U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis opened its towering glass doors Sunday night to admit 66,000 people to its first regular-season football game. With doors and a wall and a roof of glass, it presented the perfect stage for the local unveiling of a quarterback who also was said to be made of glass, that being Sam Bradford.
Live bands were performing as the patrons journeyed to their seats, some stopping for dinner in restaurants that serve expensive delicacies such as walleyed pike from nearby lakes.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said upon touring the building: “The experience you’re going to get as a fan is really remarkable.”
Indeed, it was a remarkable experience for diners in a sports bar when who should enter but Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. He was unable to put any weight on a stretched right knee, as he was supported and led, around corner after corner, to his team’s locker room. Fans gawked at him as if he was part of the game experience that Goodell was promising.
Certainly this was not the remarkable experience Viking fans were expecting. It could not be the durable All-Pro Peterson crumbling under the relentless assault of the Green Bay Packers. They would not have been surprised to see Bradford crushed and carted off. But in fact he held up very well, though he was hit 10 times while trying to pass from the pocket. He completed 22 of 31 for 286 yards, no interceptions, and two touchdowns, both after being legally mauled by Packers.
“There were a couple of times I thought he was dead,” Vikings guard Alex Boone told USA Today. “He wasn’t moving, so I had to pick him up. He is one tough dude.”
Bradford outdueled the much more acclaimed Green Bay quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, as the Vikings won 17-14 to take first place over their long-time rivals in the NFC North.
The nationally televised game had more than divisional significance, as the Packers entered the season as Super Bowl favorites. They’re led by perennial MVP candidate Rodgers, now reunited with his favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, who missed last season with knee reconstruction.
Alas, the reunion is nothing to celebrate. Nelson may be healthy, but at age 31 he’s nowhere near as fast as he was two years ago. He could not separate from Minnesota’s secondary.
Rodgers was visibly frustrated as he mistimed the slowing Nelson. The quarterback found himself in the same predicament as last season, unable to connect downfield with receivers who are too slow to break free from coverage.
The crowd did what it could to increase the discomfort of the visiting QB, who couldn’t follow his own well-known advice: Relax. The fully covered stadium was so loud in the first quarter that Rodgers had to burn a timeout to communicate with his teammates.
Bradford meanwhile basked in cheers that for the most part have been denied him ever since he left Oklahoma to be First Overall Draft Pick in 2010. In five seasons with the St. Louis Rams he showed arm strength and poise, but not much leadership. Of course it’s hard to lead from the training room, and he was ridiculed as The Human Splint. He has missed 35 starts in six NFL seasons.
He’s become the poster boy of football injury, though other capable passers have experienced lengthy disability: Tony Romo, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, and now the third-year Viking whom Bradford replaces: Teddy Bridgewater.
When able to play – which was roughly two-thirds of the time – Bradford left an impression, probably unjustified, of mediocrity. The truth is he was hampered in St. Louis by a coach, Jeff Fisher, who’s more interested in running the ball than throwing it, and Bradford has never been a dual quarterback. Nor was he a good fit last year in Philadelphia, where Chip Kelly craved mobility, ideally Marcus Mariota.
Also contributing to Bradford’s declining reputation was a dearth of capable pass-catchers in both St. Louis and Philadelphia.
That’s not such a problem in Minnesota, where Stefon Diggs, last year’s fifth-round draft pick, somehow has blossomed into a game-breaker and cornerback destroyer. In the Sunday night game he humiliated Demarious Randle, who was drafted the same year as Diggs, but on the first round.
All night long Diggs was as open as a casino. Bradford threw to him 11 times, for 9 completions and 182 yards.
Many Bradford followers were surprised at how well he adapted in two weeks to a new language, a new playbook and new receivers, before he was ushered into the breach. After all, this is a player who was faulted in Philadelphia for, among other things, not being as quick a learner as rookie Carson Wentz, who beat him out for QB1.
It helped that the Vikings’ tight ends coach, Pat Shurmur, had been one of Bradford’s coaches when he played – or not — for the Rams and Eagles. And Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer received a full briefing on Bradford’s medical issues from head trainer Eric Sugarman, who last season served on the Eagles’ staff.
It seems like something of a perfect storm that everything has worked out, so far, for Bradford in Minnesota. On this magical Sunday night he turned into Tom Brady or Drew Brees, rising after repeated muggings and responding with 20-yard spirals for first downs.
And by the way, why is Rodgers so incompatible with so many of his receivers? For all his obvious talent, he lacks the resourcefulness – or patience — of Brady, Brees and Philip Rivers, who routinely manufacture successful receivers from the offerings of waiver wires and practice squads.
As for Bradford, doubts may remain about his ability to inspire a team. He’s more of a loyal follower than a take-charge leader. But sometimes quiet types like Bart Starr or Eli Manning or Joe Flacco win Super Bowls. There’s something to be said for doing your job without calling attention to yourself or pointing to teammates who are underperforming – as Rodgers tends to do.
Bradford has never been on a team with as much talent as these Vikings. And most of them have never played with a quarterback who can throw like he can.
They’re likely to appreciate him all the more with Peterson shelved for at least a month by a torn meniscus. So the offense will be left to Bradford and Diggs. This combination may continue to torment the seemingly more entitled Aaron Rodgers and the Pack.
CLICK HERE for Alan Truex (10-2 Against the Spread) picking this week’s NFL games.