EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Sam Bradford's dominating season-opening performance over the New Orleans Saints laid forth the projection that he could experience a career year for the Minnesota Vikings. When he suffered a noncontact injury to his left knee against the Saints, his season was over before it was really given the chance to begin.
Nearly four months later, Bradford is working toward a different goal than the one that could have secured him a high-level extension after his contract expires in March.
With his return to practice this week opening a three-week window for the Vikings to move him to the active roster, Bradford isn't concerned with accelerating through steps or making bold predictions about when he'll return.
He's simply focused on getting himself back in a position where he can play football.
Bradford returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since before he reinjured his knee against Chicago in Week 5. The quarterback was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 8 and was eligible to return to practice six weeks later. Braford said he believed that this week was "the right time" for his return given the timetable he and the Vikings' training staff had in mind.
"These past couple weeks we've tried to simulate as much of a practice as we could on my own with (Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman)," Bradford said. "I felt very confident going into these practices that (my knee) would feel good, and I think it responded well after yesterday and was able to go out there again today and practice.
"I think it's been really encouraging for me, mentally, to know that I can go back out there and do it. I'm just happy to be on the field."
Bradford underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Nov. 7 as a final effort to remedy the pain and swelling he was experiencing. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, Dr. James Andrews removed loose particles in Bradford's left knee, cleaned up torn cartilage and smoothed out a bone spur.
The quarterback said he knew several weeks after reinjuring his knee on Monday Night Football that he would eventually have to have surgery.
"It seemed like we tried about everything we could to get it to calm down," he said. "I wanted to give it as much time as possible and it just seemed like whatever we did, it just wasn't getting it to the point that we needed it to get to. I think surgery was a last resort but it was one of those things that once we got to the bye week and tried to test it, we just felt like it was kind of the last stop."
The last eight weeks since his IR designation haven't been the easiest for Bradford, who dealt with torn ACLs in back-to-back seasons in the same knee. He cited the frustrations he felt when having to ask himself whether he would be able to play again.
"I think the initial couple days or couple weeks after the surgery where you're not exactly sure how things are going to go and how your knee is going to respond, I think it's hard not to let those thoughts creep into your mind," he said. "That was a battle I fought for weeks but it seemed like each day where it (the knee) got better, each week where I felt like I was making true progress and I could do a little bit more each week, I think 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."
Once the Vikings' season is over, Bradford will consider a number of options. Both he and the Vikings could agree to a deal that would keep him here for a year or more, or he could wind up elsewhere, possibly with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur depending upon where he ends up in what feels like an inevitable hire. Bradford could also choose to retire altogether after making more than $114 million in eight NFL seasons.
His knee will continue to draw questions about how it will hold up in games beyond this season. For now, he's enjoying how it's feeling and the milestone he reached in returning to the practice field.
"Where it's at right now, it feels really good," he said. "It feels the best it has since the injury ... I don't know what the future holds for it, I don't know how it's going to hold up. But I didn't know how the knee was going to hold up after the previous two operations. I don't think anyone knows how their body is going to hold up. I think all you can do is try to get it as strong as possible, try to continue to rehab it and continue to gain strength back in my leg and in my knee."