Last year, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said he never saw himself having another quarterback other than Bridgewater.
The question comes up often: Why are Zimmer and the Vikings’ players so impressed with a quarterback who only threw 14 touchdowns in 2015?
The first reason is that they don’t grade players on touchdowns. It’s really a bad measure of QB play. In 2015, Bridgewater only threw 42 passes in the red zone, while Blake Bortles tossed 95 passes and was one of the league leaders in touchdowns. Nobody would say Bortles is better than Bridgewater. The Vikings were third in the league in rushing touchdowns in ’15 and seventh in Drive Scoring Percentage. Bridgewater was leading his team down the field, but Adrian Peterson was getting the touches when they were in scoring position.
The second reason: Coaches and teammates focus on the game tape (and winning) rather than the box score.
Before we look at some of the things that made Bridgewater so popular – outside of his personality – it should be noted that we can’t know until he plays whether the former first-round pick will be back to his old self or how long it will take him to trust his repaired knee. Some players, they never make a full recovery.
The two things that stand out most on tape outside of Bridgewater’s ability to improvise (which we looked at here) are his ability to read defenses at the line of scrimmage and his accuracy.
Bridgewater has been criticized for throwing too many short passes, but many of his dump-offs were the right play and result in a chunk of yards after catch.
On throws between 1-10 yards, Bridgewater averaged 9.8 yards per completion and threw six touchdowns, zero interceptions. To put than in perspective, here’s how some other QBs performed in Yards Per Completion on throws between 1-10 yards in 2016:
Drew Brees: 7.9
Ben Roethlisberger: 8.0
Tom Brady: 8.6
Derek Carr: 8.8
Aaron Rodgers: 9.1
Russell Wilson: 11.8
Throwing short often carries a negative connotation because teams try to gameplan for simple, low-risk throws for bad starters or backups. The Vikings, for example, have mostly kept Case Keenum to a heavy diet of screen passes and play-action throws (which have had success because of excellent execution by the O-line, running backs and receivers). But Bridgewater’s short throws aren’t usually the same as Keenum’s short throws.
We’ll use examples from the Vikings’ matchup with the Arizona Cardinals in 2015 to demonstrate his various skills, including making the read that leads to a big gain despite a short throw.
Here is an example:
The Cardinals load up the line of scrimmage with two defensive backs up at the line, No. 32 and No. 20. When Bridgewater snaps the ball, he isn’t sure whether either of them will rush the passer or whether No. 44 is coming off the edge. As soon as he gets the snap, he spots No. 20 racing back into the middle of the field to cover Stefon Diggs on a post route.
Bridgewater knows that all three of his receivers at the top of the screen are running vertical routes. That was a staple of Norv Turner’s offense. He reads that the defensive backs on that side of the field are playing off the line of scrimmage, which won’t give him many options on that side of the field outside of the comeback route by Mike Wallace. However, getting the ball to Wallace on a deep comeback will require time in the pocket that Bridgewater will not have with the pass rush. He notices the over-the-top safety in the middle of the field and knows that he won’t be able to throw to either Adam Thielen or Stefon Diggs on their duel posts either.
So his eyes move over to Kyle Rudolph, who is the lone underneath option. Adrian Peterson stays in to pick up the blitz (and does a good job). When Bridgewater sees that No. 44 is dropping into a zone in the middle, he flings the ball to Rudolph wide open underneath while adapting his arm angle to work around the pass rush.
Plays like these are most common for Bridgewater. He threw 212 of his 447 passes between 1-10 yards. At 6.6 yards per attempt and 9.8 per completion, these are the plays that pushed the Vikings’ offense down the field with Bridgewater under center.
Now let’s have a look at Bridgewater’s arm talent. He’s often criticized for the lack of a deep ball, but it really depends on how you quantify “deep ball.”
On throws between 11-20 yards, he racked up 11.1 yards per attempt, 18.3 yards per completion and a 60.5% completion percentage.
Let’s compare that to our set of QBs’ numbers in 2016:
Drew Brees: 10.8 yards per attempt, 18.2 yards per completion, 59.0 completion percentage
Ben Roethlisberger: 10.5/18.9/53.2%
Tom Brady: 13.7/19.9/69.0%
Derek Carr: 8.2/17.7/46.6%
Aaron Rodgers: 9.2/18.9/48.7%
Russell Wilson: 9.2/18.1/50.9%
So to recap: On intermediate throws, Bridgewater was better than all the league’s best QBs in 2016 on completion percentage and yards per attempt except Tom Brady and on par in yards per completion with all of them.
Why was he so good between 11-20 yards? Bridgewater has accuracy and anticipation. In NFL Draft terms: He throws receivers open. Here’s one example on a throw to MyCole Pruitt.
This is another Norv Turner special that includes three vertical routes and only one short option. To help right tackle TJ Clemmings, the tight end on the weak side stays in to help block while all three receiving options come from the bottom of the screen. Adrian Peterson goes out for an underneath route but is well covered.
After Bridgewater fakes a handoff, he looks up to see a throwing lane and time to work the ball to one of his men downfield. The Cardinals again have a deep centerfield safety and man coverage with the two DBs on Wallace and Diggs. The middle linebacker drops into a zone, which Bridgewater recognizes.
He releases the ball when Pruitt is right behind the linebacker because he understands that the linebacker is in a zone and won’t run with Pruitt out of fear of a dump off to Peterson. He sees the linebacker’s eyes are on the running back and the centerfield safety hasn’t broken one way or the other yet, so Bridgewater throws the ball toward the sideline in a place where only Pruitt can catch it.
If you combine both skills – his ability to read the defense and react with his accuracy, you have the play below (and the reason the Vikings should have thrown more often in the red zone).
Bridgewater’s first read is Rhett Ellison, who is the only receiver at the top of the screen. When he drops back, the Vikings’ quarterback realizes the safety has a beat on Ellison and would either break up the pass, pick it off or tackle Ellison short of the goal. Bridgewater then goes to his second look, which appears to be Stefon Diggs (who is covered), then the third to Mike Wallace underneath. He sees that the Cards are playing man coverage everywhere, leaving the DB to track Wallace through traffic. Kyle Rudolph bumps the Cards’ DB, putting him behind Wallace, who comes wide open.
The arm talent part of this throw is under appreciated By the time Bridgewater releases it, he’s at the 20-yard line and falling backward away from pressure. If he throws the ball right to Wallace, there’s a chance that the DB will close the gap. Instead he leads Wallace several yards deep into the end zone for the touchdown.
Again it’s worth saying that we can’t yet predict whether Bridgewater will be able to adapt quickly to Pat Shurmur’s offense, shake off the rust quickly or play at the same level as he did in 2015.
It’s also worth mentioning that Bridgewater had ups and downs the last time he played. In three games, he registered QBRs (ESPN’s 1-100 scale) of under 25. In four games, he had QBRs above 70. Part of Zimmer and the team’s excitement was the potential they saw in a second-year quarterback who has the mind and the accuracy to play at a high level. If Bridgewater can regain those skills, he can get back to being the Vikings’ franchise QB.