The past month has been a roller coaster for the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off an impressive NFC North title over their dominant rivals from Wisconsin, the Vikings and their fans had nothing but optimism heading into the 2016 season.
Adrian Peterson, 31, showed no signs of slowing down, despite the feared ceiling of 30-year-old running backs. The 2013 MVP led the NFL in rushing yards last year (1485 yds) and he cracked 10 rushing TDs for the eighth straight healthy year (11 TDs). Coach Mike Zimmer took over in 2014 and quickly delivered results. Minnesota improved upon their 5-10-1 record in 2013 with a 7-9 campaign in 2014. They turned this modest improvement into a huge leap in 2015, going 11-5 and winning the division. Zimmer emits an intelligence and resolve that has Vikings fans appropriately hopeful for the future.
Nobody, however, is more important to the Vikings’ immediate future than Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater didn’t show overwhelming signs of greatness in his sophomore season, but he showed encouraging signs of growth. Even with Peterson aging, he has time to grow and make the team his. Heading into 2016, it wasn’t unreasonable to think a greatly improved year by Bridgewater could lead the Vikes to do something special. And that’s why his season-ending injury in the offseason cast a dark cloud over the fans’ sunny optimism for the next five months.
What followed made things even cloudier, but not immediately darker. Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford, an enigma of a starting QB. Bradford, known for his injury woes, has started a full season twice in his budding career and has thrown for over 20 passing TDs only once. And yet, in the past three years, he’s seen two different teams (Eagles, Vikings) trade quite a haul to bring him in. Minnesota gave up a first-round pick in 2017 and another conditional pick in 2018, causing fans and the media to wonder why Minnesota was putting their bright future at risk for such an unproven QB. Like all questions in sports, this one has been quickly put to rest because of winning (for now).
The Vikings won their season opener without Bradford (who was still picking up the playbook), but then thrust him into the challenging role of beating Green Bay. They asked not only he win over their hated rival, but that he do it in the first game of their brand new stadium, a structure as symbolic of Minnesota’s bright future as anything or anyone.
He won that game and played great while doing so. He looked as good (likely better) as he ever had in St. Louis or Philly. Adrian Peterson was injured during the game, but for a brief time, things looked great for the Vikings again. That optimism has once again been put on hold after news on Wednesday confirming a torn meniscus for Peterson, an injury that will require surgery and put him out for 3-4 months.
Peterson is out and Bridgewater is gone. Even without just those two, the team looks and feels very different from the one Minnesota fans expected this season. Yet so far, the results have been perfect. Other pieces of the team like the defense and Zimmer have held steady on this wild roller coaster. How long can Minnesota continue to survive?
It feels as if the darkness is still coming, even if beating Green Bay feels like a Super Bowl win. A lot of it rests on the shoulders of Bradford and the defense, but nobody has a tougher job than Mike Zimmer. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to find out a lot about who he is, who this team is, and who they might become down the road.