Bridgewater was stepping on some tender ground as a first-round quarterback for the franchise. Just three years earlier the Vikings had gone there, done that with Christian Ponder, who hasn’t played a regular-season game since the Vikings cut ties with him following the 2014 season in which he got into only two games.
Bridgewater is entering a critical third season, but with far different circumstances than Ponder’s far-from-illustrious situation in his third season. Bridgewater has already proven himself as competent and fans are simply looking for him to take the next step, wondering if he can elevate to being a top-10 quarterback in the NFL.
This year, the excuses are gone, although it was never Bridgewater offering the excuses and instead took more ownership of problems that weren’t completely his. In his first year, it was about getting comfortable, even with Ponder’s inevitable exit looming and with Adrian Peterson’s exile from football for all but the first game (Bridgewater wasn’t in the starting lineup during Peterson’s only game of 2014).
In Bridgewater’s second season, there was too much else going wrong on offense to gain an accurate assessment of the poised, aw-shucks quarterback. His leadership skills were developing and he took that to new – sometimes strange – heights when he consistently said he believed in his offensive line, even if they had a hard time believing in themselves with a moving shell game on the front line of the depth chart due to injuries. At times, a public call-out of his protection problems might have been warranted, but Bridgewater never went there.
When his deep-ball production was questioned, he never referenced the occasional dropped pass or hurried and harried situations he faced under pressure. The Vikings entered the 2015 training camp expecting John Sullivan at center, Phil Loadholt at right tackle and Charles Johnson to break out at receiver.
None of that happened. Sullivan went down in training camp with a back injury that required two surgeries and he didn’t play a down. Loadholt went down in the preseason and never returned. Johnson was injured more than most knew and didn’t live up to the hope that he could become the first 1,000-yard receiver for the Vikings since Sidney Rice in 2009.
Now, Mike Wallace, the latest free-agent savior hopeful turned borderline starter, is gone. Stefon Diggs is the latest returning hope and Laquon Treadwell is newest addition with a chance. It was clear before the draft that an early-round receiver would be joining the offense, but Bridgewater insisted he would be happy with whatever addition the front office ended up with – and of course he would because he is, as his head coach Mike Zimmer tagged him, “a pleaser.”
But Bridgewater was consulted and knew that the talent surrounding him should now be up to snuff. In his predraft words …
“The time is now, so whoever we add to this team we expect them to come in and compete right away,” he said.
“Whoever we add” turned in Treadwell, and the Vikings should feel fortunate he was still available, as three other receivers, including the equally tall and more athletic Josh Doctson, were selected before the Vikings’ pick at No. 23 overall.
But the reason the time is now is because the offensive additions went beyond Treadwell. The Vikings bullishly upgraded their offensive line before the draft, not only with the anticipated return of Sullivan and Loadholt (whose roster and depth-chart spots are precarious), but also with the free-agent finds in Alex Boone (left guard) and Andre Smith (right tackle, and Loadholt’s main competition).
The protection should be better and it’s clear the accountability will be more on-point with Tony Sparano as the new position coach.
“We’ve added some veteran experience, some guys who have played numerous football games and guys who fit the personality of our coach,” Bridgewater said of the offensive line. “It’s great to add those guys to the mix and to get Sully back and a healthy Phil Loadholt. I’m excited for that group.”
Finally, he should be excited and the linemen had better hope it’s more just lip service they get from Bridgewater, and that this time his praise is deserved.
Few quarterbacks – only five, to be exact – were sacked as much as Bridgewater last year, and three of those had at least 100 more attempts than Bridgewater.
Of course there are areas where Bridgewater can improve and, as expected, he has taken the onus on himself to do that. He has watched all of his self-proclaimed bad throws from 2015, the missed throws, the sacks, the interceptions and the bad protection calls he made.
“I always stress just being quicker and that’s coming from Coach Turner,” Bridgewater said. “You can never be quick enough in this offense. You can never be quick enough with Coach Turner. Whether it’s shortening at the top of my drop so I’m staying compact with the football or just finishing throws and things like that. I looked at the film from last year, all the incompletions, the missed opportunities, the interceptions, sacks – those are some of the areas I want to improve on.”
He should be given the chance to do that, unlike much of last year. This year, it should be a fair assessment of his skills in an offense that should have him surrounded NFL-level starters, not just injury fill-ins and unaccustomed rookies.
He hosted his receivers in Florida for some offseason workouts and good times at Disney and dinner. He says his leadership is improving and teammates are “gravitating” toward his personality. He even joked that he and the other quarterbacks have been “freaks” in the weight room.
But the expected ascension won’t just happen. Playoff teams from one year fall out of the postseason the following year all the time.
“We understand that players become legends and teams become great teams when they win in the playoffs, so we understand what happened last year, but it’s good to add a few pieces to the team this year. I’m excited for this group,” he said.
“We can talk about it on pen and paper, but we still have to prove it.”
The question of “Teddy, you ready?” should be become a statement in 2016. The time is now. It’s Teddy Time.