It was a phrase often repeated in conversations with general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer since the Vikings’ season ended with a missed field goal in the playoffs – and, by the way, only nine points and no touchdowns scored by the Vikings in that loss.
“I think just the biggest thing that you want to see is maybe him letting it loose a little more,” Spielman said of Bridgewater more than a month after the Vikings’ season ended in that 10-9 playoff loss. “I don’t want to call him cautious, but he took very good care of the ball because we don’t want to turn the ball over. I don’t want to speak out of turn for the coaches, just letting it loose a little more, giving some guys a chance to make plays even though it may not look like it’s open. I think that comes with time, the more and more the quarterbacks are in the league.”
There is little chance Spielman was talking “out of turn for the coaches.” And there is little doubt that conversation was a frequent one at Winter Park in the months following an 11-5 regular season. It was likely a repeated conversation between the coaching staff, between coaches and Bridgewater, and between coaches and Spielman.
But this might be a case of the Vikings needing to be careful what they wish for.
Zimmer was resolute in getting Bridgewater better protection in the offseason, and he undoubtedly created that with the hiring of Tony Sparano as offensive line coach and the signings of guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith. But, ultimately, Bridgewater needs to improve when he does “let it loose.”
Bridgewater was 11-for-42 on deep passes, defined as 21 yards or more in the air by STATS LLC. That’s six fewer attempts and 10 fewer attempts than the league average in 2015. His completion percentage was almost 7 percent lower than the league average in deep passes, despite him having a top-10 overall completion percentage in the NFL among quarterback with 100 attempts.
Still, he was more than 250 yards below the league average for quarterbacks on those deep passes. He had three touchdowns on deep passes (the NFL average was 5.6) and four interceptions (the average was 2.6).
The most troubling stat? His passer rating was a miserable 45.7 on deep passes with the league average 91.6.
Zimmer believes the offensive line contributed to whatever issues Bridgewater was having. Certainly a quarterback that is being pressured – and Bridgewater was pressured more than any other quarterback last year, according to ESPN – isn’t going to feel comfortable letting a deep play set up.
“I don’t think that group (the offensive line) played very good. Sporadically some of the guys played good and some of the guys played good in spurts, but as an overall group, Teddy was running for his life half the time,” Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings last month. “We had a whole bunch of 1-yard runs. I just felt like we needed to make some changes.”
Zimmer implemented those changes with his offseason moves, creating competition up and down the offensive line. But he also had a message for Bridgewater during the season before issuing it publicly in recent months.
“I told him one time during the season, ‘Teddy, I know you know I don’t want you to throw interceptions and I know you don’t want to turn the ball over, but we play pretty good defense and if you know a ball gets tipped or something, don’t worry about it. Just go out and play and be yourself,’” Zimmer revealed in February. “And I think that’s when he plays the best, when he just goes out and plays. It’s not, ‘OK, well, Norv (Turner) will get mad at me if I do this’ or ‘Coach will yell at me if I do that.’ I think he’s just better when he feels comfortable and confident in the things he does.”
So how did Bridgewater do with that directive in front of the entire team before an in-season practice?
“You know, maybe it was his way of saying ‘OK, coach. This is what you want?’ For that practice, he gave me exactly what I want – to an overabundance. So, that was his way of saying, ‘Here you go.’ It’s kind of good, he has to be able to, that thing like … I don’t want to say it, like, ‘Screw you. This is what you want? Here!’ So I’m kind of glad he did it.”
To date, all indications are that Bridgewater is submissive to his coaches. Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have talked about trying to get their quarterback to more forcefully communicate which plays he likes best and which ones he isn’t as confident in.
“He’s a big-time pleaser. He knows we don’t want to turn the ball over,” Zimmer said. “But sometimes I think he has that subconscious thing in his mind where he doesn’t want to hurt the team where there are times when he can help the team.”
Spielman expects better things from Bridgewater in 2016. He believes another year of experience will help. So should better protection, and perhaps another receiver in the draft. And maybe playing at the new U.S. Bank Stadium, where the climate is controlled, calm and warmer than some of the team’s bone-chilling games in November and December the last two years.
“It will be interesting to see how we evolve when you play in the new stadium as we get ready to go in the new stadium,” Spielman said. “Just watching Teddy through his first two years, for whatever reason and even the last year, his rookie year, he had two critical interceptions, but the way he flung the ball all over the yard, that was pretty good.”
Last year, quarterbacks around the NFL threw for 300 yards or more 139 times. Bridgewater accounted for two of those. He finished 22nd in passer rating, 23rd in passing plays of 20 yards or more, and 25th in passing plays of 40 yards or more.
At this time of year, the Vikings can want Bridgewater to “let it loose” all they want. There should be one qualifier at the end of that request, though: “effectively.”