The Minnesota Vikings were weeks away from pulling off one of the most difficult feats in modern sports. They built a beautiful new stadium and were set to christen it as a buzzy, legitimate Super Bowl contender. Teddy Bridgewater's season-ending knee dislocation and ACL tear on Tuesday changes all of that.
No amount of careful planning can account for the sudden loss of a franchise quarterback. The Vikings have spent the better part of the last 30 years looking for one, with Daunte Culpepper and Brett Favre 3.0 coming the closest. Under coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman there was no equivocation that Teddy Bridgewater was The Guy. He was their guy.
"To see (the fans) out today here in a new facility, a new place to call home, it's exciting," Bridgewater said on Sunday to FOX. "It's a great time to be a Viking. It's a great time to be a Viking fan."
It feels like those words were said a lot longer than 48 hours ago.
What the Vikings will be missing
Bridgewater's final three preseason throws against San Diego were all completions down the field, darts totaling 68 yards and a score. Zimmer confidently told anyone who would listen that Bridgewater was headed for a breakout season. The third-year quarterback worked on playing more aggressive after a 2015 campaign when he was often hesitant to pull the trigger.
"Teddy looks so much different. When the opportunity presents itself down the field, he's taking his shots," Zimmer told Sirius XM radio this month. "So the biggest thing is trying to take advantage of that when the opportunity presents itself. The more that we can loosen up the defenses, the better we can run the football."
The Vikings weren't going to be a team that spreads you out and throws 40 passes each week. They finished dead last in pass attempts last season, and Bridgewater was often tasked with simply not ruining things. His passes were usually safe, evidenced by him finishing in the top 10 in completion percentage and fewest interceptions per throw. With Stefon Diggs emerging as a possible No. 1 receiver and the drafting of first-round pick Laquon Treadwell, the Vikings were prepared to open up the offense for Bridgewater.
The Vikings could miss Bridgewater's leadership as much as his on-field play. He spoke this offseason about becoming a better leader and is simply a hard guy not to like.
"I love this kid," Zimmer said. "Our fans love this kid."
What do the Vikings have in Hill?
His Rams experience there should be instructive for Minnesota. Hill didn't make it through Week 1 before hurting his thigh. He eventually got his job back at midseason and played like a replacement level starter for eight games. He gave the Rams a boost in a few games but he committed some untimely errors and failed to lead the Rams to a touchdown in two of the team's final three games.
This Vikings team is superior to that Rams squad, but Hill is two years older. There's no telling if he can be a passable starter now, much less hold up over 17 weeks. Hill has one of the weakest arms in football. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will have to get rid of a lot of those vertical routes Bridgewater was working on all offseason. They won't be able to take those shots that loosen up opposing defenses. They will count on Adrian Peterson and their stout front seven to overcome a tough situation more than ever.
Who can they get?
It's a decision that offensive coordinator Norv Turner should have input. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of logical ex-Turner pupils out there to go after. It's not like Philip Rivers is suddenly going to become available. Even former Turner quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel are entrenched as backups.
With Hill already in place, we would sniff around some other veterans who don't appear to have roles for their teams. Mike Glennon would cost too much, so Geno Smith and Colin Kaepernick would top our list. Turner is one of the best quarterback tutors in football and both players have starting experience. They are risky bets, but they are worth a shot. Hill would open the season as the starter and they could give the Vikings another option later in the season. Just as important, they shouldn't cost more than a late-round pick to acquire. Josh McCown would make sense if the Browns lowered their reported fourth-round asking price. Mark Sanchez remains the available quarterback of last resort.
We've heard the argument that the Vikings don't need another low-ceiling backup because they already have Hill. That's not the point. They need two veterans because you don't want to completely punt the season if Hill gets hurt.
"We're not going to stick our heads in the sand, tuck our tail between our legs ... we're going to fight like we always do," Zimmer said Tuesday.
His resolve and leadership will be well served this season. He mentioned his wife's passing seven years ago to put this injury in perspective. This is not how the Vikings wanted to enter their new stadium after years of steady improvement, but football moves on. The sun will come up tomorrow on a talented Vikings roster.
Most importantly, the Vikings have one of the NFL's best front sevens. Anthony Barr is an emerging superstar and Eric Kendricks is a heady young middle linebacker. Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph, Brian Robison and breakout candidate Danielle Hunter form a fantastic defensive line. They might not be big names, but they complement each other well and play like a team.
That is the early trademark of Mike Zimmer's Vikings. They won 11 games and the NFC North last season because they were greater than the sum of their parts. Zimmer will get this team to believe they can do it again.
"Everyone can count us out if they want, but I don't think that's the smart thing to do," Zimmer said.