There was a point in the Vikings’ 2016 season when things went from rough to ridiculous.
“When our head coach missed a game,” recalled tight end Kyle Rudolph, over the phone Wednesday night, as he got ready to board a redeye for London. “It was just hard. You know how much it means to him, and how much he wants to be out there with us. And talking to him that week, I could see how much it bothered him. It’s one of those things you can’t control. That was definitely the low point.”
Mike Zimmer’s absence for that Thursday nighter against Dallas came after—and pay attention, because there’s a lot here—the Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a freak, non-contact injury in August, lost their two starting tackles for the season, saw the tailback who was the face of their franchise go down for the year in September, and switched offensive coordinators in October. Then, there was the aforementioned eye problem that forced Zimmer to wear an eye patch on the sidelines and endure a string of eight surgeries.
Few who went through it could remember a more bizarre, star-crossed season. And yet, it became one that set the stage for everything that’s come as the Vikings have navigated a similarly strange 2017. Through half of this year, and since the opener, Minnesota’s gone into just about every week without knowing who the quarterback would be on Sunday. And it hasn’t knocked them off course one bit. The Vikings are 5-2.
“What I love about coach Zim is I know that’s not even a conversation,” said tailback Latavius Murray, signed as a free agent last winter. “Coach Zim’s method is ‘Why speak about it and even let it become a distraction?’ I’m not saying it doesn’t matter who’s lining up at quarterback, but whoever lines up at quarterback, we believe in him. So to bring it up—‘O.K., Case will be starting this week,’ or ‘Sam will be starting that week,’ it doesn’t come up, because we believe in everyone here.
“And to make it an issue or for him to bring it up, it’s saying there’s something to be said about Case starting when there isn’t. He’s just the guy that’s up, the guy we believe in.”
In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll explain Atlanta’s offensive problems, we’ll show why the Patriots defense isn’t the disaster it was two weeks ago, we’ll take you inside the Steelers facility to look at Martavis Bryant, and inside the NFL owners meetings to see how the league plans to address the ratings issue. We’ll check in with Doug Marrone on how a tough summer has led to a better fall in Jacksonville.
But we’re going to kick things off by checking in on a team that’s flying under the radar. The Vikings are a really good story in a really specific way. There are 21 quarterbacks on contracts worth more than $15 million per in 2017, and 20 non-quarterbacks who cross that threshold. The league’s 16 highest paid guys, and 14 of the last 19 players drafted first overall, are quarterbacks. There’s no more important position in sports. And the Vikings are somehow winning in a perpetual state of “We’ll see” at that spot.
That bone bruise Sam Bradford took in Week 1 was brutal, so we’ll see if he can even protect himself out of the field. Case Keenum’s done a nice job, but we’ll see if he can keep it up. Teddy Bridgewater’s back in practice and making progress, and we’ll see where things go from here.
“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve ever gone through from a consistency standpoint,” Rudolph said. “I’ve been through years where we lose a quarterback at the end of training camp, I’ve seen quarterbacks hurt during the year. I played with Josh Freeman 12 days after he got here. I’ve been through a lot of things at the quarterback position. But this is unlike any of those. We’ve had the same three guys here all along, but we’re not sure who the guy’s going to be every week.”
So how have they navigated it? The first part of the solution was easy: by creating certainty everywhere else. The Vikings are fourth in total defense, fifth in scoring defense, third against the run, 12th against the pass; and they’re eight in the league in rushing offense. Add that to solid special teams play, and the quarterback has to do a little bit less. And that’s largely because the young core on defense is taking another step, and the offensive line overhaul actually worked, even with some parts moving due to injury.
It’s also because this sustainable blueprint was forged—because it had to be—through the tumult of 2016, and it was rubber-stamped early on, when Keenum managed to throw for 369 yards and three touchdowns on the Bucs in Week 3 as the Vikings bounced back from a loss to the Steelers.
“After that game it was kind of like, ‘We’ll be fine,’” said Rudolph. “We’ve established a formula, and you hate to say no matter who’s out there, you stick to the formula and we’ll win games, because you want everyone healthy, you want everyone out there. But we’ve established a formula here, where no matter who we play and who have we out there, if we stick to that, we usually like where things wind up.”
The less tangible piece is how the team has performed in the clutch, and that part is actually a correction from 2016. When they were 11-5 and NFC North champions in 2016, they consistently won games late. Last year’s team didn’t, and now that’s flipped again with the Vikings playing better when it matters most. And interestingly enough, that belief is founded on how well-rounded the team has become, able to withstand hits, and beyond just the one at quarterback—remember, rookie phenom Dalvin Cook is down for the season too. The bottom line is that resiliency has become part of the DNA there.
“In different places, they may say, ‘O.K., we need to emphasize running the football,’ or ‘Let’s emphasize these route patterns,’” Murray said. “None of that came up. We didn’t switch the gameplan. We prepared early on for Sam to play, but we also believed in Case filling it. And we knew all the same playcalls would be up, because he could handle that. There was absolutely nothing different about it all. Nothing.”
There’s more on the horizon than just the Browns in London. The Vikings get their bye after the overseas trip, and when they come back from that, Bridgewater’s availability will be in play, and the quarterback is gaining confidence by the day. His teammates, too, say the 2014 first-round pick looks good, and so there may be another decision to be made down the line. We’ve seen these sorts of “controversies” knock teams off-kilter in the past.
But it wouldn’t be smart to bet on that here. While it sounds crazy to say it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is—given all those facts we laid out about investment in the position and the fact that the Vikings invested first-round picks in both Bradford and Bridgewater—that’s just how the players have come to see it. It’s also why they feel like their low-profile team will battle through like last year’s team couldn’t.
“We’re a better team than the team that started 5-0 last year,” Rudolph says, “because we went through that, and we were able to learn from that adversity, and learn from the fact that just because you start 5-0 doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything.”
Based on the circumstances, 5-2 does seem like an accomplishment here. And with Aaron Rodgers down and Matthew Stafford hobbled in the NFC North, it may be setting the stage for bigger things to come.