The NFL is notorious for trying to anoint the “Next Big Thing” in the league. When it comes to quarterback, the spotlight is brighter and the microscope they operate under is highly tuned.
One of the players under the brightest light of scrutiny is Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. At the end of his rookie season, nobody was completing a higher percentage of passes or third-down passes than the Vikings rookie and, for the first time in a long time, a young Vikings quarterback was raising eyebrows as being a potential leader for years to come.
At training camp Wednesday in Mankato, Bridgewater addressed the growing expectations that he can become an elite quarterback. He didn’t deflect the questions. Instead, he was quick to point out that, less than a week into training camp, all players really have are expectations and he’s going to make the most of the preparation time.
“I love it and I don’t back down from it,” Bridgewater said. “The beauty of it is we’re still in July. Everyone is going say all these different things, but it’s not going to happen right now. You’re not going to win a championship in July, but you can lose one if you’re not working hard enough at everything. I know that and I don’t back down from expectations.”
Bridgewater is the subject of a lot of national discussions among the top breakout players for 2015 and, along with those lofty goals, come those who believe the Vikings are on the right track to challenge Green Bay for the NFC North title. Head coach Mike Zimmer has been pleased with the positive buzz that seems to be growing around the Vikings, but nobody’s preseason praise can meet the kind of goals he and his coaching staff are instilling in their players.
“I have high expectations,” Zimmer said. “I know that people are saying nice things, but our expectations are higher than anybody else’s. That’s how it should be. I don’t want my football team to have low expectations. I don’t want them thinking we’re not going to be any good or I can’t play. It wouldn’t do us any good.”
Much of that perceived success will hinge on Bridgewater’s continued growth as an NFL quarterback. On Tuesday, Bridgewater spoke with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, now an analyst with NFL Network, and he was asked directly about whether he considers the Vikings to be “his team” now that he is the starter.
While he feels much more comfortable in the offense now than he did as a green rookie, his rise to a leadership role has been facilitated by the number of veterans that helped him out last year and showed him what leadership on and off the field is really all about.
It’s his team, but not his alone.
“Absolutely, but, at the same time, we have guys like Chad Greenway, Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison – the list goes on and on – that have established themselves not only in the National Football League, but with this organization. They make my job much easier,” Bridgewater said. “Yesterday I had a talk with Marshall Faulk and he was like, ‘It’s going to have to be you at some point.’ Those moments where you step up into that leadership role sometimes are the defining point of your career. To hear those words from him, it means a lot. I’m not going to do anything differently. I lead with conviction, I lead from within and just be myself.”
Part of Bridgewater’s long-term planning has been centered on building up his body. He took a beating last year behind a makeshift offensive line decimated by injuries and the coaching staff wanted him to bulk up a little bit. He is noticeably bigger this year, but it is by design and with intent.
“There was a set weight limit for me coming into training camp and it was 215,” Bridgewater said. “I was able to put on some weight, but most of it was muscle. I’m trying to make sure I’m building myself up to withstand some hits I’m going to take during the course of the year or withstand the long season that is ahead of us.”
With the return of Adrian Peterson, the addition of Mike Wallace and a defense that made great strides last year, there are several solid reasons to believe the Vikings are a team on the rise and not that far away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. However, both Bridgewater and Zimmer are making sure not to get ahead of themselves. Bridgewater knows Super Bowls don’t get won in the preseason, but, at the same time, Zimmer is saying there are reasons for high expectations, but the only way expectations will become reality is for the team to back up their confidence with a high level of play on the field.
“I would hate for a player’s expectations not to be as high as mine,” Zimmer said. “Most of our players have extremely high expectations of themselves. That’s part of the reason why they’re playing at the level they’re playing – because they’re elite athletes that have always had to overcome people saying things they couldn’t do and they work to be better. Expectations are what they are. At the end of the day, it’s how you play.”