What if I told you that 58 years of sports suffering in Philadelphia ended because someone nearly lost their leg during a summer day in Minnesota?
“Typical Philly fans!” you might suggest.
Calm down. It wasn’t quite THAT simple.
Ultimately, though, Teddy Bridgewater suffering a torn ACL and dislocated knee joint during a 2016 Vikings’ training camp practice did have a lot to do with the Eagles winning their first Super Bowl title. The injury also had a domino effect elsewhere around the league that no one could’ve predicted at the time.
Join me as we look back at how one of the NFL’s most unfortunate injuries changed the landscape of the league forever.
At the time of Bridgewater’s injury, Sam Bradford was still the Eagles’ starting quarterback.
Earlier in the offseason, Philadelphia had re-signed the mediocre, injury-prone veteran to a two-year contract worth up to $36 million. The plan was for Bradford to open the season as the starter despite the fact the Eagles traded a hefty package to move up to No. 2 overall and select Carson Wentz in the 2016 NFL Draft. That trade caused Bradford to stage a pointless holdout before he eventually decided to rejoin the team.
Wentz wasn’t even projected to be Bradford’s direct backup, though. That second-string role was occupied by journeyman Chase Daniel, who signed a three-year deal worth $21 million. Wentz was going to be inactive as a healthy scratch on game day. The Eagles preached the message of patience with their rookie passer as he tried to make the transition from NCAA Division I FCS to the NFL.
But patience wasn’t necessary.
Just three days after Bridgewater’s knee exploded on August 31, and eight days before the first Sunday of the 2016 NFL season, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips (accidentally) broke the news of Bradford being shipped out to the Vikings. It was later confirmed the Eagles received a 2017 first-round pick and a 2018 fourth-round pick for the quarterback, who was set to be their Week 1 starter.
The reality is Eagles fans would’ve been fine with the team merely receiving the fourth-round pick from Minnesota. Getting the first-rounder in addition to that was highway robbery from Howie Roseman.
Those draft picks ended up being instrumental in the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, especially since Philly lacked assets due to the Wentz trade. But more on those in a bit.
The more immediate implication of this trade was Wentz being elevated from third string quarterback to hopeful franchise savior.
Wentz had his fair share of ups and downs during his rookie season as the Eagles missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record. But the team’s success (or lack thereof) wasn’t as important as the 16 games worth of experience Wentz was able to get under his belt.
If Wentz hadn’t played so much as a rookie, it’s hard to believe he would’ve ended up being as successful as he was in 2017 when he easily could’ve been the NFL MVP if he hadn’t suffered an ACL injury in Week 14.
Because of Wentz’s regular-season brilliance, the Eagles were in prime position to lock up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff picture.
Speaking of the playoffs, it’s time to address those draft picks the Eagles received in the Bradford trade.
The 2017 first-round pick the Vikings surrendered ended up being Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett at No. 14 overall. Barnett was solid for the Eagles in the regular season, but he saved the biggest play of his career for the team that was responsible for Philadelphia picking him.
On third-and-5 with 3:23 remaining in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game, the Vikings had a good chance to tie things up at 14-14. (Or at least cut the lead to four points with a made field goal).
Barnett rushed off the edge, dodged a foolishly-designed block from a tight end, and strip-sacked Case Keenum to lead to an Eagles fumble recovery. Philadelphia would ultimately go on to beat the Vikings that night, 38-7. The Eagles advanced to Super Bowl LII, which was being hosted in ... that’s right ... Minnesota).
I should probably mention that I lied to you earlier. Barnett’s biggest play of his career wasn’t when he knocked the ball out of Keenum’s hand. I mean, it was up to that point, but there was obviously a more critical play he was involved in.
It happened when it looked like hope was lost for the Eagles. Yes, Philadelphia had a 38-33 lead with 2:16 remaining in the fourth quarter of the biggest game of the year. But that lead didn’t mean much with Tom Brady, who was responsible for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history the year before, under center for the Patriots. Eagles fans were prepared for the worst.
The worst didn’t happen for them, though. Brandon Graham had other plans. The veteran pass rusher knocked the ball out of Brady’s hands as the quarterback was getting ready to throw. It was the biggest play in Eagles’ franchise history.
And the player who would recover that fumble?
None other than the guy the Eagles ultimately got as a result of Bridgewater suffering that injury back in 2016 ...
The Vikings don’t trade for Bradford if Bridgewater doesn’t get hurt. And the Eagles don’t win the Super Bowl without the Vikings acquiring Bradford.
In a world where Bridgewater stays healthy, Bradford probably starts most of the season for the Eagles in 2016. He doesn’t get benched until he inevitably gets hurt or Philly is eliminated from post-season contention. As a result, Wentz misses out on valuable reps and is merely good in 2017 instead of being dominant. Philadelphia tops out around 9-7 and Doug Pederson isn’t close to being the folk hero he is today. Bradford gets traded during the 2017 offseason for something like a fourth-round pick.
The Vikings are no strangers to brutal playoff losses, and the 2015 season was no different. All Blair Walsh had to do was hit a 27-yard field goal to beat the Seahawks and the Vikings would be on to the Divisional round.
Walsh did not make that kick.
But while the moment was surely devastating, all hope for Minnesota’s future was not lost. There was still plenty of reason to think the Vikings, who went 11-5 and finished first in the NFC North, were legitimate Super Bowl contenders heading into the 2016 season.
That is, until disaster struck again. Bridgewater’s incredibly unfortunate non-contact injury threw a major wrench into Minnesota’s plans for the season. Rick Spielman responded by trading for Bradford.
Though it looked like an obvious overpay at the time of the deal, the move didn’t look so bad when the Vikings got off to a 5-0 start.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the injury bug wouldn’t stop biting them. The Vikings skidded to an 8-8 finish in 2016.
There was still hope for the Vikings. Bradford would now have an entire offseason to get adjusted in Minnesota’s offensive system heading into 2017. The Vikings would be healthy and ready to make a run.
Bradford dazzled in Week 1 of the 2017 season. The much-maligned quarterback completed 27 of 32 attempts against the Saints for 346 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 143.0 passer rating. He was brilliant.
Predictably, it didn’t last. Bradford’s knee started to swell due to his history of multiple ACL injuries. After losing both Bridgewater and Bradford, it looked like the Vikings were doomed.
Enter Case Keenum.
The 29-year-old journeyman signal caller had bounced around the league after going undrafted in 2012. He landed in Minnesota as a backup after falling out of his starting job with the Los Angeles Rams in 2016.
Keenum, an unlikely hero, really made the most out of his unexpected opportunity. He finished the 2017 season with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Keenum’s magical ride included “The Minnesota Miracle” which was so out of character for a Vikings team that was usually on the bad end of those type of plays.
The Vikings were one game away from being the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl in their own stadium. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Eagles absolutely walloped them in the NFC Championship Game.
Do the Vikings ever get that close if Bridgewater doesn’t get hurt?
The 2014 first-round pick showed promise before his injury, yes, but he also had just 28 touchdowns to 21 interceptions before getting hurt. Keenum’s run may have topped what Bridgewater would have given Minnesota.
Funny enough, both of those quarterbacks no longer play for the Vikings. Knowing that Keenum’s success wasn’t necessarily sustainable, Minnesota decided to move on and sign the top free agent quarterback with a more proven track record.
Does Cousins stay in Washington if Minnesota doesn’t have a need at quarterback this offseason? It’s doubtful. The relationship there was clearly untenable after Cousins had been hit twice with the franchise tag and a long-term deal was not going to happen.
So, where would Cousins have ended up instead?
His once obvious landing spot of San Francisco was eliminated after the 49ers traded for Jimmy Garoppolo. Let’s look at the runner-ups in the Cousins sweepstakes.
Maybe instead of signing Bridgewater this offseason, the Jets would’ve ended up with Cousins. New York wouldn’t have had to give up multiple picks to the Colts to move up from No. 6 in the 2018 NFL Draft. Sam Darnold could’ve fallen to Denver or the Bills may have been able to move up further to draft him instead of Josh Allen.
Or maybe instead of signing Keenum this offseason, the Broncos would’ve been the most attractive destination for Cousins. Pairing him with that Denver defense could’ve brought the Broncos back to challenging for the AFC West lead, if not more.
Or maybe instead of signing Bradford this offseason, the Cardinals would’ve found a way to bring Cousins to the desert. Arizona wouldn’t have had to trade up for Josh Rosen in this year’s draft. Who knows how far the UCLA quarterback would’ve fallen at that point.
Did you notice a theme with those three teams? It’s pretty funny how the teams that tried to sign Cousins, the free agent quarterback the Vikings ended up with, ultimately landed one former Minnesota quarterback of their own. It’s like destiny came up with some kind of weird consolation prize.
In any case, it’ll be really interesting to see how the Vikings fare with Cousins. Expecations are high for a 30-year-old quarterback who has never experienced any post-season success.
Is Keenum even still in the league if Bridgewater — and Bradford — never get hurt? He wasn’t really a hot commodity after leaving Los Angeles. He only signed a one-year contract worth up to $2 million with Minnesota. That was presumably his best offer. Maybe he finds stability as Bridgewater’s backup. Or maybe he’s hopping around on the backup quarterback circuit until eventual retirement.
Sammy Sleeves, as he came to be known in Philly, would’ve likely been traded after one year in Philly if Bridgewater never got hurt. There’s a world where he plays so well that the Eagles just keep him, but that wasn’t likely with Wentz waiting in the wings. I don’t know where Bradford would’ve ended up instead. It’s safe to say he would’ve found a starting job somewhere, though, because Bradford always does. No matter how many injuries or how many mediocre efforts, there’s always a misguided team willing to talk themselves into Sam Bradford.
I wanted to save the star of this hypothetical “What if?” for last.
It’s absolutely terrible what Bridgewater had to go through. If he never got hurt, there’s a pretty decent chance he’s still the Vikings’ franchise quarterback.
Thankfully, Bridgewater’s injury wasn’t as damaging as it could’ve been. There’s still hope for the 25-year-old’s career. Bridgewater is reportedly looking good in OTAs with the Jets.
It’s unclear how long Bridgewater will last with New York. Darnold is obviously the future there and Josh McCown is still around as well.
There’s already speculation that Bridgewater could be moved. Maybe some team’s starting quarterback gets hurt shortly before the season and trades for him.
And maybe that trade sets off a chain-reaction of events much like when Bridgewater first got hurt back in 2016.