MINNEAPOLIS -- In one sense, the fact the Minnesota Vikings declined Teddy Bridgewater's fifth-year option has no real effect on the quarterback's chances to resume his career with the team that drafted him.
Bridgewater is still fervently attacking his rehab from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered last August, and the quarterback's ardor in rehab has the Vikings rooting for his successful return to football. They weren't going to wager $12.2 million on that return, not when Bridgewater's 2017 contract would toll (at the price of $2.179 million) even if he spends the entire season on the physically-unable-to-perform list. His fifth-year option would have been guaranteed against injury until the start of the 2018 league year. The team's belief in Bridgewater is free, but they're willing to express it.
"Teddy, I can tell you, our first week of offseason has been incredible," general manager Rick Spielman said last Tuesday. "He's been in here working as hard as anyone, fighting his way back. I wouldn't put it past that kid how quickly he can come back. But it's still unknown."
The unknown is why you won't hear anyone with the Vikings offering something more tangible than well wishes for Bridgewater. The dislocated left knee and cartilage damage he sustained make the quarterback's recovery more complex than a standard rehabilitation from a torn ACL, so the team is loathe to provide anything resembling a concrete timetable. And while Bridgewater tries to work his way back, the Vikings are doing everything they can to set his replacement -- Sam Bradford -- up for success in a contract year.
The Vikings' decision on Monday was more a reflection on Bridgewater's predicament than an act to close the door on his return. But if the opening wasn't made slimmer, that's because it wasn't all that big to begin with.
If Bradford is productive enough at age 29 to lead the Vikings back to the playoffs, it will be difficult for the team not to reward him with a contract extension, especially when it invested so much to bring him to Minnesota on the belief it had a shot at a long postseason run last year. These Vikings are not built to play the long game, and while the team's decision-makers already know plenty about what Bridgewater would bring in a return to the starting job, they would have to be fairly certain of his durability to reinstate him as the starter for 2018. That's an awfully high threshold for Bridgewater to meet before next year, particularly if Bradford plays well enough to trigger a long-term commitment.
The best-case scenario for Bridgewater to get his job back probably looks something like this: He begins the season on the PUP list, makes enough progress to land on the active roster by midseason and gets an extended opportunity to reassert himself, either through an injury to Bradford or some set of circumstances (a poor season from the quarterback or a losing record) that makes the Vikings willing to consider their alternatives. (It's worth wondering, of course, whether such a series of events would leave Bridgewater's future in the hands of new decision-makers.) But if Bradford plays well and the Vikings are winning, they probably aren't going to be devoting regular-season games to a dry run for Bridgewater.
And if Bridgewater does return to the active roster sometime this fall, his contract would expire in March. He'd undoubtedly be looking to start in 2018, meaning the Vikings would have to decide if they'd seen enough to pick him over Bradford (provided they hadn't already signed Bradford at that point). Essentially, while there remains a path for Bridgewater to start for the Vikings again, the team isn't currently pointed in that direction. Something would have to change to get it there.
That's why Monday's decision was at once prudent and unsurprising. Cheery statements about Bridgewater's recovery are one thing; in the uncharitable world of the NFL, eight-figure financial commitments are another. It's possible the 24-year-old quarterback will still earn one of those from the Vikings, but he's going to have to meet a heavy burden of proof to make that happen.