The 66,143 fans who packed U.S. Bank Stadium for the Vikings’ first game there on Aug. 28, 2016 got a glimpse of a quarterback coming into full view. Teddy Bridgewater, then 23, was beginning his third year as the Vikings’ starter, seemingly ready to enter the upper echelon of the NFL’s quarterback ranks.
He’d been only a Blair Walsh field goal from a playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks. He appeared ready to be more assertive with his downfield throws. And that Sunday, in a win over the San Diego Chargers, Bridgewater completed 12 of his 16 passes for 161 yards, throwing the first touchdown in U.S. Bank Stadium history on a 27-yard strike to Kyle Rudolph. His emergence, the thinking went, would usher in an era where the Vikings would routinely rank among the NFC’s contenders.
The Vikings still believe they’re on a similar trajectory, but later this week, they’re expected to give Kirk Cousins a three-year, $84 million deal in an effort to ensure they remain on course. Cousins, who is expected to become the highest-paid QB in the NFL and the first with a fully-guaranteed contract, will become the fourth Vikings QB to start a game since that day, when the TD pass Bridgewater threw to Rudolph turned out to be the last one he would throw in a Vikings uniform.
What happened two days after the Chargers game — when Bridgewater dislocated his left knee and tore multiple ligaments in a freak injury that ended the Vikings’ final preseason practice after about 15 minutes — will go down as a moment that altered the history of the franchise. The Vikings traded a first-round pick four days later for Sam Bradford, who backed up Shaun Hill for one week, put up career-best numbers during an 8-8 season and played another six regular-season quarters for the Vikings after that. He was replaced by Case Keenum, who took the Vikings on an unlikely run to a 13-3 season and the NFC Championship Game, holding the starting job while Bridgewater, then Bradford, backed him up.
On Wednesday afternoon, all three quarterbacks are officially expected to sign with new teams — Keenum with the Broncos, Bradford with the Cardinals and Bridgewater with the Jets — as the Vikings squire Cousins about town in what figures to be mostly a ceremonial visit before he signs his contract.
The Vikings, in 2016, figured they would enjoy two more years of Bridgewater’s rookie contract before paying him on a fifth-year option and working out a long-term extension to keep him in Minnesota; they instead will have spent or guaranteed $107.5 million on the four quarterbacks (Hill, Bradford, Keenum and Cousins) they turned to in the 19 months after the injury. While the Vikings have a strong defensive foundation, developing skill players and an improved offensive line, they’ve had to reboot their QB plans time and again since the Bridgewater injury. It’s made Aug. 30, 2016, a kind of date which will live in infamy for the Vikings, and it’s a reminder that, as my colleague Chip Scoggins so aptly put it on Tuesday afternoon, nothing stays static in the NFL.
There will be plenty of lofty projections for Cousins and the Vikings in 2018, just as there were for Bridgewater and the Vikings in 2016. But in a sport where injuries are an ever-present threat and playoff hopes can end with one defeat, a team’s rosiest scenarios are always on shaky ground. As the Vikings prepare to close a deal with Cousins, while their former franchise QB — and his replacements — sign with new teams, it’s worth pausing for a moment and considering how strange it is that the Vikings are here at all.