Monday, May 12, 2014
In Bridgewater, Zimmer has his match
By Ben Goessling
After enduring a ton of criticism following his pro day workout, Teddy Bridgewater arrives in Minnesota with plenty to prove.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman led the study -- an exhaustive analytical comparison of the top quarterbacks in the 2014 draft class -- and the Vikings' father and son team of Turners (offensive coordinator Norv and quarterbacks coach Scott) put passers through the paces of the Vikings' offense. But new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was also on the Vikings' quarterback caravan this spring, crisscrossing the country with a specific role in the process and a manifesto about what he wanted to see.
Among other things, Zimmer zeroed in on the persona of the quarterbacks the Vikings might draft, trying to understand on a gut level what made them work and whether he'd be able to trust them as one half of a coach-quarterback partnership that could define both of their careers.
"Will this guy lead our football team? I want to make sure that the guy we bring in has the athletic ability but I also want him to have my persona," Zimmer said at the owners' meetings in March. "Because him and I are going to be tied together, whoever we draft. I don't want him to be a completely different personality from me if I can help it. I want this guy to be a leader and a guy who wants to take a bunch a guys and make a great franchise. I want him to be the first one in the building. These are a lot of things that I talk to them about and try to figure out how smart he is. All of these quarterbacks have played great in college and all of them could be the guy. The ones that don't make it are the ones when the lights come on and things are moving and he has to react and put the ball in the right place. How do you judge that? That's the biggest thing. How do we figure that out?"
Is it any wonder, then, that the Vikings ultimately ended up with Teddy Bridgewater? That Zimmer -- who had to wait until age 57 to become a head coach and vowed at his introductory press conference to make 31 other teams realize what they missed -- would be drawn to a player who promised to play with a chip on his shoulder after spending months in the crosshairs of NFL draft critics? That a coach looking for leadership would be quick to spot Bridgewater's ability to get Miami-area recruits to play at Louisville, and that Bridgewater would tell Zimmer just before the draft that Minnesota was where he wanted to be?
"You know, he sat down in my office," Zimmer said on Thursday, after the Vikings traded up to take Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick. "He came in there and I asked him a bunch of questions and we talked about football and we talked about a lot of different things and I asked him, “What do you think is the best situation for you?” and he said, “Coach, you are going to think I'm blowing you smoke but I think the Minnesota Vikings is for me. This is really where I want to go.” I usually can read guys pretty good and I think he was very sincere about it."
To be fair, the Vikings had Bridgewater second on their draft board, slightly behind Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel. A team source confirmed to ESPN's Bob Holtzman on Friday that the Vikings did try to trade up and get Manziel with the 22nd overall pick -- though it's questionable whether the Vikings would have been able to offer the Philadelphia Eagles enough to beat out the Cleveland Browns, whose offer included a first-round choice. And the Vikings had enough questions about both quarterbacks that they were willing to take UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr with the ninth overall pick, opening themselves up to the possibility they wouldn't get either of the top passers on their board. It's not as though the Vikings were so certain about Bridgewater that they weren't willing to risk losing him, and the 22-year-old will need some work before he's ready to assume control of the Vikings' offense. Zimmer said the Vikings wanted Bridgewater to play when "we feel like he's the best guy," but Spielman has talked about giving a young quarterback a "redshirt year," and with Matt Cassel signed for two years, the Vikings are under no pressure to rush Bridgewater.
But hearing Zimmer talk about Bridgewater -- and hearing wide receiver Greg Jennings say that he never thought Manziel would be a fit for "what we're trying to do here," it's hard not to think the Vikings ultimately got their guy. Zimmer ultimately got the Vikings job in part because of Christian Ponder's effect on predecessor Leslie Frazier's fortunes, and the Vikings' new coach came to Minnesota under no illusions about how a quarterback can steer a team one way or the other.
The Vikings took great pains to make sure they felt comfortable with the player they'd draft, and at this point, at least, it appears they found a match for their new coach. Many of the things that have been said about Zimmer -- about his hunger for work and his intestinal fortitude -- have also been said about Bridgewater, and both men come to Minnesota with smudges after having their noses rubbed in dirt. That's not a guarantee of any success, but it's not a bad place to start.
"We wouldn't have moved up just to get anybody," Zimmer said. "This was obviously a guy that we wanted, that's why we moved up to get him because this is a guy that we feel really, really strong about."