The Minnesota Vikings are drawing ever closer to becoming a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Breathe it in. That first sentence would be scoffed at as overbaked hyperbole just one year ago. Many predicted the Vikings then as various things – as an up-and-coming team, as one possibility to turn a losing record into a winning record, and as one of the non-playoff teams to make the playoffs following the 2015 season. They were all of those things. Yet no one, at least no one outside the walls of Winter Park and immediate family, expected them to make the Super Bowl just yet.
They didn’t. They will be watching the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos in the battle of Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. Sure, there will be a little sting to it after missing out on their first playoff win since 2009 by a wide-left field goal that was little more than the old extra-point distance. But just getting to the playoffs and having an incredibly good chance to knock off the two-time NFC champion Seattle Seahawks also provided some reflective hope to the veterans of the team.
Their time is waning. Chad Greenway is a free agent. Brian Robison will also be 33 by the start of the 2016 season. Yet both of them remained productive and valued, and hungrier than ever for their next shot at the playoffs with a budding team.
What they and their 2015 teammates will be watching Sunday evening is a Carolina team they might look to emulate. During last season, head coach Mike Zimmer talked about how the Vikings wanted to be perennial division champions and playoff contenders like the Green Bay Packers had been. Minnesota Mike and his crew took that first step with their first NFC North title since 2009, taking it away from the Packers for the first time in five years.
But Zimmer is, refreshingly so, rarely satisfied. He admitted the intensity increases with each passing season that he doesn’t return to the Super Bowl after making it as a member of the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff in 1990s. Two decades later, he fully realizes how difficult it is regain the glory.
The Vikings accomplished many goals and exorcized numerous demons, learning how to win consistently on the road, taking the NFC North and making the playoffs. They became much more of the mold that Zimmer desires – a tough defense, a capable running team and one that was usually mentally sharp and physically forged.
In some ways, their roster looks like that of Carolina. Both feature bullish defenses with budding young stars, although the Panthers have learned to become much more opportunistic than the Vikings were in 2015. Two main differences stand out contrasting the two defenses. The Panthers were much better against the run, fourth compared to the Vikings at 17th, and Carolina knew how to either tilt the tide of a game or seal a victory with the art of the turnover.
The Panthers led the NFL with 39 takeaways and 24 interceptions in the regular season, along with a league-leading plus-20 turnover differential (their thievery continued in the playoffs with nine takeaways, including six interceptions, for a plus-8 turnover differential).
The Vikings ended up with only 22 takeaways (13 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries) and 17 turnovers for a plus-5 turnover differential. That is one statistic that the defense could stand to improve.
While the value of the running game is often diminished, especially in the regular season, the importance of a franchise quarterback never is. Newton has turned into just that, becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 30 passing touchdowns and at least 10 rushing touchdowns in a single season on his way to an MVP season.
Teddy Bridgewater will never be a huge threat running. While he is already fairly adept in the pocket, he isn’t a big scrambler looking to keep defenses off-balance with the threat of 10-yard runs. Newton always had the running ability and the Panthers used it to help build their offense with the inclusion of the read option.
But Newton had to develop his pocket passing game over time. In his first four seasons, he never threw for more than 25 touchdowns in a season. In his fifth season, 2015, it ratcheted up dramatically to 35. In his first four seasons, he also never had a passer rating above 90. In 2015, he was just shy of 100 at 99.4.
No one can say with certainty if Bridgewater’s passing prowess will continue to develop, like Newton’s did, but it should. His passer rating has been over 85 in both of his first two seasons, and his completion percentage has been over 64 in both of them. Newton’s best completion percentage was 60 as rookie.
But Newton has never thrown as few touchdowns as Bridgewater did – 14 in each of his first two seasons. The closest “Superman” came to that was 18 in 2014 while starting 14 games.
The Pro Bowl is a farce on several levels – even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that – but there were two encouraging signs for Bridgewater there this year. First, his statement before the game that he wanted to throw seven or eight touchdowns in his limited appearance there. Second, he threw two of them and took shots deep downfield. Of course, defenders hardly make an effort in the Pro Bowl and there is little repercussion if a deep shot is intercepted in the all-star game.
At least, however, Bridgewater was trying deep ball with solid success. As much as Bridgewater is panned for checking down the ball, he has averaged 7.2 and 7.3 yards per attempt. In 2013 and 2014, Newton averaged less than that.
To suggest that Bridgewater is on Newton’s level is ridiculous. But to suggest that it’s worthy to withhold judgement for another year or two before settling on what he could become isn’t laughable.
Give Bridgewater the weapons and the protection and he might actually be able to break the Vikings’ nearly 40-year Super Bowl absence with the benefit of a Super Bowl-worthy defense backing him up.