Teddy Bridgewater Key To Vikings' 2016 Playoff Hopes

The Minnesota Vikings had an extremely successful 2015 season. Led by nine-year veteran running back Adrian Peterson and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on offense and fourth-year safety Harrison Smith, sophomore linebacker Anthony Barr, and sixth-year defensive end Everson Griffen on defense, the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North for the first time since 2009. 

Considering that this was, by all accounts, the second year of a three-year rebuilding plan, Vikings fans have to be feeling good about the progress shown under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer.

With a division championship and a hard-fought playoff game loss under their belts and in their minds, the Vikings will enter the 2016 season fighting to return to the playoffs for their fifth shot at winning a title. This offseason has centered around the Vikings' commitment to improving what was by far one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL last year. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings offensive line had the second-worst pass blocking efficiency (71.4), ahead of only the lowly San Diego Chargers (67.6) and their injury-decimated line. Furthermore, Bridgewater was pressured on 46.9% of his dropbacks, nearly 4.5% more than the second-most pressured quarterback, Russell Wilson.

The Vikings have succeeded despite the struggles of their offensive line, due in no small part due to the ability of Teddy Bridgewater to escape sacks with near-Aaron Rodgers ability. This heightened pressure has come at the cost of Teddy often lacking the necessary time to attack defenses downfield and being limited to checkdowns and routes being run under 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. 

This limitation, if one is to call it that, has brought Bridgewater under scrutiny from Vikings fans desperate for Teddy to show that he can throw the deep ball like fellow 2014 quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Derek Carr. Despite the clear discrepancies in wide receiver talent and offensive line skill, Vikings fans are begging for more out of Teddy.

What is most confounding about Teddy thus far in his NFL career, is the success of the Vikings even when Teddy isn't breaking records with his game-to-game statistics. In the 29 games he has started since taking over as the starter, Teddy is 9-5 when throwing for 200 yards or less and 8-7 when throwing for over 200 yards. The difference becomes even more stark when taking only 2015 into account, as Teddy was 8-2 when he threw for less than 200 yards and 3-4 when he threw for more than 200 yards. The biggest difference in the Vikings' offense between the two years? The addition of Adrian Peterson to the 2015 offense.

Peterson's 1485 yards were both helpful and harmful to the Vikings in 2015. According to Pro Football Reference, the Vikings ran the ball on first down nearly 66% of the time, an almost unbelievable percentage and one that is just begging to be exploited. This focus on running often left the Vikings in tough second and third down situations, as the Vikings averaged 8.1 yards on 2nd down and 7.6 yards on 3rd down. By comparison, the Carolina Panthers averaged 7.9 yards on 2nd down and 7.3 yards on 3rd down. What this all means is that Norv Turner, offensive coordinator for the Vikings, mortgaged first-down opportunities for later down success.

With the signings of offensive linemen Alex Boone, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, and Andre Smith of the Bengals, the Vikings appear to have brought in plenty of new talent to try and fill the two biggest holes on their offensive line last year, left guard and right tackle. If the Vikings can also return center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt to full health after their season-long injuries last year, they'll also be much better.

All these if's and maybe's of course lead back to Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings asked him to do far less in 2015 than they did in 2014, and considering the talented running back lining up behind him, that's not entirely surprising. Above all else, the Vikings still need to have Teddy prove once and for all that he is the starting quarterback of the future for their franchise. 

With the Vikings' ground-and-pound offense, Teddy was really only asked to let loose in games where the Vikings were losing and those limited moments of responsibility alone are enough for Vikings fans to drool over what Teddy could be for them. From throwing darts while being tackled from behind to putting the ball where he needed to for his wide receiver to make a great play, Teddy has shown the potential to be one of the best rhythm passers in the NFL when he's actually given a chance to get into a rhythm and his wide receivers attempt to make a catch.

In a recent interview at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., Mike Zimmer said that he texted Teddy after signing Boone and Smith that "there were no more excuses and it's time to go." If they truly want Teddy to "go," the Vikings need to let the offense flow through him, not an aging 31-year old running back—even if the running back is Adrian Peterson.

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