While the top storyline of the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason seems to be Teddy Bridgewater and to what extent he will show positive growth in 2016, it’s a storyline that should be merged with the performance of the offensive line and wide receivers to get a true picture of what Bridgewater is doing and how it helps or hurts the team.
With the NFL’s defending rushing champion, Adrian Peterson, returning and an effective defense that receives consistent accolades, the biggest question facing the Vikings in a 2016 season hyped with hope of big dreams ahead, the passing game is the missing element … to a degree.
Looking at the basic statistics and rankings compiled in 2015, it’s easy to see why Bridgewater and his right arm are the qualifying elements in statements that the Vikings have “potential” and “promise” heading into the season.
The numbers don’t lie. Bridgewater finished 22nd in passing yards (3,231), 20th in passer rating (88.7) among the top 32 in yardage, and tied for 16th in average per pass (7.2 yards).
But those numbers also don’t tell the whole truth. Coaches, scouts and general managers like to say “the eye in the sky don’t lie,” meaning the film speaks the truth. Yet, different people viewing the same film will have reasonably different assessments of how Bridgewater looked.
To get a better overall view of Bridgewater in 2015, the surrounding cast has to be included in the conversation. That includes an offensive line rocked by injuries in 2015 and riddled with question marks and a receiving corps that was below NFL standards, despite the attempt to spend their way (Mike Wallace’s $9 million salary) to a market correction.
According to the analytics site Football Outsiders, no quarterback was pressured more consistently than Bridgewater, to the tune of 36 percent of the time he dropped back to pass. By comparison, Andy Dalton (18.5 percent), Ben Roethlisberger, Sam Bradford, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr and Brian Hoyer were all pressured less than 21 percent of the time they dropped to pass. The best at handling the pressure were among the smartest and most athletic at the position – Russell Wilson, Dalton, Carson Palmer, Cousins, Roethlisberger and Tom Brady.
But Bridgewater wasn’t too far behind. He ranked 12th in Football Outsider’s DVOA statistic on handling pressure, a measure of each player against the league average. Aaron Rodgers was only slightly better in 2015 than Bridgewater in that statistic. Yes, Rodgers did it without Jordy Nelson. Bridgewater did it without as much experience or even as good a supporting cast as Rodgers’ had sans Nelson.
But while Vikings coaches called for Bridgewater to take more chances this offseason – an edict that was clearly reflected in the offseason practices, with mixed results – there is little doubt that head coach Mike Zimmer and Bridgewater himself understand the bigger picture. Zimmer praised Bridgewater as a winner this offseason, and that’s the bottom line in the bottom-line business of the NFL. Winning matters. It saves jobs and creates legends.
Bridgewater and the Vikings have a long way to reach anything resembling legendary status, but understanding how to win with their current roster is key.
Built on a foundation of a smart, strong defense and a powerful running game, the complete project is still under construction. The finishing touches will always be under renovation, but as long as Zimmer has his defense operating close to how he wants it and a quarterback that plays smart, winning football, Bridgewater will be the trusted starting point of the offense.
The oft-cited statistic in showering Zimmer’s defense with praise is that the Vikings were fifth in the NFL in points allowed. The bigger picture, however, shows how Bridgewater helped contribute to that number that is naturally associated with the defense.
Of the 302 points the Vikings surrendered, only 21 of those were non-defensive points – meaning interception or fumble returns yielded by the Vikings offense, or touchdowns given up by the special teams – according to Pro Football Journal. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 14 points allowed while not on defense, were better.
Bridgewater threw only 14 touchdowns last year, a pretty paltry number for someone that started every game and 26th in the league, and managed only six passes of 40 yards or more (tied for 25th with Rodgers and Josh McCown). Those numbers have to improve if he wants to increase his cache among the NFL’s signal-callers.
But with his ability to move the chains (21st with 153 first downs) and play the type of ball-control, smart, situational football that feeds into how this current Vikings team is built, he can continue to be a winner and even become a top-10 quarterback.
The bigger picture matters and it seems Bridgewater is more concerned with keeping that a work of art rather than risking too many misplaced brushstrokes that sully the canvas.