Vikings QB Sam Bradford opens up on faith, trust and drowning out the intrigue
MINNEAPOLIS — There is shared intimacy, and there is unintended mutiny.
Two weeks ago, during an intense training camp practice, Vikings coach Zimmer challenged Sam Bradford to show more passion during a two-minute drill. The quarterback responded by inadvertently shoving his boss to the turf after threading a delicate touchdown pass to wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
"I was a little worried about that because I did not mean to take him to the ground, but it's one of those things where he had been on me to show a little bit more emotion," Bradford said with a chuckle Wednesday, Aug. 16. "I went over there to give him a chest bump. I kind of caught him a little bit harder than I thought. He went to the ground. Thankfully he was all right."
Zimmer brushed it off by saying no quarterback could ever hurt this 61-year-old cornerback whisperer. And so goes Minnesota's most scrutinized couple this side of Prince and Apollonia.
Theirs is a shotgun marriage of necessity, with Bradford facing his ultimate prove-it year for a new contract and Zimmer entering the fourth season of his muddled head-coaching crusade.
To have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in victory and in defeat, until purging do they part.
Bradford will be judged practically and financially by how he bends teammates toward his will as the adopted leader of a team devastated by Teddy Bridgewater's career-ravaging knee injury and still pining for the prodigal son's return.
The Vikings desperately need Bradford to ignite a perpetually stalled passing attack, even after he set a pedestrian NFL record last year with a 71.6 completion percentage while throwing for a career-high 3,877 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Bradford was thrust into the impossible position of savior when general manager Rick Spielman dealt first- and fourth-round picks to Philadelphia for him a week before the 2016 season started. Earning trust and learning the playbook on the fly is a haphazard way to build leadership credentials, but there he was trying to steal moments with teammates and coaches while wondering when the next blitzing linebacker would blindside him.
"The better you know people off the football field, the easier it is to step into a huddle and ask them to do something, as opposed to stepping in and saying, 'Hey, I need some time here.' They'll be like, 'Who's this guy? What are you asking for? Do your job,' " he said.
A full offseason in Minnesota and training camp in Mankato allowed Bradford to sidle with teammates in the cafeteria, dorm rooms or in front of the TV to share their aspirations.
Earlier this summer, he and Zimmer had dinner in the quarterback's hometown of Oklahoma City. The longtime defensive coach had let offensive coordinator Norv Turner and his successor, Pat Shurmur, manage Bradford last season.
Breaking bread, Zimmer pledged to be more intimately involved with his quarterback and implored his signal caller to seize control of the huddle and locker room.
Expectations have been set. Will Bradford play up to them? Intrigue stalks Bradford like the pass rushers who harassed him with impunity last season. The stakes are enormous for the $18 million alpha dog in the huddle and lame duck on the payroll who is poised to become a free agent for the first time in his complicated career.
Yet they're bigger for Zimmer and Spielman, whose jobs are bound to a quarterback with a middling record (32-45-1) who has not thrown a postseason pass or earned a Pro Bowl nomination.
The Vikings are the third franchise to have thrown its fate onto Bradford. Most would buckle under such weighty expectations, but you do not star at football-mad Oklahoma as the only child of a former Sooners defensive lineman, win the Heisman Trophy, become the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick, suffer two torn ACLs and get traded twice in six years without broad shoulders and a heat-resistant persona.
Bradford, 29, is a man at peace with the complexities of his position, the incompleteness of his livelihood and the uncertainty of it all in Minnesota. "A lot of it is my faith and knowing the Lord has a plan for me, and I put my trust in Him," he said. "His plan is perfect."
Relinquishing oneself to a higher power is counterintuitive to a profession driven by control freaks, its simplicity almost too much to bear for data-driven fans who define players by algorithms and fantasy rankings and want Bradford to deliver wins, period.
But he has learned to let go of the pressure and external forces gathering momentum all around.
"I think as a Christian you have to," he said. "You give up control of your life to God and you allow Him to take control of your life. We get in our own ways a lot of times, but by turning it over to Him and coming in here every day and focusing on what I can do to become a better quarterback, what I can do to become a better teammate, a better leader ... if I don't focus on those things, how is what happens down the line going to take care of itself?"
Salvation will be in the eye of the beholder.
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