MANKATO, Minn. — As the Minnesota Vikings checked into the dorms at Minnesota State University for training camp, fans chanted and cheered for Teddy Bridgewater, the first-round rookie quarterback who might one day be the face of the franchise.
For now, Bridgewater is in a competition to be a starter, and coach Mike Zimmer was not willing to make any declarations on July 24. The next several weeks will determine who will start when Minnesota opens the regular season on Sept. 7 at St. Louis.
Zimmer has said the competition is open between Bridgewater, veteran Matt Cassel and former No. 1 pick, Christian Ponder. But the Vikings’ new coach also acknowledged the pecking order when the team begins practice on Friday.
"In my mind I have Cassel as the No. 1 quarterback going into camp," Zimmer said. "I don’t have a starter in mind yet. They’re going to determine who the starter is on the practice field, about how they go about their business, how they perform in the preseason games. I understand the quarterback’s a big situation. Part of the question about answering who the quarterback’s going to be is, what kind of defense do we have? What are we going to ask the quarterback to do? How can we use the quarterback in different ways? I think a lot of that has a factor on who the quarterback will end up being."
Cassel, as he’s done all offseason, will likely take the first snaps when the team begins practice. The snaps will be split between the three quarterbacks.
"It’s not exactly even, one-third, one-third, one-third," Zimmer said of splitting the snaps. "It’s a little bit more and then some drills it’s going to be a little bit less. You’ll figure it out by watching practice. Like I said from Day 1, I want everyone to compete for positions. I believe the better you compete the better you get. People don’t get complacent. They study harder. They work harder on the practice field. So I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to play. The reps can’t all be the same but they will be similar at the beginning, and we’ll start backing them down some."
Whether Cassel stays in the No. 1 position becomes the question many want to know, even the team’s former MVP running back, Adrian Peterson.
Peterson said he feels the team has three good quarterbacks and he’s behind whoever plays. But after going through a constant rotation last year, he hopes the quarterback position is settled early.
"I felt like it was going to be very important for us," Peterson said of having the starter set. "Like I said, I feel like the coaching staff and the guys up top will evaluate and do what’s best for us. It feels good to know you have a couple guys to lean on, as well.
"It’s not a secret. The quarterback position really hasn’t played well, but that’s why you bring guys in, you improve as an individual and you try to take steps forward. From what I’ve been able to see from Christian and Matt, those guys have done that and that’s the approach that they’re taking. That’s all you can really ask."
Bridgewater arrived Thursday with the fans cheering his name, and said he’s looking forward to the competition. He’s spent time preparing for camp by watching film of his work during the offseason program and minicamp.
"I’m big on correcting my mistakes," Bridgewater said. "While we’re here in training camp, my biggest goal is to not make the same mistake twice. I was able to watch the film this past month that we had off and try to continue to get better off what happened in the OTAs and minicamp."
Cassel enters as the leading candidate to start in Week 1. Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman said they wouldn’t hold back from starting Bridgewater if he wins the job or be concerned about starting a rookie quarterback.
"The Minnesota Vikings, Rick and myself, we’re really not afraid to do anything," Zimmer said. "It’s really about doing what we feel is best. . . . I have no problem playing a rookie quarterback, or a ninth-year veteran or a fourth-year veteran. We’re going to do what we think is best collectively as a group. I’m lucky as heck to have (offensive coordinator) Norv Turner here to help with this decision."
Spielman added: "In a perfect world, I want the best quarterback, and we want the best quarterback that’s going to help us win ballgames."
Zimmer’s first camp: Minnesota opens its 49th season of training camp in Mankato, but the first with Zimmer as the head coach.
The players reported Thursday and were scheduled to undergo a conditioning test on Thursday afternoon. The Vikings haven’t had a conditioning test at the beginning of training camp for several years.
"I think coach Zimmer wanted to send a message to the players that, you don’t go home and take four weeks off laying on the couch," Spielman said. "I did, but uh, the conditioning test, I think, was very well thought-out. It’s not going to stress the players too much where they have dead legs, but it’s also that you had to do some stuff at the house and in your training while you were away from the building to pass the test."
Zimmer said he’s taken ideas from his previous stops, including Dallas and Cincinnati as he developed his plan for camp. He also talked to former coach Bill Parcells and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis in the days leading up to training camp.
Zimmer will continue to imprint his identity during camp.
"I just try to be me," Zimmer said. "I don’t try to say, ‘I have to pound this point in, pound this play in.’ I just try to do what I think is the best thing to do, along with our coaches . . . I think we’ve kind of shown how we want to be and how we want to act and how we want to practice. How we want to lift weights, eat, all those things, during the OTAs. This is just, for me, the only thing different now we’ve got pads on we’re getting ready to play games for real."
Zimmer said he wanted his team to be tough, but knows there is a balancing act between being tough in training camp and wearing down the players.
"It’s really a fine line," Zimmer said. "I was talking to one of my coaches the other day about tackling and scrimmages and he said, ‘you know, if you’re scrimmaging against the Pittsburgh Steelers you’ve got 11 players on the field, but if you’re scrimmaging yourself you’ve got 22 players on the field at the same time.’
"So we’re going to try and be smart about it. We’re going to have contact because that’s football. But as far as live contact, we’ll have some early in camp and then we’ll see where we’re at. I believe to be a good defensive team you’ve got to be a good tackling team so we’re going to have to work on that. That’s the reason you’ve got four preseason games too. We’re just going to try to figure out what’s best for us."
Peterson has been through coaching changes before and is pleased with what he sees from the new staff.
"To be honest with you, ahead of the curve," Peterson said in comparison to previous regimes. "That comes from just having guys that are buying in to what they are presenting to us and having great coaches surrounding us, as well. Just the atmosphere, there’s a lot more energy in the air, in the building there’s a lot more energy from the players. I know that has a lot to do with the coaches and having that confidence in what they have prepared for us. As a defense, and offensively, I think we’re ahead of the curve."
Zimmer has been eager awaiting training camp.
"For about the last three weeks I was having a dream about football," Zimmer said. "Last couple nights I haven’t been able to sleep much. I’d get up in the middle of the night and (say), ‘OK, this day we’ve got to make sure we’re doing a little more tackling or we do a little bit of this.’ I’m into it pretty good right now, I promised the Wilfs — both Mark and Zygi called me last night and wanted to wish me good luck on my first training camp and all that. And I promised them that I will do my very best job that I possibly can do to bring what they want to bring to this organization, this football team. And that’s my mission."
Kalil and Joseph ready, Ford out: Zimmer said left tackle Matt Kalil and nose tackle Linval Joseph, who each were held out of team drills in minicamp, should be ready to participate on Friday. Tight end Chase Ford arrived in Mankato in a walking boot and told reporters he had a stress fracture in his foot and would miss training camp.
Kalil said he was cleared three weeks ago after offseason surgery on his knee.
"Push it to the limit, tested my knee as much as I could," Kalil said. "No pain, feels super strong."