The first day of Minnesota Vikings training camp started early, with a 1:30 a.m. fire alarm that turned out to be false but sent everyone sleepily streaming out of their dorm rooms.
Players joked about believing new coach Mike Zimmer had plotted some kind of sadistic test of their mental toughness. Perhaps it was an ominous sign of an uneven season ahead.
Or maybe this was merely another reminder of the urgency this team has in needing to settle on a quarterback, after a decade of chaos at the sport’s most important position.
“It’s not a secret. The quarterback position really hasn’t played well, but that’s why you bring guys in,” running back Adrian Peterson said.
Like Teddy Bridgewater, the first-round draft pick from Louisville who became the latest attempt by one of the NFL’s most star-crossed franchises to establish that elusive stability at quarterback.
The carousel has spun often during Peterson’s career, and his age, 29, makes consistent production at the position that much more critical this year.
First, Zimmer must make his first big decision: whether Bridgewater or incumbent Matt Cassel will be behind center for the season opener.
Cassel was re-signed to be the bridge to Bridgewater and started the first full practice Friday with the first team.
But that’s now. Later could be different.
“I don’t have a starter in mind yet. They’re going to determine who the starter is on the practice field, how they go about their business, how they perform in the preseason games,” Zimmer said.
Cassel watched Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman start in front of him several times last year despite outperforming them until finally taking over for good down the stretch of a lost season, so he’s well aware of the fleeting nature of a starting spot.
“I still have to earn this thing. There is no easy road about it,” he said.
Bridgewater has quickly learned the art of noncontroversial, selfless expression in interviews since he was drafted, sounding a lot like the 10th-year veteran that Cassel is. Bridgewater said he’s not focused on the competition for the job, but rather grateful for the acceptance Cassel and Ponder have shown him.
“I have to compete with myself first. That will make me a better player. Then I can compete with the guys in the room. That will make the team better,” Bridgewater said.
Such modesty aside, the Vikings have raved about his demeanor and progress since the draft.
“We had high expectations for him coming in, and he’s either met or exceeded those,” quarterbacks coach Scott Turner said.
Cassel spoke of Bridgewater’s quiet nature and good-naturedly commended the rookie for fetching him a sports drink on Friday. Left tackle Matt Kalil joked that Bridgewater looked like “a little 14-year-old kid” upon meeting him for the first time a few months ago.
“Great guy. Works hard out there. Really smart. I’m excited to see what he does,” Kalil said.
As is everyone else.
Since Daunte Culpepper’s stellar 2004 season, the Vikings have had all kinds of chaos at quarterback. Culpepper wrecked his knee the next year, and since then only Brett Favre in 2009 and Ponder in 2012 have started all 16 games.
Ponder was up and down enough that he never seemed to have a firm hold on the job. Favre refused to even commit to playing until training camp was over in both of his two seasons with the team.
Whenever Bridgewater starts his first game, whether this year or next, he’ll be the 13th quarterback to do so for the Vikings since 2005. That’s the context behind Zimmer’s pledge that he’s unafraid to send a rookie in right away. That’s also why, in this never-rule-anything-out league, Zimmer has made sure to include Ponder in his public evaluation of the position.
“The better you compete, the better you get. People don’t get complacent. They study harder. They work harder on the practice field. So I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to play,” Zimmer said.
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