Mike Zimmer had taken over as the Minnesota Vikings head coach a year ago and went to the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis looking at many ways to resurrect his new team. A longtime NFL defensive coordinator, Zimmer’s responsibilities grew for the first time at the combine as the defensive coach took a broad look at the prospects.
Of utmost concern was finding a quarterback to lead the Vikings.
A celebrated draft class included Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr, among others. Bridgewater was dissected throughout the draft evaluation process even though his game film at Louisville showed the makings of an NFL quarterback.
Zimmer is happy the process unfolded as it did. Minnesota was able to draft Bridgewater, after a trade with Seattle, with the final pick of the draft’s first round last May.
"We put an unbelievable amount of effort into finding a quarterback and we were extremely fortunate to find this guy," Zimmer said Thursday speaking at the combine.
Bridgewater ascended to the Vikings’ starting quarterback spot earlier than expected last year and ended up passing for 2,919 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Bridgewater started 12 games after Matt Cassel was injured for the season in Week 3.
The vetting process saw Bridgewater fall from potential No. 1 pick to the end of the first round, where Minnesota traded with the Seattle Seahawks to acquire Bridgewater.
"Well, we were trying to move up to get him," Zimmer recalled Thursday. "We were trying to make a trade to get him. There were a couple of other times we tried to get up to get to where we could get him. But it just happened to work that way with the 32nd pick. We would have kept trying."
With the ability to trade up for Bridgewater, Minnesota secured an extra year on the quarterback’s contract with the fifth-year option in the Collective Bargaining Agreement for first-round draft picks. General manager Rick Spielman was thankful for the process when he spoke at the combine Wednesday.
"I’m thankful the media did him a disservice, in my opinion, last year by judging him in on his pro day," Spielman said. "But we spent six different occasions with Teddy last year . . . All the information to gather that you use to make your decisions, but it has to come back to what he is, not only as a character but what he is as football player."
Bridgewater’s character is one reason Minnesota feels so fortunate and believes it has hit on a long-awaited answer for a franchise quarterback.
Bridgewater finished last season with the third-highest completion percentage (64.4 percent) for a rookie in NFL history behind only Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (66.4 percent in 2004) and Washington’s Robert Griffin III (65.7 in 2012).
Following the season, Bridgewater was honored as the Pepsi Rookie of the Year in fan voting completed online. Zimmer reached out to his young quarterback to congratulate him and make sure Bridgewater’s mind was in the right place.
"I sent him a little text and I said, ‘Hey, Teddy, congratulations.’ I said. ‘Now let’s go win a championship unless you just want to be a celebrity quarterback,’" Zimmer said Thursday. "He texted me back and he said, ‘Thanks coach,’ he said. ‘But I’ve never been about individual awards. All I care about is winning as a team and getting better every day and that’s all I want to do.’"
Zimmer likened Bridgewater’s circumstances to the fall Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers experienced in 2005.
"It’s all scientific in the measurements and all those things but at the end of the day you have to have some luck too on your side in these drafts," Zimmer said Thursday on Minnesota-based KFAN Radio. "We were very fortunate where we ended up hitting on Teddy."
What a difference a year makes for the Vikings, Zimmer and Bridgewater.