Dougherty: Vikings armed for title run

Pete Dougherty
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It wasn’t hard to dismiss the Minnesota Vikings’ trade for Sam Bradford a couple weeks ago as a desperate team overpaying for a quarterback just to keep the slightest flicker of hope alive.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford warms up before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn.

After all, the 29-year-old Bradford hasn’t done anything as an NFL quarterback to suggest he’ll make a difference, as his 25-37-1 record and no playoff appearances attests.

So while the Vikings have the makings of one of the NFL’s best defenses as well as the league’s top running back, is there really much reason to think general manager Rick Spielman spent wisely when he sent first- and fourth-round draft picks to Philadelphia for Bradford after Teddy Bridgewater’s knee blew out near the end of training camp?

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Well, here’s some food for thought: Sprinkled among the NFL’s Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks are a few who shared some striking similarities to Bradford and his current circumstances when they won titles: Earl Morrall, Jim Plunkett and Doug Williams.

So maybe the Vikings now are in just as good a position to challenge the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title as they were before Bridgewater’s season ended. In fact, after talking this week with a scout and coach who each worked in the NFC West and studied Bradford closely when he was with the St. Louis Rams, I think the Vikings are a major threat in the NFC North and a dark-horse Super Bowl contender.

“I think they’re better off because (Bradford) gives them the long ball,” said the scout. “Now that they have Bradford they’ll be able to throw some things down the field, stretch the seams, put a little pressure on a single-high safety. … I don’t know if I’d say Super Bowl, but I’d definitely say contend for the division and get deep into the playoffs.”

Bradford’s on-field play certainly doesn’t inspire that confidence. Since being the No. 1 pick overall in the 2010 draft, he never has finished a season above .500 as a starter, and he had back-to-back seasons end with a torn left ACL (2013 and ’14).

After Bradford went 7-7 with Philadelphia last season, here’s what the Eagles thought of his future: They fired the coach (Chip Kelly) who traded for him and gave up a huge haul of draft picks (first- and second-rounders in 2017, along with third and fourth-rounders this year) to move up six spots to the No. 2 pick of the first round so they could have either of the top two quarterback prospects, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. They ended up with Wentz.

Yet, at least some people in the league who have studied Bradford closely think he has talent that shouldn’t be dismissed. One defensive assistant coach from an NFC West team who studied Bradford closely when he was with the Rams said Bradford has his weaknesses – he’s immobile and has minimal charisma or huddle presence. But he also has real arm talent.

“He’s legit now, he can spin it,” the coach said. “Now, he’s not the most mobile guy. If you say what his biggest deficiency is, it’s that. But as far as throwing the football, he’s almost elite. As far as throwing it to a spot, getting it there to the wide side, long, deep throws, he’s legitimate. There’s a reason he was the first pick in the draft.

“Now, he’s never done it (i.e., had a good season), and he’s been in the league long enough where you’d think at some point you would have seen it. The injuries have been devastating. But I’ve watched him live, and he was impressive.”

Which brings us to Morrall, Plunkett and Williams, Super Bowl winners all.

Like Bradford, they were first-round draft picks: Morrall was the No. 2 pick overall in 1956 (the same year Bart Starr was No. 200); Plunkett was No. 1 overall in 1971; and Williams was No. 17 overall in 1978.

Also like Bradford, they basically bombed for much of their careers.

Morrall was traded twice early in his career and was 23-22-2 as a part-time starter for the Detroit Lions and New York Giants for 10 years before Baltimore picked him up at age 34  in 1968 to back up Johnny Unitas.

Plunkett busted in New England (23-38 in five seasons) and San Francisco (11-15 in two years) before the Oakland Raiders picked him up at age 32 to back up Ken Stabler.

And Williams had a 33-33-1 record in five seasons with Tampa Bay, bolted to the USFL for three seasons after a contract dispute with Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse, and then returned to the NFL at age 32 to back up Jay Schroeder with Washington.

Yet Morrall ended up playing in two Super Bowls – after going 13-1 in place of Unitas in ’68 he lost to the New York Jets, then in the ’70 season he replaced an injured Unitas in the second quarter of the Super Bowl trailing 13-6 and won the game. And in ’72 he played the final nine regular-season games in place of injured Bob Griese and started two playoff games for the Dolphins’ unbeaten Super Bowl title team.

Plunkett became the Raiders’ starter in ’80 after an injury to Dan Pastorini, had a 38-19 record as a starter in eight years and led the Raiders to Super Bowl wins in the ’80 and ’83 seasons.

And Williams, after starting only two regular-season games in ’87 was named Washington’s starter for the playoffs and led it to a Super Bowl win.

All three were quarterbacks with considerable arm talent who didn’t win much of anything for a good part of their careers. But when they were on teams surrounded by good all-around talent later in their careers, they were good enough to win a title.

They belong in a different category than other non-Hall of Famer Super Bowl winning quarterbacks such as Trent Dilfer (Baltimore in 2000), Brad Johnson (Tampa Bay in 2002) and Jeff Hostetler (New York Giants in 1990). Dilfer, Johnson and Hostetler won with teams that had all-time great defenses. Morrall, Plunkett and Williams had excellent surrounding casts, but not that.

The questions with Bradford this season are whether the Vikings’ defense is good enough to be among the league’s two or three best, and whether Bradford can provide enough to put them over the top. The Packers will get the first look at that Sunday as Bradford is expected to make his first start.

Minnesota in fact looks like it will be one of the best defenses in the league, though not anything like the dominant Purple People Eaters of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. The Vikings have at least five potential Pro Bowlers in safety Harrison Smith (27 years old), linebacker Anthony Barr (24, defensive tackle Linval Joseph (27), defensive end Everson Griffen (28) and inside linebacker Eric Kendricks (24). They also have an up-and-coming young pass rusher in Danielle Hunter (21), and a good cornerback in Xavier Rhodes (26), who is out this week with a knee injury.

On offense, Bradford will have Adrian Peterson to chew up yardage and clock, and to run play action off, and one of the game’s best offensive coordinators in Norv Turner, who runs a traditional drop-back offense that doesn’t require his quarterback to be mobile.

Would I pick the Vikings as the division or Super Bowl favorite? No. But with Bradford I wouldn’t count them out, either. In fact, if I had to pick a dark horse, they’d be it. The biggest thing going against them is that Bradford wasn’t with them for training camp.

“They’ve given themselves a chance (by acquiring Bradford), but a lot depends on how fast Sam unpacks things in the new offense,” the aforementioned coach said. “But if you’re asking me, are they going to make the playoffs? I’d say yes, they’re good enough to make the playoffs. Are they going to win the whole thing? I don’t think so, I wouldn’t put them on my list. And that (matchup with the Packers in the NFC North) is a total wild card. There are so many variables. But just knowing Bradford I would not bet against him. I think he’ll be successful.”

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