Vikings' Sam Bradford focused on getting back to 'where I can play football again'
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The way Sam Bradford played in the Vikings' season opener against the New Orleans Saints, there was always a chance it would be his best game of the year. It would have been difficult to improve on 27-for-32 passing 346 yards and three touchdowns.
After injuring his left knee for the third time, Bradford never really got the chance.
The Vikings' erstwhile starting quarterback returned to practice this week and was elated Wednesday, Jan. 3, simply to have practiced two days in a row.
"It's been a lot of fun," Bradford said. "I've been working extremely hard to be able to get back out there, and so just to be out there and be able to go through these two practices, it's been great."
Acquired for a first-round draft pick after Teddy Bridgewater blew out his left knee in August 2016, Bradford appeared on track for big things after a 29-19 victory over the Saints on Sept. 11. Afterward, his quarterback rating was a career-high, and fairly astonishing, 143.
But he played only one more half, a clear struggle during a 20-19 victory at Chicago on Oct. 9, and a few weeks later had arthroscopic surgery to clear out what Vikings trainer Eric Sugarman then called "wear and tear" in a left knee that had been surgically repaired twice before.
With the Vikings (13-3) about to enjoy a bye week before starting the postseason with a divisional playoff game on Jan. 14 against a foe to be determined, Bradford was asked if that career game against the Saints had him wondering what might have been for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Finally, the Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma appeared to have found the right team at the right time.
"I think anytime you get hurt, obviously you're going to go through those different scenarios," he said. "I try not to go there."
Bradford, 30, remains on injured reserve and it's unclear whether he might be activated for any playoff games — head coach Mike Zimmer has not been available since Bradford returned to practice — but Case Keenum stepped into the starting quarterback job and has run with it, leading Minnesota to an 11-1 record since relieving Bradford late in the first half against the Bears.
"I'm focused on just trying to get myself back into a position where I can play football again," Bradford said. "I've been focused on that for the past eight weeks, so these past two days have been extremely important for me and very encouraging for me in my rehab process."
This is the third time Bradford has had a season ended by surgery on his left knee. The first two, in 2013 and 2014 in St. Louis, were reconstructions of his anterior cruciate ligament. He and the Vikings tried for avoid a third surgery, Bradford said, but "it seemed like we tried about everything we could to get it to calm down. I wanted to give it as much time as possible, and it just seemed like whatever we did, it just wasn't getting to the point that we needed it to get to."
Surgery, he said, "was a last resort, but it was one of those things that once we got to the bye week (Oct. 30-Nov. 5) and tried to test it, we just felt like it was the last stop."
Another knee surgery, Bradford acknowledged Wednesday, was difficult. Asked if he wondered whether his career might be over, he said, "I think so."
"Obviously, having gone through what I've gone through with this knee, and having gone through another surgery, the initial couple of days, or couple of weeks after the surgery, you're still not exactly sure how things are going to go and how your knee is going to respond," he said. "It's hard not to let those thoughts creep into your mind. That was a battle I fought for a few weeks.
"But it seemed like each day that it got better, each week, those thoughts started to leave my mind and I started to become more confident in how I felt on my knee and what I was able to do."
With Bridgewater back from his knee injury, and Keenum playing as well as any quarterback in the NFL, it's unlikely Bradford will be retained by Minnesota. He is in the final year of a contract paying him $18 million, and already has made more than $100 million in the NFL.
Why not retire?
"Well, obviously the love you have for the game, and the work you've put in," he said. "That's the hardest thing is knowing how much time, and how much work I put in, over the offseason trying to get ready for this season and having it taken away again. You realize how special it is to be on the field."