Sunday, September 28, 2014

Best Case Scenario for Bridgewater

Teddy Bridgewater will get his first NFL start today when the Minnesota Vikings take on the Atlanta Falcons.  The situation is perfect for Bridgewater.

The ideal scenario for any NFL quarterback to make their NFL debut is to do so in friendly environment where the expectations are low.  That's what Bridgewater faces today.  At home, against an Atlanta team that crushed Tampa Bay last week, Bridgewater will be forgiven several mistakes with few fans expecting much other than a demonstration of pocket awareness when attempting to elude the rush from the blind side, some arm strength--on target or not, and a semblance of calm in the eye of the storm.

If Bridgewater accomplishes the above, even in a loss, Vikings' fans likely will shrug and return to see what happens in the next game.

In addition to relatively low expectations and an environment of patience, Bridgewater has two additional advantages.  The first is that Atlanta's defense is not very good.  That's small consolation to a team without a running game and with a struggling offensive line, but it is something.  Despite thrashing Tampa Bay last week, Atlanta's defense has still allowed 387 yards of offense per game.  That's tied for 25th in the NFL.

The second advantage is that, because of the Vikings' offensive line woes, Bridgewater likely will need to demonstrate all of the traits that the team hopes it has in him.  He will need to run, likely often, and he will need to make quick decisions.  Fans will understand that these are the requirement of a quarterback put in a difficult spot and will forgive an occasional lapse committed in an effort to adjust to competition at the NFL level.

In addition to all of the advantages, Bridgewater faces a daunting task today.  But even that comes wrapped in near certain fan patience.  Unlike Christian Ponder, Bridgewater does not have a nookie blanket in Adrian Peterson.  Bridgewater will have to be his own savior.  That will serve him well in the long run.  Should he prevail in any measure, Bridgewater will receive credit.  Should he fail, fans will point to the lack of support.  As with other elements of this match-up, it's a win-win for Bridgewater.

No matter the outcome, the one certainty is that--barring an injury or a four-turnover performance not directly attributable to the offensive line--Bridgewater will leave Sunday's game looking like a player somewhere between a project and a find.  That will be enough to keep him ahead of Christian Ponder and likely ahead of a healthy Matt Cassel on the depth chart.  And that would be a victory of sorts for the organization, as it will allow the team proper time to assess Bridgewater and to determine what needs ought to be addressed in the 2015 off-season.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Will Vikings Take Path Less Traveled?

In last week's 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots, Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel threw for 202 yards and a touchdown.  Those results were Ponder-like in Ponder's better games and might have been enough for a victory, but for the fact that the team did not have Adrian Peterson to otherwise carry the load and the additional fact that Cassel contributed four picks to the effort.

We have seen this type of performance from Cassel in the past and we have seen Cassel rebound to the relatively mediocre quarterback that he typically is.  Whether Cassel avoids the picks going forward is not the Vikings' immediate or long-term concern.  Rather, those concerns are whether they have on the roster a quarterback capable of consistently playing above replacement level.

In addition to throwing picks on Sunday, Cassel seemed incapable of the deep pass.  In the few instances in which he attempted to go deep, his passes fluttered short of the target and seemed to be Cassel's best effort.  That's disturbing in a pass-happy league that is becoming more of a vertical game and less of a control and possession game.  Neither Cassel nor Christian Ponder appears capable of providing the deep or even long option.  That leaves only Teddy Bridgewater.

Almost certainly, Bridgewater is not prepared to step in as an NFL starter.  But, if the alternatives show the limited potential that the Vikings' other two quarterbacks heretofore have shown, it behooves the Vikings to determine sooner, rather than later, whether Bridgewater has the ability to start in the NFL.

The Vikings can accomplish a transition to Bridgewater in one of two ways.  One way is to throw Bridgewater into the game as a starter.  That's unlikely to happen over the next several weeks when the Vikings play, in succession, New Orleans, Atlanta, Green Bay, and Detroit--all high-scoring teams against whom the Vikings will need to score to have a chance to win.  And, given that reality, the Vikings would be committing to Cassel for nearly half the season, leaving Bridgewater a brief window to measure Bridgewater.

It is unclear what timeline is required to measure a quarterback's NFL potential in the world of Rick Spielman.  For Ponder, the timeline was ever-shifting, reflecting the GM's hope that his draft-day reach would somehow pan out.  For Josh Freeman, the timeline was one game.  That leaves a whole lot of ground between.

None of this would be all that significant for the Vikings, particularly without the added concern of attempting to win before the Peterson era in Minnesota ended, but for the fact that there happens to be a reasonably promising quarterback on the board in next year's NFL draft, in the form of Marcus Mariota.  Spielman presumably took Bridgewater late in round one, rather than Manziel earlier, in part, at least, to allow himself the opportunity to concede that Bridgewater is not the franchise quarterback, should Bridgewater turn out not to be what Spielman thinks he is.  But taking advantage of that opt-out option is really only possible if Bridgewater plays this year.

The second option for introducing Bridgewater is to incorporate him into the game at various times--certainly if any of the upcoming games become one-sided.  That would make sense not only from a performance review perspective, but also from a PR perspective as it would demonstrate that the team is moving on from the glacially slow assessments that led to numerous suspect decisions over the past four seasons.  And, if Bridgewater performs to the level that Spielman anticipates, the Vikings might find that they can spend a first-round pick on something other than a quarterback.