How do Vikings recover from loss of Bridgewater?

Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater sustained a torn ACL and dislocated knee in practice Tuesday, the team has announced.
Time_Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – As the Minnesota Vikings awaited test results to confirm what they already knew, that a gruesome knee injury had ended quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s third season before it began, coach Mike Zimmer promised that his team wouldn’t spend long mourning.

“We’re not going to stick our heads in the sand,” Zimmer told reporters shortly after Bridgewater crumpled to the ground in Tuesday’s practice, untouched, leaving teammates to curse and pray before an ambulance took him away. “We’re going to figure out a way. Everyone can count us out if they want, but I think that’d be the wrong thing to do.”

Are the Vikings good enough as a team to carry out their Super Bowl hopes with 36-year-old journeyman Shaun Hill in Bridgewater’s place?

Zimmer has all of 12 days to convince players of it before the Sept. 11 opener at Tennessee, which most assuredly will be played with Hill at quarterback, even if they swing a trade or otherwise add reinforcements in the days to come.

As Zimmer spoke to reporters, he said, Bridgewater was sedated and undergoing an MRI that revealed the extent of the damage: a dislocated left knee, torn anterior cruciate ligament and other structural damage, according to a statement Tuesday night from the team’s director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer, Eric Sugarman.

The good news in Sugarman’s statement is there “appears to be no nerve or arterial damage,” which would significantly complicate Bridgewater’s rehabilitation process, and the team expects a full recovery. “Teddy has already displayed the attitude needed to overcome this injury and attack this rehab,” Sugarman said.

The bad news is Bridgewater’s headed for surgery in the next few days and faces a long recovery. Best case, he’s back in 2017, not this season – one that was likely to be defined by his development, as the Vikings try to transform from the ascending group that made a surprise NFC North title run last year into a championship contender that’s opening a new $1.1 billion stadium.

In 14 seasons with four NFL teams (including two stints with the Vikings), Hill has 34 regular-season starts, and just eight in the past five years. Those came with the St. Louis Rams in 2014, when Hill finished with eight touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 3-5 record as starter.

He’s a serviceable replacement on a team that can win games running the football and playing defense. That’s why the Vikings gave him a two-year, $6.5 million contract in March 2015 to be their No. 2 quarterback. But he’s never started 16 games, and few No. 2 QBs are equipped to do.

One NFL executive who has watched Hill play this preseason, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, said the biggest concern is “he has no arm to get (the ball) downfield” – an area the Vikings emphasized all offseason with Bridgewater in hopes of exploiting favorable matchups created by star tailback Adrian Peterson.

Just last week, Vikings quarterbacks coach Scott Turner showed USA TODAY Sports a cutup of Bridgewater connecting on about a dozen of those throws in practice this summer.

“It’s the comfort level in the offense,” Turner said then of the difference with Bridgewater. “That 78 (route combination) right there, you could say that he could probably throw it to Kyle (Rudolph). He said, ‘No, I’ve got the big one here. I’m going to take it.’”

Zimmer had been pushing that aggressive mindset with Bridgewater, while making clear the offense still ran through Peterson, whose ability to stiff-arm Father Time at age 31 behind what should be an improved offensive line is more important than ever.

The defense remains loaded with ascending young playmakers including safety Harrison Smith, end Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph.

There may be opportunities to add an experienced quarterback as final cuts approach Saturday, though probably not an immediate starter. The Vikings have another young QB they like, a first-year pro from Old Dominion named Taylor Heinicke, on the active/non-football injury list, and he could get a look down the line if Hill stumbles. But that’s in the distance for now.

Zimmer made clear his chief focus now is preventing players from believing their season just went down with their quarterback.

“Hey, my wife passed away seven years ago, right? It was a tough day,” Zimmer said. “The sun came up the next day. The world kept spinning. People kept going to work. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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