Let me be clear right away—the Minnesota Vikings recent struggles do not fall on Sam Bradford’s shoulders. There are plenty of other factors that have contributed to the Vikings going from Super Bowl favorites to being on the outside of the playoffs and looking in. But after Minnesota’s 16-13 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving day, the Bradford honeymoon phase is officially over.
Matthew Coller of ESPN 1500 wrote a great piece after Thursday’s loss outlining Bradford’s shortcomings, illustrating perfectly what the Vikings need from their quarterback and what exactly they’re not getting. It is really worth a read. Coller calls out the Minnesota signal caller for not using his superior arm talent, continually dinking-and-dunking, playing not to lose the game opposed to going out and winning. Twice in the last three weeks Bradford has been on the field, needing to put together a drive for a win. Both times, in Washington and in Detroit, he threw game-ending interceptions. Considering the hand Bradford was dealt (traded 8 days before the season, no running game, a decimated offensive line and a No. 1 receiver in and out of the lineup) his numbers still look good: 71.% completion, 2,415 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INT, 98.3 rating. But the free pass is now over. Minnesota dealt a first-round pick for Bradford and with the way things are shaping up, that pick is becoming a bigger and bigger loss.
Could the Vikings have hovered around .500 with Shawn Hill and kept their pick? Possibly, but it is a moot point at this juncture. Minnesota has Bradford now for the rest of this year, and barring a trade, next season too. The two are tied together and the Vikings need to hold their quarterback accountable for his play even in the face of all the adversity.
For at least three weeks now the offensive line has held up modestly and yet Bradford has happy feet in the pocket, imagining pressure that isn’t always there. The culmination of this came to fruition on Thanksgiving when Bradford averaged a dismal 6.1 yards per completion, continually checking down and throwing underneath on third downs. Coller charted the third-down offense in his piece, take a look:
Early in the second quarter, a 3rd-and-8 went for six yards on a dump off to Matt Asiata. With 4:30 left in the second, a 3rd-and-9 resulted in a seven-yard pass to Adam Thielen.
Late in the second, Bradford tossed a five-yard pass on 3rd-and-14.
Two minutes into the third quarter, 3rd-and-9 turned into 4th-and-7 after a two-yard checkdown to Jerick McKinnon.
Bradford dumped off to Asiata at 3rd-and-5 at the Detroit 15 and gained three yards.
On 3rd-and-goal from the Detroit 16, the Vikings gained six yards through the air.
With his team staring down a win – 5:57 to play and the lead – Minnesota’s quarterback flipped a two-yard pass on 3rd-and-3.
And even the interception that ended the game, a throw toward Thielen, was probably going to be short of the sticks on third down.
Bradford is a first-overall pick, a supposed franchise quarterback. And while the depleted offensive line has played into the quarterback’s need to get rid of the ball quickly, Bradford doesn’t get a free pass for not better overcoming the adversity—plenty of great quarterbacks have had successful seasons with below-average offensive lines. It is not fair to expect Bradford to lead the league’s most potent attack given the hand he has been dealt, but if he going to be the Vikings quarterback of the future (which I’m not sold that is the case if Teddy Bridgewater gets healthy) he needs to elevate the level of the offense, not sink with it.
Bradford isn’t the only problem, there is plenty of blame to be parceled out. The beating he took after the bye during the Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur transition certainly explains why he appears rattled in the pocket, deciding to check it underneath opposed to letting his receiver win routes down the field. But he has now thrown two games away on game-closing drives. The interception against Washington is fine, that’s going to happen. But to do it again in Detroit, when the Vikings’ margin for error is so slim and the division lead on the line, is unacceptable and he deserves to be called on that.
Minnesota took a gamble when they dealt away a first-round pick for Bradford. Now it is the quarterback job to make sure the Vikings get a return on their investment. If Bradford were on a blackjack table right now, his chips are low and he is betting the minimum. Every now and then Minnesota needs its leading man to push a stack of chips to the center of the table, and go after a season-changing play. Sure he might bust, but at least he’ll go down swinging big, not dinking-and-dunking.