The quarterback who had to do everything on fast-forward last year — learn a new offense eight days before the season, deliver the ball in two seconds or less behind a ramshackle line — had the perfect metaphor for his first year with the Vikings.
“[It’s] like the first time you drive a car — you’re freaked out,” Sam Bradford said. “You’re like, ‘OK — [first], get in.’ ”
But in a quiet moment during the middle of the preseason, after a morning walk-through spent at the controls of an offense retuned around his strengths, Bradford needed to pause when asked to describe the difference in his comfort level from a year ago.
“I don’t know what type of analogy to use that people would understand,” he said. “Like last year, I was comfortable; you have to be comfortable to be out there to go play. You wouldn’t be able to function if you weren’t comfortable with the game plan and what you were doing.
“But last year, there was still a lot of thinking going on. I just said 15 words in the huddle, but what do those words mean?
“Now, when you get to the line, you can skip Steps 1 through 3. You can start at Step 4.”
If what the Vikings have planned for this offense works, it won’t only be Bradford taking giant strides.
There has been an offseason-long effort to construct a modernized offense that is, for the first time in a decade, calibrated around something other than a preternaturally talented running back in Adrian Peterson.
The two newest members of the Vikings’ three-man backfield — free-agent addition Latavius Murray and second-round pick Dalvin Cook — will be expected to log frequent shotgun carries, catch passes out of the backfield and pick up blitzes, all while being compensated at prices just above (in Murray’s case) or well below the NFL average.
The $36.8 million the Vikings guaranteed tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers was meant to shore up the team’s 32nd-ranked running game, yes, but was done in the hope that a balanced offense would also open up opportunities for Bradford to find more time to throw downfield.
And, at the heart of it all, is Bradford, who has the offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur) who groomed him in both St. Louis and Philadelphia, and perhaps the best supporting cast of his nomadic seven-year career.
“You want to see the desire to constantly improve, to constantly get better, and when they’re adding pieces throughout free agency, throughout the draft, it gets you excited to get back and get to work,” said Bradford, who turns 30 in November.
There’s still the question, of course, of whether it will all pan out.
The first-team offense is coming off a tepid preseason, having produced only three points in 12 drives. Bradford completed 74.4 percent of his passes but was sacked five times, as lingering injuries prevented the new starting offensive line — from left, Reiff, Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Remmers — from playing together.
Of those five players, only Berger, who got five starts at right guard last year, is in the same place he ended 2016.
Then again, if an overhaul was needed, there was no point in being subtle about it.
“We got to a point last year where our passing game was essentially an extension of our running game,” Bradford said. “We were calling pass plays that were essentially designed to be effective run plays. We were calling pass plays to gain 5 yards, to gain 6 yards. I think there will still be some of that, but I really think this offense is going to be more balanced this year.”
Life after AD
It was clear well before Feb. 28, when the Vikings announced they wouldn’t exercise Peterson’s $18 million option for 2017, that the two sides were ready to part ways.
Peterson tore his right meniscus in a victory over Green Bay last Sept. 18, as Bradford started his first game in Minnesota. Six weeks later, Shurmur became the interim coordinator after the resignation of Norv Turner and implemented ideas that had already begun to take hold.
Among them: Running backs must be able to do more than one thing.
Shurmur has had a running back catch 40 or more passes in all but one of his eight years as a head coach or coordinator.
“Defenses are too good,” Shurmur said. “So if they know there’s a player in the game that can only do one thing, and can’t do another, it kind of tips the scales in their favor.”
Nearly as important to the team’s new identity is utilizing a group backfield.
During Peterson’s rookie year in 2007, 10 backs in the NFL logged 275 carries or more. The number was the same when Peterson won MVP honors in 2012. When he won his third rushing title in 2015, though, he was one of two players to hit the 275-carry threshold. (Doug Martin of Tampa Bay was the other.) Last year, only five players did it.
“I do believe, in today’s brand of NFL football, you need more than one running back,” Shurmur said. “We’re fortunate that we have a few guys that can run the ball, catch the ball and pass-protect.”
The Vikings running game now will be predicated on the zone runs that Shurmur has often used and that Cook favored in college. Bradford will be in the shotgun more often, and there will be fewer of the heavy personnel groups the Vikings employed to spring Peterson.
“It’s a lot different than the offense we were running when I first got here,” Bradford said. “It seemed like when we ran the ball, we were in ‘13’ personnel [one running back, three tight ends]. We were in ‘22’ personnel. It was a lot of downhill, big-boy runs. I think part of that is because that’s what Adrian liked; that’s what Adrian did well. When you’ve got a guy like that, you’re going to do what he likes.”
Now, it’s more about what Bradford likes.
Sam in command
Set aside for a moment the fact Bradford’s contract is expiring after this season — and with it, the question of whether Teddy Bridgewater will eventually return from his major knee injury to become the Vikings’ starting quarterback again.
The 2017 Vikings appear built on the belief they’ll only go as far as Bradford will take them. And as part of an offseason spent setting him up for success, his relationship with Zimmer blossomed, through text messages to discuss strategy when the coach was in Kentucky recovering from eye surgery and during Zimmer’s visit to have dinner with Bradford in Oklahoma City.
The revamped offense is no longer hinged to Peterson’s power. Perhaps for the only time in the past 10 years other than when Brett Favre was in town, the Vikings are built around a quarterback.
It will be Bradford, and the efforts the Vikings made to modernize the offense around him, that determines whether this season that begins under bright lights in Minneapolis has any chance of ending there.