterbacks. Never one to open up much about game plans or strategies, Zimmer has nonetheless seemed to delight in keeping fans guessing on this issue.
Here’s my theory why:
I’m convinced Zimmer wants to play Bridgewater. We shouldn’t forget that he and General Manager Rick Spielman went out of their way to move up in the 2014 draft to land the Louisville star at the end of the first round. You don’t do that unless you believe he’s worth the investment.
Zimmer also appreciates hard-nosed, unselfish players, and Bridgewater is both. It’s hard not to root for a guy willing to make the kinds of sacrifices he has made to get back on the field. Bridgewater stayed around the Vikings while rehabbing and is clearly well-liked by his teammates. That kind of loyalty means a lot to the head coach.
Yet this is still a business, and Zimmer knows how important it would be to somehow make a playoff run this year. No team has ever won a Super Bowl in its own stadium. Yes, it’s a longshot. But the Vikings have one of the NFL’s top defenses, are staying relatively healthy and know this season’s field appears wide open.
Keenum is arguably the team’s most valuable player right now. He’s built a rapport with talented receivers like Adam Thielen and Stefan Diggs. His mobility has meshed nicely with an offensive line gaining confidence, and he’s playing at his highest level thanks in part to a good relationship with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The team has won five in a row, under his leadership.
No one knows how long this will last. Keenum is still occasionally prone to mistakes and was a backup quarterback in the past, for good reason. But then, who knows how effective Bridgewater will be after months of rust? Will he be able to take a hit? Will his ability to roll out of the pocket and make plays, be compromised?
Like most NFL coaches, Zimmer is also pretty conservative with a lead. In Keenum, he has one. So by making Case believe his starting job is never a sure thing, while still giving Teddy hope that a start is forthcoming, he’s not letting either guy get too comfortable.
Regardless of his approach, Zimmer knows that Bridgewater will need to play at some point. Best case scenario (no pun intended) would be a Viking blowout win or an early clinching before the playoffs start.
My guess is, the former seems more likely than the latter. Minnesota has a much tougher remaining schedule than the Detroit Lions, who’ve already beaten the Vikings once and could get right back in the Central race by defeating them again Thanksgiving morning. But home games against Cincinnati and Chicago in December look like possible targets for a Bridgewater return.
In the meantime, let’s just keep our fingers crossed and savor the weeks ahead. After all, if Phileas Fogg could make it around the world in 80 days, why can’t our football team make history in a similar window of time?