The big question in Minnesota: When will Teddy play?
Bridgewater will be in uniform on Thanksgiving for the third straight week, but Case Keenum has made it tough for the Vikings to make a change
MINNEAPOLIS — While the surging Minnesota Vikings hurried to leave the locker room after their latest victory, a 24-7 dismantling of the formidable Los Angeles Rams, head coach Mike Zimmer stood at a lectern in a nearby room, attempting to answer the most pressing question facing one of the NFL’s hottest teams: When will Teddy Bridgewater play?
For more than a year, the young quarterback underwent grueling rehab after a gruesome noncontact knee injury he had suffered in practice. Only about 15 months ago, he coped with the possibility of losing a leg. But Bridgewater made it back, and for the past two games he has been active as the team’s backup quarterback.
Eventually, though, the Vikings must evaluate the onetime rising passer, who directed the team to the 2014 NFC North title. Top decision-makers have to determine whether Bridgewater is an important part of the Vikings’ future or someone from their past. For the Vikings, it’s time to find out whether Bridgewater can still play.
Here’s the hiccup: Case Keenum. Recently, the journeyman quarterback hasn’t played like one. Keenum has been so surprisingly good during the team’s six-game winning streak, the Vikings say, this isn’t the time to make a change at the game’s most important position. So what’s a head coach to do?
“It’s going to be hard to take him [Keenum] out of there right now,” said Zimmer, who announced Tuesday that Keenum will start Thursday’s game against the Detroit Lions. “I still have really high hopes for Teddy. A lot of things happen throughout the course of the season. We’ll just see how things go.”
When the Vikings and Lions kick off the NFL’s Thanksgiving schedule, Bridgewater will be in uniform on the sideline for the third straight week. Considering where he was only a few months ago, that’s significant progress. It’s just not nearly as far as Bridgewater needs to go.
Zimmer acknowledged he has a plan for Bridgewater, but “it changes every week.” If the Vikings’ offense had struggled the past two games, it’s likely that Bridgewater would have gotten some snaps in a meaningful game for the first time since he started in Minnesota’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 10, 2016.
Two weeks ago, during a 38-30 road win over the Washington Redskins, all Keenum did was throw a personal-best four touchdown passes, complete 72.4 percent of his passes and produce a Total QBR and passer rating of 98.9 and 117.0, respectively. Keenum followed that performance by connecting on 71.1 percent of his passes for 280 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. Again, he had both a top-notch Total QBR (76.5) and passer rating (100.8) as the NFC North-leading Vikings took down the Rams, who lead the NFC West.
Since Bridgewater returned, he has totally supported Keenum. The Vikings’ backup signal-caller can hold a clipboard with the best of them. Bridgewater has provided a second set of eyes on plays, offered observations about what opponents are doing on defense and been a cheerleader for Keenum.
There hasn’t been the slightest hint of tension in the locker room. Keenum and Bridgewater are both focusing on the fact that the Vikings are rolling. “I have a lot of love for both those guys,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I love the mindset of both those guys.”
Of course, it’s early.
Bridgewater is still riding a wave of euphoria from just being back on the active roster. “I take it one day at a time. That’s the key,” Bridgewater said. “I know guys say that all the time. It’s also true. I don’t think too far down the road. I just try to maximize each day.
“When I was working to get back, yeah, that’s all I thought about. The way I got through it was to get the most out of what I was doing at the time. Every day was both [a challenge and a victory]. And every morning I wake up is another opportunity for me to make an impact.”
Keenum knows that Bridgewater is standing right behind him. He knows that the Vikings used a first-round pick to draft Bridgewater. He knows his backup has already proved himself to be a solid starter over a full season. At 25, Bridgewater is also four years younger than Keenum.
At the moment, however, Keenum is the Vikings’ No. 1 quarterback — and he’s balling. He knows it, too.
“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Keenum said of the Vikings’ quarterback situation. “Let’s keep doing what we’re doing.
“It’s his [Zimmer’s] decision. I’m here to play. … I’m going to keep doing what I do every week. Keep answering the same questions and just keep getting ready to play.”
When Bridgewater’s left leg essentially snapped in two after he planted his foot awkwardly during a noncontact drill on Aug. 30, 2016, the Vikings did not know when, or if, he would return. He suffered a dislocated knee and torn ligaments. Because of the extensive trauma to his leg, team medical personnel feared he could lose it.
Based on the uncertainty over Bridgewater’s status, the Vikings declined to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. Under the terms of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, Bridgewater, depending on the interpretation of the rules while he was sidelined, could either be bound to the Vikings for one more year or become an unrestricted free agent.
After everything that Bridgewater and the Vikings have been through together, it would be a horrible look for them to potentially wind up on opposite sides of the table in a grievance hearing. Working out a fair contract extension would seem to make sense, which is why the Vikings need to observe Bridgewater in game action. Soon.
“As a competitor, obviously, you want to be out there fighting with your teammates,” Bridgewater said. “Just one day at a time.”
After staying on the grind for so long in rehab, Bridgewater may have many more productive years in the game he loves. But this season, he’s running out of time. And when it comes to Bridgewater, the Vikings can’t afford to waste any.