MINNEAPOLIS - For a guy best known for his injury history when he arrived here 15 days ago, Sam Bradford sure earned a lot of points for not backing down from a beating in his Minnesota Vikings debut Sunday night.
“That dude is one tough (expletive),” Vikings guard Alex Boone told USA TODAY Sports after Bradford completed 22 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns (and officially took 10 hits) in a 17-14 triumph over the rival Green Bay Packers.
“There was a couple times he got hit – I thought he was dead. He wasn’t moving, so I had to pick him up. I’m like, ‘Sam, don’t be dead.’ Next play: bullet. You’re going, ‘Jesus, this guy’s a beast!’”
The Vikings needed that production and resiliency from their new quarterback on a night they again struggled to get star running back Adrian Peterson going before he was carried to the locker room in the third quarter with a right knee injury.
Peterson had minimal swelling and could extend his leg after the game, providing optimism he avoided a season-ending ACL tear – an injury Bradford is familiar with, since two of them are responsible for 25 of the 35 starts he missed because of health in his first six NFL seasons.
Bradford, 28, did go briefly to the locker room Sunday for an X-ray after taking a helmet to his left (non-throwing) hand on the Vikings’ first touchdown drive, causing nasty swelling from his wrist to his pinkie that was captured by NBC’s cameras.
“It was nice and fat,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said of Bradford’s hand. “But he’s gutsy. Just to stand in there and take hit after hit – it speaks volume of him as a player and a person.”
Equally impressive: Bradford outplayed two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers with all of two weeks to learn Norv Turner’s offense and about a half-dozen practices under his belt, including three last week getting most of the reps after veteran backup Shaun Hill started the opener.
Coach Mike Zimmer said the plan was to get Bradford into that first game at Tennessee, because he didn’t think this – the first regular-season game at the new $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium, not to mention one on national TV against a blitz-happy Packers defense – was the best atmosphere for the former No. 1 overall draft pick to make his Vikings debut.
But it didn’t seem to bother Bradford, who connected with Rudolph on an out for the first score (and took a hit from Clay Matthews) and Stefon Diggs on a post for the second (and took a hit from Mike Daniels). Perhaps Bradford’s best throw was a 44-yard strike on a deep crossing route to Diggs, who made a fingertip grab that helped set up a field goal before halftime.
“It’s unbelievable to have timing like that when we haven’t even been together for two full weeks,” Rudolph said.
Bradford’s only here because of a season-ending knee injury to third-year pro Teddy Bridgewater, who was hurt Aug. 30. Four days later, the Vikings traded a first-round pick and change to the Philadelphia Eagles, flew in Bradford that night and began immersing him in an offense he’ll still be learning all season.
“Right now, it’s still in the phase where I have to translate it in my mind to what it was in a previous offense, because that’s what hits my brain first,” Bradford said.
The Vikings believed in Bradford then in part because his former coordinator in St. Louis and Philadelphia, Pat Shurmur, is their tight ends coach, providing insight on how they could meld the scheme to his strengths and weaknesses. They also had extensive access to Bradford’s medical records, thanks in part to head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman’s time on the Eagles’ staff.
Bradford passed the team’s physical and passed his first test Sunday night, on multiple fronts.
Asked what he learned about Bradford on the TD throw to Diggs (and the ensuing shot from Daniels), Zimmer said: “He can throw the ball. He’s got some toughness about him. This isn’t his first rodeo, so he’s had opportunities to get in there and to go. He was pretty composed all night. ... It was a good start.”
The tests only figure to get tougher the longer the Vikings may be without Peterson, who remains the focal point of their offense, even if the numbers through two games – 50 rushing yards on 31 carries – don’t show it. Poor run blocking has been a major problem.
But the Minnesota defense showed again how impactful it can be in preventing Rodgers from taking over as he so often does. Brian Robison’s strip-sack snuffed one late Packers drive, and an interception by second-year cornerback Trae Waynes stopped another with 1:50 left.
By playing like this, and holding up physically like this, Bradford provided something rather unexpected: reason to believe this Vikings has a chance to be a dangerous with Peterson or without him.
Not that letting Bradford get knocked around like that every week is a good long-term plan.
“He took some hits he shouldn’t have taken,” Boone said of Bradford. “He delivered the ball well. Just an overall great performance by him.”