There has never been a time in the National Football League in which so many teams had an answer at quarterback.
At any given moment in the league’s history at least one-third of the teams were searching desperately to fill the most important position in sports. Think of all the Chris Chandlers, Kerry Collinses and Vinny Testaverdes of the 1990s and early 2000s who bounced from club to club. Heck, it wasn’t too long ago that Mike Glennon and Brock Osweiler got big bucks to sign as starters.
But in 2019 nearly every franchise can boast to its fans about having either a future Hall of Famer, Pro Bowler or QB on a rookie contract. The AFC has only one quarterback who doesn’t fit that description and he won the Super Bowl two years ago. In the NFC, the lone QB with a second contract but without a Pro Bowl is Jimmy Garoppolo, who signed a $137 million deal prior to last season.
Even the most questionable quarterbacks are going to get a shot this year to earn franchise QB status — namely Jamies Winston and Marcus Mariota.
It’s hard to say exactly why so many teams are set at QB these days. It might simply be caused by the intersection of a run of deep QB draft classes with legendary QBs like Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the twilight of their careers. There’s also the fact that teams have grown very afraid of letting mid-pack quarterbacks like Andy Dalton walk out the door considering the alternative is the unknown and the unknown gets coaches and GMs fired.
The Minnesota Vikings fall under the “proven Pro Bowler” category with Kirk Cousins. How they got there is a winding road that begins can be traced to August 30, 2016. But they are hardly the only ones. In fact, you can find roots in more than half the NFL’s QB situations to Teddy Bridgewater’s devistating injury three years ago.
When Bridgewater suffered a gruesome knee injury on a routine practice dropback just days before the 2016 season, the Vikings went into full-on scramble mode. In the press box during the team’s fourth pre-season game, general manager Rick Spielman held an impromptu press conference, saying that the team was confident Shaun Hill could lead them if need-be and that they would not make a panicked move to find another quarterback.
Days later they made a panicked move, trading a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, whose reputation at the time was as an injury-prone bust who had managed just a 79.3 career rating in St. Louis despite making mounds and mounds of cash. Not to mention his one year in Philadelphia ended with Chip Kelly getting fired. The team quickly showed zero belief in Bradford by drafting Carson Wentz and Bradford became a punchline when he left voluntary workouts only to return to OTAs a few weeks later.
Before we follow the bread crumbs to the present NFL, first let’s focus on an ancillary element of the Bridgewater injury: The perception of Bradford.
Some folks might still make fun of his 34 wins for somewhere in the range of $130 million earned. That’s fair. However, it leaves out that the former No. 1 overall pick mostly ended his career having proven that he could be a quality NFL starting quarterback. Few believed that to be the case when he was acquired by the Vikings. In fact, ESPN wrote at the time that the Vikings should have stuck with Hill instead.
Bradford came short of the playoffs but overall went 8-8 as a starter with 23 touchdowns, five interceptions, 7.2 yards per attempt and a 101.1 rating as a Viking. Pro Football Focus ranked him the 14th best QB in the NFL in 2016 and his performance on opening night 2017 against the New Orleans Saints (27-for-32, 346 yards, three touchdowns, 143.0 rating) goes down as one of the best single game performances in franchise history.
He will be remembered in Minnesota for beating Aaron Rodgers at home in the first game ever at US Bank Stadium, showing toughness through numerous games in which he was pummeled because of a poor offensive line and nearly becoming the franchise QB if not for another knee issue. And it will always be worth wondering if Bradford could have taken them one step farther in 2017.
Now to the domino effect.
A strong stint with the Vikings opened the door for the Arizona Cardinals to sign Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal last offseason. While he was healthy enough to start it was clear that injuries had taken their toll and Bradford went 0-3 with a 62.5 rating.
Here’s where it gets funky: Because Bradford was bad, the Cards turned to Josh Rosen, who struggled mightily in his rookie season, which led Arizona to fire its coach, hire Kliff Kingsbury and draft Kyler Murray with the No. 1 overall pick.
Yes, Murray in Arizona and Rosen being traded to Miami has only a few degrees of separation to the Bridgewater injury.
There’s also the first-round pick that the Vikings sent to Philly turned into edge rusher Derek Barnett, who picked up a key strip-sack in the NFC Championship and recovered a fumble to seal the deal in the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. Had Tom Brady led a game-winning drive to beat the Eagles, it’s not clear whether Nick Foles would have received nearly as much attention. Instead his Super Bowl ring helped Foles land a four-year, $88 million contract in Jacksonville.
Additionally, the Eagles might have kept Bradford as their backup if not for the first-round pick offer from the Vikings. That would have meant never signing Foles.
Bradford opened the door for Case Keenum to put together one of the most improbable quarterback seasons ever but the process began before Bradford suffered an injury in Week 1 of 2017.
In St. Louis and Philadelphia, Bradford worked with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was hired as the Vikings tight end coach in 2016. When things came apart for the offense on Halloween night 2016 at Soldier Field, Norv Turner resigned, presumably rather than take a backseat to Shurmur. (More on this one to come).
Prior to 2017, Keenum had a 9-15 career record with 24 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a 78.4 rating. With Shurmur calling a play-action heavy, West Coast style offense, Keenum thrived, going 12-3 with a 98.7 rating. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the ninth best quarterback in the NFL in ’17.
From his first win until the moment he walked off the field after a 38-7 loss to the Eagles in the NFC title game, it was clear the team and head coach Mike Zimmer felt Keenum was in the midst of a magical pop-up season and was not a viable long-term option. At one point Zimmer said that Keenum had a “horseshoe around his neck.” At the following NFL Combine, Zimmer acknowledged the team was unsure whether the former Texan and Ram could reproduce his 2017 season.
Keenum signed with the Denver Broncos, who were convinced he would be an upgrade over Trevor Siemian and that they could ride their defense back to the playoffs. Somehow they forgot to copy Shurmur’s offensive style — plus they did not have receivers of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs’ quality — and Keenum fell back to earth.
In turn the Broncos traded for Joe Flacco and drafted Drew Lock.
Keenum was sent to Washington, who the Vikings play this season. Assuming Keenum plays, that game’s result will be tied to the Bridgewater injury.
So will whatever happens when the Vikings play the New York Giants. Following a brutal stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Shurmur didn’t appear to be any kind of head coaching candidate but Keenum’s crazy run to the NFC Championship opened the door for a second chance.
If the Vikings end up in a battle for a wild card spot with the Carolina Panthers, they will be racing down the stretch against Turner, who was partly responsible for drafting Bridgewater and likely wouldn’t have exited if not for the Bradford trade, especially since Bridgewater appeared to be improving heading into 2017.
Minnesota also probably keeps current Panthers receiver Jarius Wright if they hadn’t spent top dollar to sign Kirk Cousins prior to the 2018 season. Instead they released him and struggled to find a No. 3 receiver last season. Wright caught 43 passes.
As Sam Bradford was fighting for his career in 2016, Kirk Cousins was making himself a lot of money by throwing for nearly 5,000 yards in D.C. He refused Washington’s offers for a long-term deal — at one point the team’s Twitter account even posted details of their offer — and appeared ready to maximize his value on the open market. The team traded for Alex Smith, allowing Cousins to become an unrestricted free agent, which is super rare for a proven QB in today’s game.
Now had Bridgewater still been the quarterback in Minnesota, the most likely options for Cousins would still have been the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos.
If the Jets signed Cousins, there is a good chance Todd Bowles is still the head coach. While Cousins may have come up short for the Vikings last season he still far outperformed Sam Darnold (77.6 rating) and Josh McCown (55.8 rating).
Of course, the Jets wouldn’t have drafted Darnold with the third overall pick meaning he might have been selected by the Broncos at five or the Buffalo Bills may have selected him instead of Josh Allen. There was a report that the Bills were “furious” that the Jets traded up.
Had Cousins landed in Jacksonville, they very likely would have been back in the playoffs. Blake Bortles had a disaster season, winning just three of 12 games and posting a 79.8 rating.
The other team that was discussed was the Cleveland Browns. It never appeared that Cousins was interested in Cleveland but had Minnesota not been in the mix it’s possible they would have been in the running and considered signing him rather than drafting Baker Mayfield.
Since we’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole, let’s pull back for a moment. Like Bradford, there has been an impact to the persona of Cousins. Because he chose to sign with a front runner rather than a Little Engine That Could, the expectation was that Cousins would get the Vikings back to the NFC Championship game. Instead going 8-7-1 has presently turned him into a cautionary tale of overpaying mid-pack quarterbacks. Naturally that perception could change in 2019.
Cousins’ attempt to become the leader of the Vikings’ locker room was impacted by Bridgewater. The team’s key players felt that Bridgewater was a selfless leader who found ways to raise the level of everyone around him. Adam Thielen, for example, said that Bridgewater’s help on a daily basis, even during recovery, made him a better receiver. The Vikings’ $84 million QB has a very different style of leadership, which caused some friction, including in Week 17 when he argued with Thielen on the sideline.
There’s the Zimmer element too. The Vikings head coach made it clear he wanted Bridgewater as his franchise quarterback in part because Teddy protected the football. Cousins was the opposite last year, giving the ball away 16 times and allowing 42 points against in pick-sixes or fumbles returned for touchdowns. As the season wore on, Cousins became more conservative with the ball, cutting down significantly on tight-window throw attempts.
The reverberations of Bridgewater still exist. Having to follow the locker room and head coach’s beloved quarterback — who just happened to come back from an injury that nearly took his leg — is a tough act to follow.
If Teddy Bridgewater never suffered a knee injury on August 30, 2016, he would still be the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings. There’s no telling whether he would have gone 13-3 in 2017 but his preseason performances showed improved arm strength — his detractors’ biggest criticism — and with Diggs and Thielen becoming top 20 receivers, it’s hard to see a much better team in ’17 than ’15 being worse with its starting QB.
If he never got hurt, he would have a cap hit in the range of $22 million based on Derek Carr’s extension with the Raiders, which came after a 12-4 season. That would have opened the door to the Vikings adding more talent prior to 2018 and this offseason.
He wouldn’t have seen preseason time with the New York Jets, which gave him a stage to convince another team to acquire his services. Had he won the job over Sam Darnold, the door would have been open to him never giving it back. Instead the New Orleans Saints traded a third-round pick last offseason for Bridgewater to become Drew Brees’ backup and then $7.5 million this offseason, making him the highest paid backup in the NFL.
ESPN reporter Mike Triplett said on Purple Daily earlier this offseason he believes the Saints will make Bridgewater the successor to Brees. He was wooed by the Miami Dolphins, who traded for Josh Rosen after Bridgewater went back to the Saints.
The biggest impact of Bridgewater’s injury probably happened to fans. Not only have Vikings faithful been through all kinds of sports tragedies in the past, they have seen the franchise struggle decade after decade to find a quarterback and then when they finally found him, it ended in the worst way possible. To make matters worse for people with No. 5 jerseys, there’s a possibility he could become a franchise QB once again with one of the Vikings’ most despised rivals in the New Orleans.
Just like the head coach and locker room at times, fans judge Cousins through the lens of Bridgewater the same way all relationships are compared to a person’s first love. A walk around outside US Bank Stadium before any 2018 game saw hundreds of No. 5 jerseys. Last year 5s outnumbered 8s in the stands. And they might this year, too.