There’s a great coffee table sports book, I’ve long contended, to be made out of stories that would have been published had last-minute events not changed the outcome of a game and banished those stories to the dustbin of history.
Case in point: When I was covering the 2016 NFC wild-card playoffs for ESPN, I had a story ready to go about Teddy Bridgewater’s coming-of-age moment, how he’d outplayed Russell Wilson in frigid conditions and engineered a game-winning drive to eliminate the two-time NFC champions and become the first Vikings QB to win a playoff game since Brett Favre.
Two years later, the Vikings are preparing to play their first playoff game since the Blair Walsh miss, and Case Keenum is set to lead their offense against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. Bridgewater, once the team’s young franchise quarterback, could carry that title again someday. But for the moment, though he said he’s fully recovered from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered on Aug. 30, 2016, he’s backing up Keenum, waiting for his chance to be the Vikings’ QB again.
I wanted to see on Friday how Bridgewater feels about all of this, what it’s like for him to be back in the playoffs — albeit in a different role — for the first time since that game and how he’s processed the Vikings’ postseason trip at the end of a whirlwind year.
Does the fact that he’s not starting this time make this trip to the playoffs feel different?
“It’s still the same, where I get to motivate the guys,” he said. “We have some guys who were here two years ago, that experience that we went through. That same group of guys don’t want that taste that we had last time.”
The Seahawks game, Bridgewater said, doesn’t come up much among the Vikings players who were on the 2015 team. This group, he said, “knows what it takes” to win in the playoffs. The feeling of losing a playoff game at home, even if it’s not discussed much, is still palpable enough to not want to go through it again.
This time around, the Vikings go into the game planning to lean on Keenum, not Bridgewater, and it remains to be seen whether the 2014 first-round pick will see the field in the playoffs. His future is also something of an unknown; Bridgewater, Keenum and Sam Bradford are all scheduled to become free agents after the season, and as the Vikings decide which of their three QBs they’d like to keep, there’s a possibility the other two would seek work elsewhere, rather than returning to a backup role.
Bridgewater’s contract could toll into 2018, given the time he spent on the physically-unable-to-perform list, though it’s unclear whether that clause of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement would hold up to an argument that Bridgewater, who returned to the active roster for the final eight games of the season, effectively fulfilled the final year of his contract and should be a free agent.
While those of us on the outside spend a fair amount of time pontificating about those things, Bridgewater continues to go about his business, with what seems to be a genuine appreciation for the daily grind that might have otherwise been lost to him.
“You could say that [it’s a goal to be back in the playoffs], but for me, it’s about just being to come to work every day, being a leader amongst my peers. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. Playoffs, that’s a team goal. You set goals, way back in OTAs, and we’re just checking off the list.”
He said Friday he’s 100 percent after his injury. And after a long rehab process, he’s impressed teammates and team officials with how he’s looked in practices during the second half of the season. Excitement might have led to some jitters in Bridgewater’s return to the field on Dec. 17, when he threw an interception after the Vikings had built a 34-0 lead against the Cincinnati Bengals, but those who have observed the quarterback’s work don’t seem to doubt his readiness.
It’s possible, perhaps even likely, the Vikings won’t come calling on Sunday for the quarterback who was tantalizingly close to leading them to victory the last time they were in this situation. For Bridgewater, though, the thrill of playoff football will still be there from the sideline.
“It’s a cool thought,” Bridgewater said of making his return to the postseason playing field. “But I just want us to win. At this time of a year, it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty, if it’s ugly. It’s all about winning and how you get it done.”