By Jason Keidel
We spent the first four weeks of the NFL season stumbling over each other to praise the Patriots for their loyalty. They won three games without Tom Brady, and welcomed back the most decorated quarterback in the NFL with a 3-1 record.
We can debate the merits of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett all week, but at least they are homegrown, and well-versed in Belichick’s corporate coda. All speak the sterile, native tongue of “Onto Cincinnati.” They merely had to move a few yards over to play with the starting squad.
So if the Pats are a picture of gridiron harmony, then what about the Minnesota Vikings? What do you say about the spirit of a team that is 5-0 sans its starting quarterback and its Hall-of-Fame running back?
The Vikings are playing without their starting QB, Teddy Bridgewater, who led them to the playoffs last year, where they were a chip-shot field goal from beating the Seahawks in the first round. And the replacement QB, Sam Bradford, just parachuted into the team complex a month ago.
Minnesota is winning with a quarterback who played over 1,000 miles away the week before he started for the Vikings, and have had to rewire their on-field identity without Adrian Peterson.
Bill Belichick, easily the best coach in the NFL, if not all team sports, has had over 15 years to make the team in his likeness. Mike Zimmer is remodeling the Vikings into a modern version of their 1970s predecessor, fondly branded the Purple People Eaters, in just his third year.
And unlike the Pats and their ornery coach in the hobo-chic wardrobe, Zimmer’s Vikings are the only undefeated team left in the NFL. If Belichick is tattered hoodies and low-key sarcasm, then Zimmer is all zoot suit and fiery sermons.
Without a summer camp or single preseason game, Bradford is lining up with entirely new teammates and learning a new system. He’s playing flawlessly. The often-injured quarterback, who was a nanosecond from being forever branded a bust, is the story of the young season.
And it says a lot about Zimmer, who seemed forever fated for a coordinator’s job, just a few feet from the head coaching headset, yet galaxies away. It’s rare that someone gets his first head-coaching gig in his late-50s. But Zimmer has more than rewarded Minnesota’s investment. Had you told any head coach (west of Foxborough) they would lose their QB and star RB for the season in September, they would likely have signed for 8-8 on the spot.
So far, the injury bug has eluded the Vikings defense, which is Zimmer’s wheelhouse. And the numbers reflect it. Pick a stat, and the Vikings are likely near the top. They allow just 77.8 rushing yards and 209.8 passing yards per game. The 287.6 total yards per game is fourth in the NFL. Minnesota surrenders just 12.6 points per game, which leads the league. They also lead the NFL in sacks, with 19. And they sit atop the league in turnover margin, at plus-11.
Granted, it’s easier to assimilate on offense when your defense is as stout as Minnesota’s. At times NFL offenses must feel like they’re playing against 12 defenders. And they need the help, as the Vikings, sans Peterson, now average 70.6 yards rushing per game, last in the league. They are just 23rd in passing, with 232 YPG.
Bradford has been labeled a game manager. And as wince-inducing as that term is, it perfectly describes him over his four games in purple. His passer rating is a rather robust 109.8. His total QBR in yesterday’s romp over the Texans was a near-perfect 93.3. And despite playing for a new team, with a new system, in a new city, Bradford is completing 70.5 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Zimmer gets the gold ribbon for the way his team has bought in, just as the coach takes inordinate blame for poor play. And there was ample opportunity to let the season get away.
Bridgewater, by all accounts, suffered as gruesome an injury as you will see on a football field, much worse than a tweaked hamstring or pinched pectoral. And he wasn’t even touched. Players were puking in the background. Faces glistened with tears. Practice was canceled because the team couldn’t compose itself for the rest of the day.
No one doubts Bridgewater’s courage. If anyone can return from the vulgar happenstance of his mangled leg, it’s Teddy Bridgewater. And, it seems, if anyone can hurdle the meat-hook realities of pro football, it’s Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.