Within the next week, the Minnesota Vikings will decide whether to lift quarterback Teddy Bridgewater from the Physically Unable to Perform list. If/when they do, then the countdown officially begins to Bridgewater returning under center.
Until he plays in real, live games, the Vikings won’t really know how close he will be to the 2015 version.
“When he’s out there practicing and you see him dropping back or you see him throw a pass on the move or you see him scramble,” GM Rick Spielman said on Wednesday. “We’re not having live scrimmages out there.”
In determining if/when he will start this season, Spielman said that the coaching staff and doctors are evaluating whether Bridgewater can play again the same way they would evaluate any other starting quarterback.
One of the biggest keys will be whether Bridgewater can use his legs to improvise.
The former Louisville star, who led the Vikings to a 11-5 record in 2015, is not a “running quarterback.” He has averaged 13.1 rushing yards per game over his 29 starts. But at his best, Bridgewater was mobile enough to create time and space. Among his best skills was the ability to extend a play when the pocket broke down. He could keep his eyes downfield while scrambling and find an open receiver.
The example below came against in a 20-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The offensive line gets beat on a stunt and pressure comes inside the right tackle. Bridgewater responds by escaping to his right. If you watch carefully, Bridgewater directs tight end Kyle Rudolph to slide toward the middle of the field, creating a throwing lane and open running space. Bridgewater did this on a sprint to his right, then threw short back across his body.
It’s worth noting that the Vikings’ offensive line will be leaps and bounds better than the 2015 version, which featured TJ Clemmings and Matt Kalil as the starting tackles. He will also have an offense that is more catered to getting the ball out quickly, rather than taking deep drops.
Still, for Bridgewater to be his most valuable, he has to be able to create something from nothing. On the play below, the deep receiver to his left Adam Thielen appears to be his first read, but the pressure arrives before Thielen can complete his route. Bridgewater anticipates Vic Beasley getting around the edge, then slides behind Kalil, who is getting beat inside and accelerates toward the line of scrimmage.
Bridgewater knows he will be caught from behind if he tries to make a full pass, so he flips the ball shovel style to Rudolph coming across the middle.
Neither of these plays were game-changing bombs, but they allowed the Vikings to keep drives moving. Bridgewater’s personal stats may not have won anyone fantasy championships, but that’s largely because the Vikings threw the fewest number of passes in the NFL with Adrian Peterson as the centerpiece of their offense.
And overall, the Vikings’ red zone struggles (which were Peterson related) caused the offense to appear less competent than it was. the Vikings ranked seventh in the NFL in the percentage of drives with points scored. Part of the reason for that: On third downs Bridgewater averaged 7.9 yards per attempt
The Vikings are in a difficult spot with Bridgewater’s return because they are fighting for a division title while also hoping to find out whether he can be their franchise quarterback going forward. In practice, there is no real way to know whether Bridgewater can still accelerate, cut, shuffle etc. to create time to find throws when the pocket collapses. The only way to find out is to put him in game situations, but it might take time before he trusts the knee enough to do those things.
One thing is clear: If Bridgewater can get back to the 2015 version, he will add an element to the Vikings’ offense that hasn’t been there since he got hurt last year.