EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Three months before the Minnesota Vikings drafted Teddy Bridgewater, they had constructed a climate in which Bridgewater -- or any young quarterback -- should be able to develop without the pressure of immediate expectations.
The Vikings committed more cash to veteran Matt Cassel when he opted out of his 2014 deal, giving him a two-year, $10 million contract that effectively set him up as the bridge to the team's next young QB. They had hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had Troy Aikman, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers in the nascent stages of their careers. They even had Christian Ponder, the former first-round pick who could serve -- at least for a year -- as an emergency option in case Cassel got injured and the Vikings weren't ready to put a rookie on the field.
All of the levers were in place to ensure a healthy environment for Bridgewater to develop. The only question: Would the Vikings pull the right ones?
Based on how new coach Mike Zimmer and Turner handled the first three months of Bridgewater's career in Minnesota, the answer appears to be yes. Zimmer named Cassel the starting quarterback Monday for the beginning of the regular season, rewarding the veteran for playing well enough to keep the job after he'd called Cassel the team's No. 1 QB on the first day of training camp.
Zimmer said at the time the designation didn't mean anything, but in a subtle way, it did: It set up a system in which Bridgewater would have to outplay Cassel to get the job, removed whatever temptation there might have been to play the rookie right away and sent a message to an offense filled with veterans -- 29-year-old running back Adrian Peterson among them -- that immediate success wouldn't take a backseat to development.
"The team has a lot of confidence in him," Zimmer said of Cassel. "They feel good about his veteran leadership and presence. I had to think about the whole football team; it wasn’t just about the quarterbacks. I’ve said this before: It’s not always the best player at that position -- and I’m not saying Matt’s not -- but any position, it’s how everything works together and at this stage in where we are at right now, I feel like that’s the best thing to do."
How this coaching staff handles Bridgewater will play a major role in Zimmer's longevity with the Vikings probably more than how the team fares this season. The decision Zimmer announced on Monday -- and the one his actions had been pointing toward for weeks -- worked on two fronts: It curried favor with players weary of quarterback instability after last season, and it provided more time for Bridgewater to learn in a forgiving environment.
Cassel will be asked to solve a tough St. Louis Rams defense on the road in Week 1, and could possibly have to trade scoring drives with Tom Brady and Brees the next two weeks. That's a daunting task for a rookie, and by assigning it to Cassel, the Vikings can retain some control over the setting in which Bridgewater eventually debuts.
They've been in a position to do that all along, with a sturdy (but not irreplaceable) veteran and an offensive coordinator who has done this before. All the Vikings needed was a rookie coach who would be pragmatic enough to manage it correctly, and it appears that's what Zimmer has done.