The Minnesota Vikings arrived ahead of schedule last season. They were not a fluky division champion by any means, at 11–5 and with a Week 17 win at Green Bay, but everything they were building—Teddy Bridgewater’s development, the maturation of a young defensive nucleus, familiarity with Mike Zimmer’s system—pointed toward 2016 as the expected breakthrough.
So not surprisingly, they were about to head into this regular season with expectations of earning not just another playoff berth, but of placing themselves in the mix of legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
That all changed in a heartbeat on Tuesday.
During one of the Vikings’ final practices of the preseason, Bridgewater dropped to the ground with a "non-contact injury" to his knee and was taken from the team's practice facility in an ambulance. It was later confirmed that Bridgewater suffered a “dislocated knee and complete tear to his ACL with other structural damage,” per the Vikings' head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman.
With Bridgewater out for the season, the Vikings’ outlook for the obviously changes in drastic fashion. The third-year QB was in the midst of an impressive training camp and preseason, with an emphasis on improving his deep passing game paying early dividends. Minnesota bolstered its offensive line this off-season with the additions of veterans Andre Smith and Alex Boone, and it handed Bridgewater a talented new receiver in first-round pick Laquon Treadwell. The pieces were in place for Bridgewater to have his big breakout year.
Immediately behind Bridgewater on the depth chart is Shaun Hill, followed by rookie Joel Stave. Hill is an 11-year NFL veteran who unfortunately has experience being pressed into duty due to injuries to others. He filled in for Matthew Stafford with the Lions in 2010 and for Sam Bradford with the Rams in 2014. All told, he has made 34 career starts, including eight during that ’14 campaign.
Hill is a steady presence, and at times has shown himself to be capable of getting on a roll. He is not Bridgewater.
“Today is a disappointing day because the No. 1 thing is Teddy's such a great kid,” Zimmer said in his Tuesday afternoon press conference. “Everybody loves him, so today they were disappointed. We're not going to stick our heads in the sand, we're not going to tuck our legs, we're not looking for excuses, we're going to fight like we always do. We've got some great players on this team, we'll figure out ways to win football games if he's not here.”
There is no getting around the fact that the Vikings have just gone from an NFC favorite into a borderline .500 team in one instant. There is enough talent elsewhere on the roster to keep the wheels from falling off entirely, perhaps even to allow Minnesota to hang in the wild-card race deep into the season. After all, this franchise made the playoffs in 2012 with Christian Ponder at QB, bolstered by a 2,000-yard season from Adrian Peterson and a solid defense.
The Vikings’ defense is better now than it was then. Peterson, despite leading the league in rushing last season, is less effective at age 31. (Although, how could he not be? That ’12 season was one of the best the NFL has ever seen from the running back position.)
“We have a good team, we have a good defensive team, our offensive line is much better, we have good receivers, maybe the best running back in the NFL. So this is about a team and about finding a way to win football games.” Zimmer added.
Last year’s Broncos laid down a nice formula for winning with mediocre QB, too. It’s not completely out of the question that Hill could be decent enough to maintain some of Minnesota’s momentum.
The Vikings could also look outside the organization for another option. Colin Kaepernick, Mark Sanchez, Brian Hoyer, Geno Smith and Josh McCown all figure to be available for the right price; at least one or two of those QBs could wind up free agents by the time roster cuts are done next week. Frankly, Hill is as reliable a quarterback as anyone the Vikings could track down at this point. But those are possible decisions for another day.
Right now, this has to be an absolute gut punch to an organization with all arrows previously pointed up. The Vikings just christened their beautiful, state of the art new stadium, which will host next season’s Super Bowl. They were a popular pick to capture their first playoff win since 2009 and, if all went right, to snap a 30-year Super Bowl drought.
Losing Bridgewater puts all of those dreams on hold. Hill is one of the more serviceable backups in football, but the Vikings finally had their roster constructed to their liking around a franchise quarterback.
This is a brutal, disastrous turn of events.