Minnesota Vikings Smartly Copying Seahawks' Quarterback Competition

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Minnesota Vikings Smartly Copying Seahawks' Quarterback Competition
Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Search back to the summer of 2012 and you'll find stories coming out of Seattle that remain relevant in understanding the quarterback competition currently being held by the Minnesota Vikings

Just two short years ago, the Seahawks—under command of head coach Pete Carroll—embraced competition at the position, giving rookie Russell Wilson a fair roll against veteran Tarvaris Jackson and high-priced free agent Matt Flynn

That May, after watching his undervalued rookie quarterback impress in minicamp, Carroll conveyed a similar message as the one currently being repeated out of Winter Park, Minnesota. 

"It's going to take us a long time to do this," Carroll said of his quarterback competition, via ESPN. "It's going to be frustrating for [the media]. You're going to keep asking and want to know. I'm just going to be more patient than you can imagine as we go through this process, and we'll just figure it out when we do."

In training camp, the Seahawks split reps three ways in an effort to find the best player, regardless of experience level or contract value. Wilson rightly won the job, but Carroll didn't make his decision until the week leading up to Seattle's final preseason game. 

Vikings first-year head coach Mike Zimmer is essentially taking a page right out of Carroll's book. 

Matt Cassel might be the odds-on favorite to win the job, but he'll first need to win a three-way competition that includes 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder and 2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater. Zimmer said during Minnesota's mandatory minicamp that his staff has a plan to give all three quarterbacks a "legitimate opportunity" to win the job, via Ben Goessling of ESPN.

And like Carroll in 2012, Zimmer is in no hurry to make conclusions. 

"From the day I walked in here, I said I want tough, intelligent, smart football players and I want competition at every position," Zimmer said. "To me, we're still competing; everybody's still competing for jobs. I'm competing to be a good head coach; assistants are competing to be good assistant head coaches. Again, I don't want to rush into anything."

All teams preach about positional competition, especially at this point in the offseason. In the most general sense, competition provides a breeding ground for internal improvement. However, some teams avoid the inherent risks in employing heavy competition at quarterback in hopes of getting the assumed starter the most possible reps before a season while also establishing some sort of offensive continuity. As the old saying goes, if you have two starting quarterbacks, you probably don't have one.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Carroll and the Seahawks mostly thwarted that idea, staging a true competition in which all three quarterbacks were given a fair chance—in terms of reps in practice and during exhibition games (save for Jackson, who threw just six passes in preseason play)—to win the job.  

And despite Wilson being a third-round pick—no quarterback drafted in the third round had started in Week 1 of a season since 1973—Carroll was undaunted in keeping him in the mix. 

The Vikings are doing the same with Bridgewater, who the team doesn't want to rush but who is still very much in play to start for Minnesota to begin next season. Zimmer made that very clear on the final day of the Vikings' minicamp. 

"We as the Vikings are not afraid to do anything," Zimmer said when asked about starting a young quarterback, via the team's official site. "We're going to make sure that we're diligent in getting this team prepared the best that we can and we're hoping that we can continue to compete for jobs and we get the best guys out there that are ready to go."

So far, the Vikings are playing the situation perfectly. 

Naming Cassel as the starter at any point between now and camp wouldn't make sense. Imagine if the Seahawks had prematurely handed the starter's job to either Flynn or Jackson during the early summer of 2012, keeping Wilson in the "development" stage to start his career. The rookie almost certainly would have overtook the two at some point, but the Seahawks would have also missed out on important on-the-job training for Wilson. Seattle patiently waited, and then decided on the best man for the job only once the whole process had played out. 

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The Vikings are in a similar position to do the same with their quarterbacks.

Cassel is entering his 10th NFL season. He's started at least six games in six straight seasons, and the Vikings won three of his six starts in 2013. Minnesota would feel very comfortable with him in the stopgap role, which requires a capable player to bridge the time period between the present and some time in the future when Bridgewater is ready to take over fully. 

But Cassel would also serve as a fine backup for Bridgewater, especially if the rookie continues to open eyes, much like Wilson two years ago. 

In 2012, it slowly but surely became more and more obvious that Wilson was Seattle's best option. While capable, Flynn didn't have the special qualities of Wilson. 

Over his first two preseason games, Wilson completed 22 of 33 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 92 yards and another score. Carroll gave him his first start in the all-important third preseason game, and he all but sealed his starting appointment by throwing for 185 yards and a score and also rushing for 58 yards in a 44-14 win. The Seahawks named him the opening week starter shortly after. 

This is the path Bridgewater must follow. Keep your name in the competition, impress come training camp and then win the job between the white lines in the preseason. 

Through organized team activities and minicamp, it appears Bridgewater can check off the first part of the equation:

Even offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has historically avoided playing rookie quarterbacks, came away impressed with the improvement of Bridgewater early on. 

“I think in the six-to-eight weeks we’ve had him on the field, I think he’s been put in a position where he’s had to make most of the throws he would have to make," Turner said, via Master Tesfatsion of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.”

Turner also praised Bridgwater's ability to throw the deep ball, which was one of his major knocks coming out of Louisville. 

The next step in the process starts July 25, when the Vikings report for training camp. 

If Zimmer sticks to his plan—and nothing about the way he's run the Vikings so far suggests he's in the lying business—Bridgewater will have every opportunity to earn his way to the top of the quarterback depth chart in August. If Bridgewater's preseason stat line is anything near Wilson's (see chart below), the Vikings may have no choice but to hand over the keys to the rookie. 

Russell Wilson vs. Matt Flynn, 2012 Preseason
R. Wilson M. Flynn
Cmp/Att 40/63 28/39
Completion % 63.5 71.8
Yards 536 204
Yards/Att 8.5 5.2
TD 5 1
INT 1 1
Passer Rating 110.3 81.6
Rushing Yards 150 6

*Flynn and Wilson both started two games

Cassel, on the other hand, will need to be much better than Flynn was in his August audition. 

Given starter's level money in March of 2012, Flynn proceeded to throw zero touchdowns and one interception during his two preseason starts. His passer rating in each game sat below 60.0. Flynn then missed the third game before returning to throw for 102 yards and a score in the preseason finale. But by that time, Seattle had already settled on Wilson as the starter. 

The blueprint for Cassel is simple: pick up the offense, stay steady in camp and look the more reliable of the three quarterbacks during preseason games. It would then take a special effort from Bridgewater to win the job if Cassel doesn't deviate from the safe execution expected of a veteran player. 

Meanwhile, Ponder would need both Cassel and Bridgewater to fall on their faces to realistically win the competition. He'll get reps, but he's the biggest long shot of the three, much like Jackson was for the Seahawks in 2012. 

The Vikings now hope their competition yields results similar to Seattle's. 

Wilson won 11 games as a rookie and then led the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in his second season. He also had a No. 1 defense and a strong supporting cast on offense, but the Vikings also have pieces on offense and Zimmer will be expected to lead a quick turnaround on defense. 

Yet in the end, the final product in Minnesota will still ride heavily on how a smartly designed quarterback competition shakes out.

While no two situations are identical, Zimmer and the Vikings can certainly feel confident that their way of deciding a starting quarterback has worked with great success in recent years. The Seahawks provided the blueprint; it's now on one of the three quarterbacks to take advantage of the process. 

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

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