EAGAN — A bout with COVID-19 and a subsequent Week 11 benching had Garrett Bradbury doing some self-reflection.
The former first-round pick missed his first games as a Viking in November after two and a half years as the starting center. Once Bradbury returned from the Reserve/COVID-19 list, he was replaced by Mason Cole, who had performed well in Bradbury’s stead. The decision didn’t seem all that difficult either. For a third straight year, Bradbury found himself at the bottom of Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking grades.
In a year when Bradbury had hoped to earn his fifth-year option, having the plug pulled midseason forced the third-year pro to “take a hard look in the mirror.”
“It's been a roller coaster, I'll be honest,” he said Thursday. “You find out you get COVID and you're home by yourself pretty much for 10 days, a lot of thoughts go through your head.
“While I was out and when I came back and wasn't playing right away, you go back and you watch every game from this season. And personally, I felt like watching the tape, I was playing to not mess up, playing a little timid. Whereas in the moment, I felt like I was just playing good, good enough, et cetera.”
After four games out of the lineup Bradbury was given a second chance after Christian Darrisaw’s ankle injury led to a reshuffle. Oli Udoh moved to left tackle, Cole shifted to right guard, and Bradbury took back his old post at center in Week 13. Against Detroit, Bradbury posted his best run-blocking grade of the year, and against Pittsburgh, he delivered his finest pass-blocking performance of the season, allowing zero pressures for the first time in 2021.
“I just tried to listen to the right people and keep my head on straight,” Bradbury said, “because I knew that I wasn't done playing for the year, so whenever I was going to go in, I had to be motivated, have the right thoughts and have the right mindset.
“You can go one of two ways with it -- you can be mad, bitter and all that or you can just say, ‘You know what, it's on me.’ Look at the film and say, ‘What could I have done differently?’ And so I always want to put it on myself so that way I can change it. So I feel like I’m taking the right steps and doing that right now.”
Bradbury’s improvement came after some encouragement from his head coach. Before the Steelers game, Mike Zimmer encouraged Minnesota’s offensive linemen to not settle for stalemates but to push back defenders, and the Vikings responded by rushing the ball for 242 yards with Bradbury as the fulcrum.
“I just wanted to play more on the attack instead of defensively,” he said. “Take it to them and play that physical style of football that Coach Zimmer wants us to be playing.”
The Pittsburgh performance was the type of game the Vikings have longed for from Bradbury, but it’s also just one. To guarantee a role into the future, Bradbury will need to string a few solid outings together against opponents that feature Akiem Hicks, Aaron Donald and Kenny Clark at defensive tackle.
If he can’t, Bradbury may enter 2022 in a contract year without a long-term future in purple.
“Nothing is guaranteed in this league, and I'm sitting here glad that it happened,” Bradbury said of his benching. “I feel like I'm playing my best ball of the season and I want to keep that going.”