While Sam Bradford provided a solid option at quarterback this year, the Minnesota Vikings future hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of Teddy Bridgewater.
It’s hard to argue against the season that Sam Bradford had this year for the Minnesota Vikings. After being traded to an unfamiliar team just one week before the season, Bradford managed to learn the playbook and put together the best statistical season of his career. Despite all the obstacles that the year threw at him, including injuries to just about every offensive lineman and the spontaneous resignation of his offensive coordinator, Bradford was able to lead the offense calmly and efficiently.
While the Vikings missed the playoffs and finished with an uninspiring 8-8 record, Sam Bradford did enough to cement himself as the team’s starting quarterback moving forward.
“I think he’s earned the right to be the starting quarterback,” head coach Mike Zimmer said in his end-of-the-year press conference. “Sam has done remarkable, the things he’s done this year with all the things that he’s had to do” (via Twin Cities Pioneer Press).
Zimmer’s endorsement of Bradford makes sense given Teddy Bridgewater’s murky recovery timeline, but it begs the question: is Bradford really the team’s best option? Bradford has without a doubt been a huge asset to the Minnesota Vikings this year, but “remarkable” is perhaps the one thing he is not. He managed to make quick decisions, make accurate passes, and move the ball downfield with relative consistency, but he seemed to lack the killer instinct or “it” factor necessary to take the team to the next level.
While it may sound cliché, that “it” factor has proven critical for the Vikings since Zimmer took over. In the Vikings’ three seasons under Zimmer, 21 games have been decided by a touchdown or less. With the Vikings’ staunch defense and hard-nosed offensive philosophy keeping things close, games often come down to whether or not the quarterback can take control and lead the team to victory in crunch time.
Bradford struggled to do that this year. Rather than feeding on adversity and fighting to keep the Vikings in games, there were several times when Bradford buckled under pressure.
Take the Vikings’ week 10 loss to the Washington Redskins, for example. Trailing 23-20 with 9:33 left in the fourth quarter, there was plenty of time for the Minnesota Vikings to score and take control of the game. Instead, Bradford drove the offense into Washington territory and promptly threw a careless interception into the hands of Redskins defensive end Preston Smith.
Bradford got another chance to win the game after another Washington field goal, but failed to muster any points, turning the ball over on downs at the Redskins 21-yard line with under a minute left.
The Washington game was hardly an exception. On the season Bradford was underwhelming in close games. When trailing by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter of games, Bradford threw for only 6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 83.0, well below his season average of 99.3.
This trend has held up throughout his entire career. When trailing by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter of games, Bradford has thrown for a below-average passer rating of 87.1. While he generally doesn’t cost his team the game, Bradford rarely steps up to deliver his team to victory.
Teddy Bridgewater, on the other hand, plays his best football with the game on the line. Throughout his young career, Bridgewater has thrived under pressure, leading the Minnesota Vikings to numerous comeback victories and consistently putting the team in a position to win. To show just how good Bridgewater has been with games on the line, here are his career statistics when trailing by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter: 75/113 (66.4%), 966 yards, 8.55 YPA, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 98.9 passer rating.
To put those numbers in context, Tom Brady has a career passer rating of 97.2. Whereas Sam Bradford plays average, if not disappointing football with the game on the line, Teddy takes his game to an entirely new level, with improved marks in every major passing statistic.
While Bridgewater’s clutch performance is a huge advantage to a team with such a proclivity for close games, it’s hardly the only thing that makes him a better fit on the Vikings.
Given the state of the Vikings offensive line, which was rated as one of the worst units in the entire NFL by Pro Football Focus, mobility and pocket awareness are two of the most critical skills that the Minnesota Vikings need from their quarterback. They also happen to be two of Sam Bradford’s biggest weaknesses.
After multiple reconstructive knee surgeries, Bradford’s lack of mobility is hardly a surprise. While he can still make every throw asked of him and successfully execute an NFL offense, his limited mobility prevents him from evading pressure and moving around a broken-down pocket.
It’s Bradford’s pocket presence that really gets him into trouble, however, as he frequently fails to sense pressure and move around the pocket to buy himself time. Combined with his lack of mobility, Bradford’s lack of pocket awareness makes him a sitting duck for pass rushers, leading to an unnecessarily high sack total. Take a look at these images, via @JReidDraftScout. While Bradford has plenty of room to climb up in the pocket and deliver the throw, he instead stands still, allowing the pressure to catch up to him.
Teddy Bridgewater is much more suited to the chaos that inevitably follows Vikings quarterbacks. With above-average mobility and an innate feel for the pocket, Bridgewater is consistently able to evade oncoming rushers and buy himself every possible second in the pocket. Take a look at this play against the Packers, for example. As the pocket begins to collapse around him, Teddy steps up to buy himself enough time to deliver a dime to Kyle Rudolph for the touchdown.
Sam Bradford and the Vikings were largely able to overcome the suspect pass protection by scheming to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible on quick-hitting route concepts, but that’s hardly an ideal solution. Whereas Teddy’s poise and mobility in the pocket allows him to find extra time to let routes develop and make more complex reads, Bradford is often able to only stand in the pocket and deliver a quick check-down.
Both strategies have proven effective at limiting the impact of the Vikings’ awful pass protection, but Teddy’s instinctive ability to handle pressure and buy time in the pocket opens up vastly more opportunities for the offense, allowing longer-developing routes and more advanced reads.
One of the biggest reasons that Bridgewater is the better option for the Minnesota Vikings isn’t any tangible trait or statistic, however, it’s the fact that he is only just beginning to develop. Whereas what you see is largely what you get from Bradford, Bridgewater has continued to improve throughout his short NFL career, and if healthy, should continue to do so in the coming years.
While it can be dangerous to read into training camp and preseason performances, Bridgewater certainly seemed primed to take a major leap forward this year prior to his catastrophic knee injury. Having been inconsistent at best with deep-ball accuracy in his first two years, Bridgewater targeted that area as a major focus over the offseason and appeared to be significantly improved.
Unfortunately, Teddy’s future will depend entirely on his recovery from his injury. Teddy’s gruesome multi-ligament injury may keep him sidelined well into next season, and even when he does return he may never be 100%.
At this point nobody has any sense of how the injury will heal, but if he is able to return to even close to his old self then expect to see him leading the Purple & Gold to many victories in the coming years. With a physical and mental skill set uniquely suited to the Vikings, and the youth and upside to continue to grow alongside the team in the years to come, Teddy is the perfect man for the job.
In the meantime, the Minnesota Vikings could do much worse than Sam Bradford at quarterback, but if the team is going to reach its full potential it will be with Teddy Bridgewater under center.