Minnesota’s success will ride heavily on the right arm of Teddy Bridgewater, with several improvements sought by the third-year quarterback to steer the Vikings toward a deep run through the playoffs.
Being more assertive is on top of Bridgewater’s list.
”The biggest thing that you want to see is maybe him letting it loose a little more,” general manager Rick Spielman said near the beginning of the offseason, an uncharacteristically specific directive from the boss that helped shape a narrative that’s sure to stretch into the fall.
The organization’s desire for Bridgewater, 17-11 in his career as a starter but ranked in the bottom third of the NFL last year in most of the major passing categories, has a dual meaning.
First, he must be more of an advocate to the coaching staff for the plays he’d like to run. Coach Mike Zimmer has almost made it sound as though he’d like Bridgewater to argue with him or offensive coordinator Norv Turner once in a while. The consummate team-first player when he’s at a podium for interviews, rarely willing to dissect his own performance, Bridgewater acknowledged this week his need to apply more assertiveness to his interaction with the team. The baby-faced, big-smiling Bridgewater has a tendency to be too much of a people pleaser.
”I want to be an image of coach Zim,” Bridgewater said of his blunt-talking coach, ”and I’m going to make sure that I try to do that.”
The Vikings also need Bridgewater to, literally, let the ball loose down the field. He had 41 completions of 20-plus yards last season, ranking 23rd in the league.
”I’m not going to go out there and just throw the ball all around the park and throw it to the other team. I want to have an aggressive mentality, but a relaxed presence,” Bridgewater said. ”That’s going to be my focus this year, and I’m going to make sure I’m studying film more and just seeing when we can take shots and what guys we can get after.”
First-round draft pick Laquon Treadwell was acquired to help with that, after an experiment with Mike Wallace as the top outside wide receiver ended after one year. Stefon Diggs and Charles Johnson will also be counted on, as will Adam Thielen and Jarius Wright in the slot.
There might not be a player with more potential to help elevate Bridgewater’s performance, though, than tight end Kyle Rudolph.
Even Zimmer urged Bridgewater at one point in the second half of last season to simply trust Rudolph more. Rudolph was unavailable for most of Bridgewater’s rookie year because of injury. For much of 2015, Rudolph was asked to pass block more than ever to aid an ailing offensive line. His production as a receiver picked up significantly down the stretch.
Now, with some important additions to the front five, the Vikings are targeting Rudolph as, well, a more active target.
”It’s important to me that I make sure I’m always there for Teddy, especially when the head coach has the confidence in me to go to the quarterback and tell him to trust me more,” Rudolph said. ”Being a bigger guy, there may not look like there’s much separation there, but if you throw the ball in the right place, I’m going to be the only one to get it. I’ll always make sure that, worst-case scenario, nobody catches it.”
Bridgewater wears a gray wristband with the acronym G-U-M-P, standing for ”great under major pressure.” The Vikings have rarely been concerned about his ability in this area, even if his deep-passing statistics have been lacking.
”I’ve been dealing with pressure since I’ve been playing sports. That’s why I play the position,” said Bridgewater, who will turn 23 on Nov. 10. ”It’s the most pressure-packed position, and I love it.”
Zimmer has often been asked about Bridgewater’s development, their careers inexorably intertwined having taken their respective jobs with the Vikings in 2014. There’s hardly a player the head coach has raved more about, despite the caution Bridgewater has played with and the lack of accuracy he’s shown down the field.
”I’m glad he’s my guy,” Zimmer said, adding: ”He does the things we’re asking him to do to continue to win, and I do believe that you’re going to continue to see another jump for him. We have to play a certain way in order to win games, and I’m not going to apologize for doing that. Teddy is going to be an extremely good player. He’s got too many other things going for him.”