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Coller: It's a what-if Sunday with Teddy Bridgewater's return

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

When Teddy Bridgewater takes the field at US Bank Stadium as the starting quarterback of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Minnesota Vikings fans everywhere are going to be thinking the same thing: What if Teddy never got hurt? What if the Vikings stayed with him after 2017 and never let him go?

When Bridgewater went down in practice in late August 2016 with an injury that nearly took his leg, the Vikings franchise was thrown for a loop. They went from feeling like they had their locked-in franchise QB after winning the NFC North in 2015 to scrambling at the position. They traded a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, eventually needed Case Keenum to guide them to the NFC Championship and then ultimately gave out the biggest contract in NFL history (at the time) to Kirk Cousins.

That’s quite a difference from how the Vikings saw it playing out before he went down. Mike Zimmer once said he never thought he’d have another quarterback. Rick Spielman said in 2017 that they had been planning their salary cap future to handle an extension. And then it all changed in an instant.

There are endless questions stemming from his injury and how the past five years would have played out had he remained healthy. Would Bridgewater have overcome a banged-up offensive line in 2016 and held together a tense locker room in order to take them from 5-0 to the playoffs rather than collapsing? Would Bridgewater have taken the team to the Super Bowl in 2017 when they had the No. 1 defense in the NFL? Would they have continued to be a force in the NFC rather than slipping to missing the postseason in 2018 and landing only a No. 6 seed in the playoffs in 2019? Would they be rebuilding around him now?

There’s a part of the question, of course, that goes a little forgotten. That’s the impact Bridgewater had behind the scenes during his recovery.

“I’m pretty certain making this statement that in the 10 years I’ve been here he has to be the most likable player that we’ve had in the locker room,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I mean you just talk to people in the front office, coaching staff, players that played with him, workers in the category, everyone loved Teddy. You loved his energy and positivity that he brought every day, his work ethic that he brought every day. He was a guy who for me personally I was a huge fan of and was really impressed with the progress he was making leading up to his injury.”

Star running back Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending ACL injury in 2017 and Bridgewater helped guide him during the recovery process.

“I had some tough days in the training room with Teddy,” Cook said. “He would just tell me to push through, you’ve got to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It just used to be little things that he would pitch at me and throw at me to get me through it. I could be going through some pain in the training room trying to get my extension back, trying to get my range of motion back, and he’d make me laugh through it. It would just be those little things.”

Stories of Bridgewater’s impression on Vikings players and staff could fill a room. Even when Case Keenum was quarterbacking the team to its best season of the 2010s, Bridgewater as the backup was helping Keenum from the sidelines and in meeting rooms. And when Bridgewater returned late in the 2017 season, Keenum led the “Teddy, Teddy” chant on the sideline.

“I was on the sideline and that’s probably the loudest I’ve heard that stadium since I’ve been here,” Cook said. “It was loud. It was crazy. To see that happen man -- and I’m glad I got to experience it. It’s probably one of the greatest moments, after the Minneapolis Miracle, since I’ve been here.”

Would it have been better if Bridgewater never got hurt and led the team to a terrific season in 2017? Of course. But his recovery made for one of the special storylines from that season.

The second what-if is a little tougher.

Following 2017, the Vikings elected to move on from Keenum, Bradford and Bridgewater. They feared Keenum was a one-year wonder. They feared Bradford’s knees would be an issue. They also feared Bridgewater would never be the same.

“When he got hurt, we went back and looked at the history of people who had had that injury. There wasn’t very many of them,” Mike Zimmer said. “I think there was one basketball player, one football player. I think the basketball player came back after 24 months, and he didn’t have a long career. So for [Teddy] to come back after 16 months, or whatever it was, it’s very unique and one-of-a-kind.”

So the Vikings signed Cousins in the 2018 offseason. What if the Vikings had believed in Bridgewater’s recovery and kept him as their starting quarterback?

It’s hard to say how quickly he would have bounced back to Bridgewater form but in the last two years, he’s started 15 games and has a 70.5% completion percentage, 3,936 yards, 22 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a quarterback rating of 98.9.

Bridgewater is playing the best ball of his career despite the shortcomings of his rebuilding Carolina squad. He has an ESPN QBR of 72.2, which factors game situation and performance. That ranks 13th in the NFL.

Statistically there are some differences between Cousins and Bridgewater but they are operating similarly efficient passing offenses this year. The Vikings rank 15th in Expected Points Added in the pass game while Carolina is 16th (per Pro-Football Reference).

There isn’t a good statistical way to figure out whether Bridgewater would have had any more success than Cousins in 2018, 2019 or this season. But for Vikings fans who loved Teddy (and maybe some folks inside the building), there’s been a number of losses along the way, maybe even last week against the Cowboys, that it may have crossed their minds that Bridgewater would have come away with a win.

Not knowing, of course, enhances Bridgewater’s popularity in Minnesota.

But his last 15 games as a starter are proving that it wasn’t a myth. It wasn’t in the imagination of Teddy faithful that he could perform at a high level. And the fact that he’s been able to come back to the point we can know that for certain is worth celebrating -- even if it adds to the what-ifs. 

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