I was in the midst of writing my third question for this Q&A for Eric Thompson from Daily Norseman, the SB Nation community for Minnesota Vikings fans, when news began to break on Twitter that QB Teddy Bridgewater had suffered a serious knee injury. We now know the extent of the injury, and it’s as gruesome as could have possibly been expected.
So with Teddy out for 2016 and the Vikings’ season up in the air, I got with Eric to get his take on where they stand ahead of tonight’s preseason finale between the Los Angeles Rams and the Vikings.
So I had to go back and re-write these questions with the news...first off, full sympathy from all Rams fans to yall and for Teddy. Just horrible. It's probably too early to get a real comprehensive answer, but how do you re-calibrate your season and what's left of the preseason? What's the mitigation plan?
Appreciate the condolences. This is definitely not the circumstances I wanted to be corresponding under heading into the preseason finale. I actually wrote about the updated expectations for the season on Wednesday morning. Long story short: the Vikings can still be a good team even with Bridgewater out for the season. After all, it's not like Teddy was putting up gaudy numbers when the team went 11-5 and won the NFC North last year. But their ceiling of a "very good" or even "great" team is probably gone. Bridgewater appeared to be ready to take the next step this season, which is truly what the Vikings needed if they were going to improve upon their 2015 performance. Now the possibility of sneaking into the postseason seems to be an absolute best-case scenario.
Right now the mitigation plan is to rally behind your old pal Shaun Hill, Adrian Peterson, a very strong defense, and (for my money) one of the best head coaches in the NFL. I'm sure the Vikings front office is also scrambling to find a veteran quarterback with some experience to either compete with Hill or at the very least provide a competent backup. Because Joel Stave and Brad Sorenson shouldn't see any part of the field in a meaningful game. Second-year backup Taylor Heinicke showed some promise in the preseason last year and was a fan favorite to compete for the QB2 role heading into camp, but he's on the PUP list after losing a kicking match with his friend's apartment door. (No, I'm not kidding.) Unfortunately the QB market in late August/early September isn't great, so exactly what the team does as a contingency plan along with Hill remains to be seen.
Going into my initial questions, I was just trying to get up to speed on the 53-man cuts coming up and how that would shape the game on Thursday. Does the injury perhaps change the gameplan? Do you guys need to spend some more time installing Shaun Hill (or whomever is going to be your Week 1 starter now) with the first team? Does that mean that the first team offense needs to perhaps play to the half whereas they might not have before? And how does that affect guys who needed more snaps in this last game to have a shot at the 53?
The Bridgewater injury likely means that Hill won't play at all on Thursday. It's simply too big of a risk to put Hill out there since he's the only viable quarterback on the roster at the moment. I assume that re-signing Brad Sorenson (who was waived the day before Teddy's injury) was just so he could take snaps on Thursday along with Joel Stave. As for the rest of the first team, I still doubt you'll see much of them. One practice and one preseason game isn't enough time to revamp the offense when your franchise quarterback just went down. Despite the grim circumstances, I anticipate that the coaching staff will treat the game like any other coaching staff around the league and use it to make their final roster cut decisions.
As for those guys, who has stood out among the UDFAs and fringe candidates in August? Who has made an unlikely candidacy to stick around for the regular season that Rams fans will be noticing in the second half?
A couple of mid- and late-round draft picks have really impressed thus far. Tight end David Morgan was known as the best blocking TE in the draft but has shown plenty of pass catching ability as well. He has filled the role of the recently reactivated Rhett Ellison very nicely and should still factor into the big personnel packages even with Ellison's return. On the defensive side of the ball, 7th round safety Jayron Kearse has shown that he has much more than just size. Kearse's emergence might mean he'll take the spot of veteran Michael Griffin, who was brought in this offseason to compete for a starting gig but hasn't really impressed.
The backup linebackers behind Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Chad Greenway are still very much in the air heading into the final preseason game. Emmanuel Lamur and Audie Cole have done enough to make the roster, but everyone else in the group should be prepared to show their best work on Thursday night. Edmond Robinson and Brandon Watts will have to battle with rookies Kentrell Brothers and Jake Ganus for the last spot or two.
The outlook for the season has certainly changed. What's the goal now? What was the goal for 2016 24 hours ago? Are the playoffs still the demanded result, or is it more of a bonus given today's events?
If I was writing this before 2:00 PM CT on Tuesday, I would have had a much rosier outlook on the season. For months I had been telling anyone who would listen that this team had the potential to be great, but they would only go as far as Teddy would take them. And from everything I had seen thus far in the preseason, Bridgewater was giving us plenty of reason to believe that he was ready to take them pretty far. As in, contending to win it all far. Now he obviously isn't going to take them anywhere in 2016.
As I touched on earlier, don't count the Vikings out just yet when it comes to earning their way back into the postseason. But I wouldn't say the playoffs are demanded or even expected. Unless Hill or a yet-to-be-signed quarterback comes in and goes into Kurt Warner mode, I just don't see how the Vikings can conquer their tough first place schedule and surpass what they accomplished in 2015.
(That said, I'd love to revisit this answer in January and be proven totally wrong. It would be the happiest plate of crow I have ever eaten.)
Big picture. Teddy Bridgewater is going to focus on rehabilitating his knee and getting back for 2017. Adrian Peterson is 31 years old. You're not far removed from 2013 when you had one of the worst defenses, if not the worst, in the NFL (though 2015 was a huge suggestion that an improvement was permanent and not temporary). What is the identity of this team moving forward? Fast forward a bit to next offseason, regardless of how 2016 pans out. What are the biggest priorities for you guys and what puts you on the path, short-term or long, to win the Minnesota Vikings' first-ever Super Bowl?
The one silver lining that Vikings fans can grasp onto is that the identity of the team shouldn't change all that much after the Bridgewater injury. They're still a run-first team that depends on a strong, disciplined defense and not beating themselves on offense. What the injury did was prevent the Vikings from evolving into the next step of that identity. They really looked like they were becoming a more unpredictable team that could beat you in multiple ways. Now they're going to have to lean on the run game and the defense more than ever.
Looking ahead, you just touched on two of the biggest question marks for the Vikings heading into next year. There's no guarantee that Bridgewater is going to be the same player when the 2017 season kicks off. This wasn't your run of the mill ACL tear; this was a dislocated knee. The best-case scenario is a nine month recovery. No matter how he bounces back, the Vikings definitely need to address their backup quarterback situation next season. They gambled on it this year and lost in the worst way imaginable. Minnesota needs a contingency plan in place if Bridgewater isn't able to come back right away.
Meanwhile, Peterson is due a whopping $18 million next season. With the cap number constantly going up and their starting quarterback still on his cheap rookie contract, it's conceivable that the Vikings could actually give AP the huge payday next year. Peterson could help his case by carrying the offense again this year. But I think it's much more likely that the team extends his deal to reduce the immediate cap hit or simply moves on from Peterson in 2017. Again, how Peterson performs in 2016 will go a long way toward dictating his future with or without the team.
As far as what the team needs to do to win the Super Bowl? Man, I truly thought the Vikings were laying the groundwork for that before Bridgewater's injury. The defense is already light years better than it was before Zimmer got to town and full of young pieces that should only get better. The offense wasn't the Greatest Show on Turf but looked like it might have the right pieces this season.
Maybe our dreams will come true next year. Teddy will come back 100%, the defense will be even better, and they'll become the first team to ever make the Super Bowl in their home stadium. It could happen, right?
Nahhhhhhh. This is the Vikings, after all.
Again, the peeps over at DN have my legit sympathy. As fans, that’s a brutal way to head into the 2016 season.
Thanks to Eric for the time.