EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- These are the days that shake a franchise.
One moment you're building to a regular season with a well-rounded team poised for a championship run. Then, with a sudden crash, you're wondering if you have your 2017 quarterback on the roster.
That was Tuesday for the Minnesota Vikings, who lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a significant left-knee injury during a routine practice drill about 48 hours before their preseason finale. Bridgewater dislocated his knee, tore his ACL and suffered other structural damage, according to the team, and faces a "significant" recovery period to regain full health.
Veteran Shaun Hill will take over the position, presumably backed up by a player soon to be acquired, as the Vikings reimagine their offense. And after they sort through the emotions of the day -- in a memorable moment, coach Mike Zimmer referenced the deaths of his father and wife as experiences that will help him deal with Bridgewater's injury -- the Vikings will face an abrupt question:
Can they unequivocally count on Bridgewater to be their quarterback when the 2017 season begins?
The answer, cold but true, is no.
The Vikings' otherwise detailed news release on the injury offered no projections for Bridgewater's return. According to ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, injuries similar to Bridgewater's often require nine to 12 months of healing. Assuming Bridgewater has no setbacks, that time frame pushes his return right up against the start of the 2017 season.
When you're planning a longer-term roster, however, there is a big difference between hoping for a player's return and counting on it. NFL decision-makers must plan for the worst possible scenario, not the best.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman would only be doing his job if he adds a starter-quality quarterback next spring. It won't reflect a lack of faith in Bridgewater. Simply, it would be a pragmatic realization that the time to find such a player is March and April -- not in August 2017 after realizing that Bridgewater needs more time. It's better to be over-prepared than caught by surprise at a time when options would be far more limited.
Could that player be Hill? In theory, sure. Much will depend on how he performs this season, but Hill will turn 37 in January. Will the Vikings acquire someone in the next few weeks who could open the 2017 season as a starter and then step back into a role as Bridgewater's backup? Perhaps.
More likely, however, Spielman will have to consider an offseason trade or free-agent acquisition, or perhaps even use a draft pick to ensure appropriate staffing of the most important position on a team that is pretty stacked at almost every other spot.
If you're a Vikings fan, this might not be what you want to hear on the day Bridgewater is confirmed to have suffered a serious but not career-ending injury. Perhaps you're clinging to the part of the team's announcement that predicts a full recovery without considering why it didn't say when.
Tuesday was a traumatic day for everyone, beginning with Bridgewater and rippling throughout the Vikings organization. As Zimmer spoke at a news conference, Spielman sat pensively on a set of nearby stairs, his chin in his hands.
As the emotion subsides, the Vikings will realize they can be supportive and realistic at the same time. No one would have guessed it when the day began, but the Vikings will be quarterback shopping this offseason. They have no choice.