Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Vikings should use care with Bridgewater
By Ben Goessling
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.
If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.
Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.
Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.
The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.
So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.
For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.