Late last August, desperate times called for desperate measures.
When Teddy Bridgewater suffered a dislocated knee and multiple torn ligaments in a non-contact practice injury on Aug. 30, it sent the Minnesota Vikings into their own roster scramble drill. General Manager Rick Spielman played dial-a-trade and landed Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a first-round draft pick in 2017 and a another high-round pick in 2018.
Bradford had little time to immerse himself in the Vikings offense and began a streak of 15 straight starts in Week 2.
“What he did last year was kind of remarkable really when you think about it and we’re hopeful that he progresses from there,” head coach Mike Zimmer said last week at the NFL owners meetings.
Despite getting the hurry-up version for learning the Vikings offense, Bradford had the best season of his seven-year career in completion percentage (71.6), completions (395), yards (3,877), average (7.0), touchdowns-to-interception ratio (20-5) and passer rating (99.3).
“With him coming in so late, he’s had not even as much time as a normal free agent. But I think he’ll be better,” Zimmer said during an interview with SiriusXM last week. “The thing I learned about him is because I’ve never been around him – I knew he could throw the ball and all those things – but I didn’t know how tough he was. He’s a tough kid. He took some incredible shots and got back up. He wants to win extremely bad.”
With all the issues the Vikings had on the offensive line – starting eight different combinations there and having five left tackles see the field, including three starters – Bradford suffered a career-high 37 sacks. Those came despite a quick-release passing game that was altered because of a stagnant running game that finished last in the NFL.
“I’ve had numerous conversations after losses with him, so I anticipate him having a good year. I think the additions we made on the offense will help. We obviously have to run the football better. I think that will help him. We’ve got to make some more explosive plays down the field. I think that will help. His completion percentage was good and everyone talks about, ‘Well, he’s throwing the ball short,’ but even the balls he threw down the field were on the money. It’s just giving him the opportunity to do those things.”
Because of the struggles in the running game, the Vikings threw the ball 134 more times in 2016 than they did in 2015 and yet were sacked seven fewer times.
“We were almost totally, 100 percent one-dimensional, which made it extra tough for the quarterback because teams were able to load up on us, rush the quarterback and play more coverage,” Zimmer said. “I thought he did great. He hung in there, he got rocked and showed his toughness. He’s an extremely accurate thrower.”
The Vikings traded for Bradford on Sept. 3 last year, only eight days before their regular-season opener. This year, he will have a full offseason of practices and Zimmer said the veteran quarterback will be there to witness the adjustments being made and work with the players for months before training camp even starts.
That should help both him and the his teammates as they get used to each other and the plays being implemented with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur also having a full offseason to prepare and teach.
“Sam has a lot of leadership qualities. Besides being a heck of a quarterback, he’s a scratch golfer, he was a heck of a basketball player. I don’t think that kind of athlete that you don’t get a lot of respect from around the team,” Zimmer said. “But I think he’ll be more of a leader because of all the things that went on last year, too. He probably didn’t even know who I was when he walked in the door.”
All of it – a full offseason with Bradford, additions to the offensive line and a renewed focus on a better running game – should help Bradford. Whether that means he executes the improvement Zimmer anticipate is a storyline still waiting to be written.