During the month-plus that the Minnesota Vikings spent in their final year of holding training camp in Mankato, Sam Bradford put on a laser show.
Fans who were in attendance can still easily recall a throw Bradford made to Stefon Diggs during the yearly night practice who gave them reason to go home and tell their friends in the Twin Cities that the offense was going to be truly explosive in the passing game for the first time since 2009.
The lead-up to the 2017 season felt like redemption was on the way for Bradford, who had won AP Rookie of the Year in St. Louis after being selected the No. 1 overall draft pick but suffered multiple ACL injuries that brought his career to a halt. The Philadelphia Eagles started him for one year in which he performed at a high level during the second half of the season but they still elected to trade up and pick Carson Wentz.
He arrived in Minnesota in the toughest situation possible: Filling the shoes of franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater following a brutal knee injury that left everyone wondering if Bridgewater would ever play again. Bradford arrived less than two weeks before the opener in Tennessee and was tasked with playing behind an injured offensive line without star running back Adrian Peterson after Week 2.
But 2017 was different. The Vikings had signed two tackles and drafted Dalvin Cook, who immediately appeared to be a superstar in the making from Day 1 of camp. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur had a full offseason to design his offense and Bradford grew close with head coach Mike Zimmer during the spring and summer.
“I tell people to this day that I love coach Zimmer,” Bradford said during an interview with SKOR North on Thursday. “I think he’s probably the favorite coach that I’ve ever played for. It’s a lot of tough love but you know that when he compliments you or he praises you that he really means it.”
“That year our relationship really developed,” Bradford continued. “He took some time off in the offseason to deal with his eye, he was having some procedures done, and so he wasn’t really around a lot during OTAs but he would watch the film every day and we would text about it. I think that’s where our relationship really took off.”
LISTEN TO THE ENTIRE INTERVIEW WITH SAM BRADFORD HERE:
The ’17 opener on Monday Night Football was an opportunity for Bradford and Zimmer to show that they were ready to jump right back in where they left off in 2015 when the Vikings lost in the opening round of the playoffs.
Before the game the head coach and veteran quarterback met and poured over the New Orleans Saints’ defense one last time.
“It really helped me because we would talk about from a defensive standpoint,” Bradford said. “How defenses were going to stop us, what they were looking at, what he thought defenses were keying on. Like that year before we played the Saints I remember sitting with him Monday and we probably spent 30 minutes together just watching the tape of their defense. He gave me his thoughts on their defensive coordinator, their favorite calls, what he liked to do.”
Bradford walked onto the field and put together the best performance in US Bank Stadium history by Pro Football Focus’s grading system. He was a pitcher throwing a perfect game or Steph Curry locked in from downtown. Everything he threw was exactly where Diggs and Adam Thielen wanted it. The Vikings won 29-19 behind Bradford’s 27-for-32 passing for 346 yards and three touchdowns.
The Saints tried to blitz him 10 times and Bradford — heeding Zimmer’s pregame advice — picked them apart going 9-for-10 with 160 yards on blitzes. He got rid of the ball in blazing-fast fashion and was only pressured six times (he still went 4-for-5 with 65 yards and a touchdown under pressure).
Nobody would forget about Bridgewater — especially not Zimmer — but for that night it felt like the Vikings found their next franchise quarterback.
But Bradford didn’t practice the following Wednesday, which was unusual for a quarterback who hadn’t left the game with any type of obvious injury. And then he missed Thursday and Friday and the next game against Pittsburgh. His status became mysterious to the point where Zimmer joked that he’d need a crystal ball to know when Bradford would play again.
He would only step on the field again for a rough half in Chicago. He was active as the backup in Philadelphia for the NFC Championship where he watched Case Keenum score on the first drive and then never again in a 38-7 loss and then Bradford left for Arizona as a free agent.
Vikings fans aren’t the only ones who still shake their head thinking about what Bradford could have done with Shurmur’s offense, which still finished 10th in scoring despite playing with a backup QB and Zimmer’s No. 1 ranked defense.
“I loved Minnesota, I have a lot of great memories,” Bradford said. “I wasn’t there for a super long time…what keeps me up [at night] is the knee injury. It was extremely frustrating to come out and play the way I did and play the way we did Week 1 against the Saints and for me knee to respond and act the way that it did the rest of the year, that was frustrating. We did have a great team and I was really looking forward to what we were going to be able to do that year.”
The Vikings turned to Kirk Cousins the following offseason, in part because they didn’t know if they would ever see the same version of Bradford that stepped on the field at US Bank Stadium that Monday night.
This Sunday Bradford will be watching Cousins play the Saints while trying to keep his 2-year-old engaged in the game and tending to his pregnant wife. He might coach some day but probably not soon. He’ll mix in as much golf as possible while focusing on being a dad.
But his voice jumps when talking about Vikings-Saints. He’ll be looking at Dennis Allen’s New Orleans defense and seeing some of the same things he picked apart in Week 1 of 2017. He’ll be looking for Zimmer’s defense to help pull off an upset in the Dome.
“You look at the way Zim has built these teams his defense is always going to give his team a chance to win,” Bradford said. “The way they get pressure on the quarterback, if they force a couple of turnovers and the offense capitalizes, there’s no doubt that the Vikings can beat anyone on any given day.”