There have been many instances this season where the lack of fans at U.S. Bank Stadium has left us wondering what the reaction would have been? How would a stadium full of fans reacted to Kirk Cousins’ touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson in the fourth quarter last Sunday against Dallas? How many boos would the Vikings have heard at halftime of their lifeless performance against Atlanta? The list goes on.
But it’s not hard to pick the home game at which fans will be missed the most. That will come Sunday when the Vikings play host to the Carolina Panthers and Teddy Bridgewater. As with everything to do with Bridgewater and the Vikings, this will be another “what might have been” moment? Huge cheers? Some boos? Ambivalence? The pandemic means we won’t get to find out.
In many ways that’s fitting, given where Bridgewater falls among Minnesota athletes when it comes to wondering what would have happened, if only things had gone differently?
Bridgewater, taken with the 32nd pick in the first round of the 2014 draft by the Vikings, was supposed to be Mike Zimmer’s quarterback for years to come. It didn’t hurt that he also was considered a natural leader and was loved by his teammates. Bridgewater took over for an injured Matt Cassel in his rookie season, started all 16 games and helped lead the Vikings to an NFC North title in 2015 and arrived at training camp in 2016 looking ready to take the next step toward becoming the type of franchise quarterback the Vikings had coveted for so long.
But two days after completing 12 of 16 passes for 161 yards with a touchdown and a 127.3 passer rating in his final preseason tune-up against San Diego, Bridgewater’s knee gave out during a drill on a practice field at Winter Park. He tore multiple ligaments and his knee dislocated. There was talk of possible amputation and his career appeared to be in jeopardy of being over. Bridgewater’s leg was saved and hard work got him back on the field. He made one more appearance for the Vikings, receiving a thunderous ovation from the fans at U.S. Bank Stadium when he replaced starter Case Keenum in a mid-December game in 2017 against Cincinnati.
But the Vikings’ medical staff wasn’t convinced Bridgewater would ever be the same and Kirk Cousins signed a big free agent contract to become Minnesota’s starter in March 2018. Zimmer’s quarterback left, signing with the Jets. New York traded him to New Orleans — he became Drew Brees’ backup and started six games in two seasons with the Saints — and last offseason Bridgewater signed a three-year, $63 million deal with Carolina to become its starter.
While it was no secret that Zimmer always liked Bridgewater, it’s become more and more obvious just how close that relationship had been. It’s fair to say that Zimmer tolerates quarterbacks more than he embraces them. That’s not surprising considering Zimmer’s passion is coaching defense and finding ways to stop quarterbacks. For the most part, they are the enemy. That’s what made his affection for Bridgewater so unique.
Zimmer isn’t alone in this feeling. There remain many Vikings fans who felt Bridgewater was the guy who would end the team’s revolving door at quarterback. If his career hadn’t been so drastically altered on that August day, they feel that the now 28-year-old Bridgewater would have led the Vikings to the 2017 Super Bowl and still would be going strong. These are the fans who would have worn their purple No. 5 Bridgewater jerseys to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday and given him a standing ovation.
But what makes the Bridgewater story even more interesting — especially when you consider he only really spent two seasons playing in Minnesota — are the fans who think he was nothing more than a short-game specialist, incapable of throwing the deep ball, and was overrated by far too many. Bring up Bridgewater’s success in 2015, and they will point out Adrian Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns that season.
So who is right? Bridgewater’s injury makes it impossible to know. Would Bridgewater even still be in Minnesota, playing on what would have been a very lucrative (think Cousins money) second contract if things had gone as Zimmer hoped?
Bridgewater, of course, isn’t the only Minnesota athlete to whom this question applies. Timberwolves point guard Stephon Marbury forced his way out of town in 1999 and broke up what looked to be an ideal partnership with Kevin Garnett. But Marbury’s exit was his decision. David Ortiz was jettisoned by the Twins in 2003 and went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Red Sox. But, again, that was the team’s decision and Ortiz was never considered a key piece by the Twins, like Bridgewater was by the Vikings.
Kirby Puckett was forced to retire from the Twins in 1996 because of glaucoma, but Puckett’s resume included two World Series titles and a Hall of Fame career by that point. The end of Puckett’s career was sad but no one could say he hadn’t achieved greatness. Bridgewater was 23 years old and just getting started when his career was derailed for basically three seasons.
Bridgewater’s outstanding performance against the Chargers in that 2016 exhibition at U.S. Bank Stadium was the Vikings’ first game in their new stadium. His debut in the venue was considered a prelude of potential greatness to come. The Vikings appeared to finally have their quarterback, and Zimmer, for one, couldn’t have been happier. Two days later, everything changed during what looked like a harmless practice drill.
Four years later, Bridgewater will return to U.S. Bank Stadium trying to beat Zimmer and his former team. The thought of many working and cheering for the Vikings will be simple: It wasn’t supposed to be this way.