By Jason Keidel
While we fawn over football’s midseason chalk, the clear favorite for Team of the Year is the Philadelphia Eagles, who own the NFL’s best record (8-1), and are enjoying a breakout season from QB Carson Wentz. Surprise Team of the Year would clearly go to the Los Angeles Rams (7-2), who are in first place while hurdling the twin burdens of bad coaching from the fired Jeff Fisher, and the bad blood from fleeing a loyal and rabid fan base in St. Louis.
Neophytes Doug Pederson and Sean McVay would also be strong Coach of the Year candidates.
But cruising well under the radar — and well above the pack (and the Packers) — is a team somewhere in the middle, anonymously nestled between Philadelphia and Los Angeles, two major cities that probably couldn’t spot Minneapolis on a map.
Keeping with their Midwestern sensibilities, the Minnesota Vikings are winning games, crushing opponents, and doing it all with their typical understated demeanor.
The Vikings (7-2) are not only in first place after beating the Washington Redskins on the road, but they are doing it with injuries at the most important spots on the roster. Indeed, you could argue that the Vikings are plowing through the league with their third-string quarterback, Case Keenum. Remember, injured starter Sam Bradford is only on the club because they desperately traded for him last year after their true starter, Teddy Bridgewater, suffered one of the most gruesome knee injuries ever.
Bridgewater’s injury was so graphic, teammates were seen vomiting on the field, and there was concern Bridgewater would lose his leg. It’s hard to think of a comparable injury during a practice, no less, with zero contact from a defender.
You may also recall that yesterday’s rushing hero, Latavius Murray, was a backup in October, because rookie RB Dalvin Cook was setting the sport on fire. Through the first few games, he was rumbling his way through defenses, a dual-threat as a runner or receiver, and a serious challenger to Leonard Fournette for Rookie of the Year, and a surefire Pro Bowl selection.
So the Vikings are two games up in the NFC Central sans their starting QB and best RB. That makes Minnesota a candidate for most surprising team of the season, and also earns Mike Zimmer more than a few votes for Coach of the Year.
Cynics will assert that the Vikings dashed out to a 5-0 mark last year, only to fall apart and miss the playoffs. But yesterday’s demolition of the Redskins proves they are here for the long haul. They are physical on offense and defense, and can win on the ground, all traits that translate when trees turn bare and the temperatures plunge. Or, as legendary NFL Films voice John Facenda would say, in the wind and cold November mud.
And don’t look now, but the players in purple are about to get better. After an agonizing 18 months of rehab, Bridgewater suited up for his first Sunday since his mangled leg rendered his teammates sick. You need not be a Vikings fan to get a few goosebumps at the site of the Vikings’ lost leader on the sideline. Bridgewater was so overwhelmed by the sight and support he literally squatted on the bench and cried, a towel draped over his face to dry his tear-soaked cheeks.
His Vikings may have whipped the Redskins without his services, but at least one member of the organization said we shouldn’t be surprised if we saw Bridgewater play in Washington. Keenum was more than capable, passing for 304 yards and four touchdown passes, posting a 117 passer rating. But there’s a reason Case Keenum has spent the bulk of his career as a backup. Maybe he’s having a gridiron rebirth. Or maybe he’s playing on a superb football club that would be even better if their first-round draft pick, and unquestioned leader, were back under center.
Either way, Mike Zimmer has waved a wizardly coaching wand this season. And now he has two fine quarterbacks in his coaching pocket. And if the Vikings of 2016 were something of a tease, the 2017 iteration doesn’t seem to be going anywhere — except the playoffs.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.