The Era of Shaun Hill Closes – What it Means to the Viking QB Situation

When Vikings quarterback Shaun Hill trotted off the field at US Bank Stadium after the 38-10 Minnesota pasting of a disinterested Bear team, it marked the end of Hill’s 15th season in the NFL.  That’s a long time for an undrafted Free Agent who is old enough to have played for (and led the league in passing and TDs) for the Amsterdam Admirals in the now defunct World League of American Football.
 
In an NFL that always seems short on quarterback depth, the 37-year old Hill may appear again in an NFL uniform in 2017, but it will not be in Minnesota, after the Vikings signing of Case Keenum.
 
So, Keenum must be a step-up in talent, right?  Well, not necessarily so.  He is clearly younger at 28 years of age, but he has hardly lit-it-up in the NFL.   He had 9 TD passes in his 9 starts for the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams last season, but he also had 11 interceptions as he guided the team to a 4-5 record before being replaced.
 
Hill started only one game last year.  And while the Vikings beat the Titans in his only serious game action of 2016, Hill was little more than a game manager, throwing for 234 yards, but registered neither a score, nor an interception.  It was the Viking defense that led a comeback to give him a win.
 
Well, if Keenum is younger, so he must be more mobile than the statuesque Shaun Hill, right?   Not exactly.  Keenum has run just 56 times in his 5-year NFL career, and has a whopping 163 yards to show for his efforts.  That’s 2.9 yards per carry if you are keeping score at home, and while it is 1 yard per carry better than Adrian Peterson had last season, it is not the reincarnation of Michael Vick either.  Hill actually averaged 3.6 yards rushing for his career, not that it helped either.
 
So what are the Vikings doing?   Frankly, it appears they are adding a veteran arm to challenge third-year Old Dominion QB Taylor Heinicke.  Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner had high hopes for Heinicke to push Shaun Hill last season for the backup role to Teddy Bridgewater last season, after Heinicke had shown some promise in the final preseason game of 2015, when he led a rag-tag group of rookies and fringe roster Vikings to a win over Dallas.
 
But, as we all know, Heinicke suffered a freak Achilles injury prior to training camp, and, effectively, was just a practice arm by the time he returned healthy in mid-season.  He did not take one snap during a game in 2016.
 
So, are the Viking coaches giving up on Heinicke? Hardly, but they don’t plan to make the same mistakes that previous Offensive Coordinators made when they had no serious competition or backup plan if Tarvaris Jackson, Christian Ponder, or Teddy Bridgewater went down.
 
This move gives the Vikings at least 3 healthy quarterbacks going into training camp, and all could start an NFL game if they needed to – and that is not always the case.  Last season, the 3rd string Viking quarterback to open the season was Joel Stave.  A quarterback who was no more than a camp arm, who was forced onto the roster as an emergency backup and is unlikely to ever play in the NFL during the regular season.
 
But, here’s where it gets interesting.  Sam Bradford clearly was a critical addition to the Vikings when Teddy Bridgewater suffered a devastating knee injury that sidelined him for 2016, and quite possibly for all or much of 2017.   Bradford threw for more yards and touchdowns last season than Bridgewater ever had.  And, thankfully for the Vikings, Bradford was very durable playing behind a very porous offensive line, which got weaker as the year drew on, as the positions became revolving doors due to injury.
 
Bradford proved more protective of the ball than any Viking in history had been, with just 5 INTs, while Bridgewater had 9 thrown picks in 2015 and 14 in his rookie season, while throwing just 14 touchdowns in each of his two seasons.
 
On the field, Bridgewater led the Vikings to an NFC North title and a playoff appearance against the Seahawks – a game where Teddy outplayed his much more notable opposing QB Russell Wilson.  Sam helped the Vikings to a 5-0 start, but then the team limped to an 8-8 finish, largely as a result of so many key injuries. 
 
To be fair, Sam had no running game to speak of last season, while Bridgewater had Adrian Peterson running for almost 1,500 yards in 2015.   But, it could also be argued that Sam had a better defense in 2016, and one that was more opportunistic.
 
So, as much as the Case Keenum signing is interesting, and it will be nice to see if Taylor Heinicke has any real potential, the real drama will be if Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are both cleared to open training camp in 2017.
 
In such a scenario, Bradford deserves the shot to retain a starting job he earned.   But, before he was suddenly injured, some think Bridgewater may have been on the verge of moving into a leadership role where he makes plays down the field, as opposed to avoiding mistakes.
 
But, was Bridgewater really ready to take the next step?  He looked very strong in preseason, but he played less than 3 quarters in total.  Not exactly a large enough body of work to make your bets at the sports books in Las Vegas.
 
Bridgewater was also asked to take more chances when near the red zones during training camp.  Observers could see that coaches were asking him to get the ball in tight windows to give his playmakers a chance to make a play on the ball.  It is these practices that the fans did not see.  Teddy often forced the ball as asked, and probably had half those attempts either knocked away or intercepted in such drills.   It is doubtful he would take such chances in games, but he was being encouraged to do so to get more comfortable with taking chances to make big plays.  When he tried to force such balls in the third preseason game against the Chargers, his efforts were rewarded with touchdown passes to Kyle Rudolph and a 2-point conversion to LaQuon Treadwell.   But, had he turned the corner, or was he still growing?  He was pulled after just one quarter that sunshiny day, and had a QB rating over 150 – it would have been nice to see him take two more drives to give fans confidence that he was the “real deal”.
 
Bridgewater always seemed to struggle throwing the deep ball in his first two seasons.   In training camp last season, one could see improvement, but it was hit and miss on throws beyond 30 yards.  Meanwhile, anyone who watched Bradford last season could not complain about his deep ball.  He may not have a rocket for an arm, but it is NFL-capable and he is very accurate.  He knows how to let his receivers work into position to make a play.
 
So, who is the better passer?  Probably Bradford, due to his deep ball capability.  Both read the defense very well and can adeptly and quickly move through their progression of receivers.   Bradford’s experience likely makes him the better one to recognize a mismatch and call an audible.  While, no one is calmer in the pocket than Bridgewater – maybe too calm (“Throw the ball Teddy!”).
 
Some say the Vikings missed Bridgewater because his mobility is so much better than Bradford’s.  But, that is not entirely a fair statement.  Neither is a big running threat, with Bradford having a 2.9 yard career rushing average, and Bridgewater having a 4.4 yard average.  But, Bridewater could slide in the pocket better to buy time. 
 
The key word was “COULD”.  Will he have the same mobility in a knee that was virtually shredded?  Will he have the poise to stand in the pocket and deliver while anticipating the hit?  Daunte Culpepper never regained his running prowess after he tore all 3 of his ligaments in a game versus the Panthers in 2005.  However, while Culpepper’s injury was bad, Teddy’s was even more severe.
 
One thing is clear – Viking fans are very divided on their loyalty, and most support both quarterbacks.  As 10-year old fan Preston Reeves puts it, “I want Teddy to come back because he is an inspiration to all kids who are soft-spoken, but prove they can be aggressive on the field as a leader at the same time”.
 
There is no doubt that Bridgewater is beloved by the fans and his teammates.  The emotion for Teddy in the locker room is real, as I have witnessed how his teammates are drawn to him.  He may seem shy, but he really isn’t.  He is a bit of a sneaky prankster once you get to know him, and is unaffected by his measure of fame.
 
Meanwhile, fans are equally impressed by the even-quieter Bradford.  “Sam not only had to learn the playbook in a very short time, he threw big-spot touchdowns and rarely turned the ball over”, said Reeves.
 
So, what will be the fans emotions if the doctors clear Bridgewater for practice in August?  Will they pick a side or will they behave like a teenager dating one woman, but having an interest in another – hanging onto both until they have to pick someone to take to the prom?
 
One thing is for sure, if we see #5 and #7 in uniform practicing in Mankato in August, no one will be happier than Viking fans, who would have one of the best 2-tandem quarterback situations in the league.  And, if Bridgewater makes it that far, very little spotlight will be shone on Case Keenam or Taylor Heinicke – and that’s a great scenario for Minnesota fans.