MINNEAPOLIS -- Sam Bradford's final set of firsts with the Minnesota Vikings, after a year that has been stuffed full of them, will come when the quarterback begins training camp by packing a suitcase next month. He'll spend two weeks in Mankato, Minnesota -- arriving with the other QBs and rookies three days before the rest of the roster is required to show up -- and go through the start of the season in the closest thing the Vikings can create to a football cocoon.
"It will be the first time in my career that we have ever gone away for training camp, so that will be a new experience," Bradford said. "It will be fun to get down there and get to work."
The 52nd (and possibly final) iteration of Vikings training camp at Minnesota State University will effectively bring Bradford full circle from a whirlwind year that started when he was traded from the Philadelphia Eagles eight days before the start of last season and saw him assume the full-time job on Sept. 18.
His first chance to participate in an offensive installation with the Vikings, during OTAs and minicamp this spring, came after he'd already started 15 games for the team. Bradford will get a chance for even more valuable work next month, when the pads are on and defensive backs can press wide receivers.
Bradford has forged a closer working relationship with coach Mike Zimmer this spring, born out of evening text messages when Zimmer was watching film from his ranch in northern Kentucky while recovering from his latest eye surgery.
The 29-year-old quarterback already had a strong bond with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who worked with Bradford in St. Louis and Philadelphia. Zimmer has functioned as a mock opponent for the quarterback, walking him through a detailed process of how a defensive coordinator will try to stop him.
"We would text almost every day after practice, and he would just give me some thoughts about what he saw from us on offense, what the defense was trying to do, things that we could take advantage of, things that they were trying to take away," Bradford said. "[It was good to] just get his opinion on what he saw from the defense that day and maybe if there were some blitzes that they put in to beat a certain protection, how we could pick it up; coverages that they put in to maybe take away a route, how we could beat that coverage, what to look for, what tips, what keys give away certain things. Those texts were really nice."
The relationship between Bradford and Zimmer took some time to develop, given the speed with which Bradford had to replace a quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) whom Zimmer seems to regard almost as a son. The coach let Bradford breathe when he first came to Minnesota, putting him in the care of former offensive coordinator Norv Turner and Shurmur. Zimmer said Bradford had earned the right to the starting job at the end of last season, though, and as the coach has taken a more global approach to his job, he's given Bradford more face time.
"To have him in our meetings, to have him come up to talk to us on the field, whether it is about football, whether it is about life, whether it is about whatever, I think to have those interactions is good for us," Bradford said. "He does spend a lot of time with the defense and those guys are with him a lot, but I think this year he has been around the offense more. I think the guys have really enjoyed it."
Both men are in a pivotal season, with Bradford trying to earn a long-term contract while Zimmer looks to rebound from the 3-8 slide that followed the Vikings' 5-0 start last year. For all the Vikings' defensive prowess, the coach-quarterback tandem will likely dictate how far they go. And as Bradford picks Zimmer's brain, he's feeling more comfortable near the head of the Vikings' operation.
"Once everything ended and calmed down [last year], I thought about the events that had just happened and the past six or seven months and how I got here. I would not trade it for the world," Bradford said. "I learned a lot about myself last year; I learned a lot about being a quarterback, being a leader, being a teammate, being put in that position, and I am really excited for training camp this year."