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Don't count him out: Teddy Bridgewater is making the most of his chance with Denver
Following the 2015 season, there was little doubt that Teddy Bridgewater was on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback.
By Aric DiLalla Sep 25, 2021

Before Teddy Bridgewater won the Broncos' quarterback competition, before Denver started 2-0 for the first time in three years and before the fan base began to fully get behind Bridgewater as the starter, George Paton had some questions to answer.

Paton, in his first year as the Broncos' general manager, had passed on a pair of rookie quarterbacks in favor of Pat Surtain II in the 2021 NFL Draft — and he faced some degree of skepticism from members of the national media.

On a mid-August morning in Minnesota, where Paton had worked for more than a decade before joining the Broncos in January, he took on a slew of questions about the game's most important position. And while several of his answers were telling, perhaps none was as interesting as his response to a question about the pressure to find a franchise quarterback.

"We all want to get that quarterback," Paton said. "Obviously, you need one to get where you want to go, but I don't look at it as pressure. I look at it as a challenge and we look forward to the challenge. We do think we have two really good quarterbacks here. We may have that guy here, so we're not panicking. We're going to build this team [with] foundational players, and hopefully, we have a foundational quarterback here in our group."

In the moments after Paton's press conference, there was speculation among media members that Paton's comments were good news for Drew Lock. He was the third-year player with untapped potential; Bridgewater was the veteran with a known skill set.

More than a month later, it now seems just as likely that Paton's comments were in reference to Bridgewater.

Through two weeks, Bridgewater appears on pace for the best season of his career. With four touchdown passes, he's well on his way to surpass his career high of 15 scores — and his QBR ranks second through two weeks. The opponents will soon get tougher, but the 28-year-old Bridgewater appears more than capable of leading the Broncos to more wins than they've had in half a decade.

Soon enough, it's possible the questions to Paton could revolve less around the next crop of college quarterbacks and more about an extension for Bridgewater.

After Bridgewater's path to this moment, it seems unwise to count him out.

Following the 2015 season, there was little doubt that Teddy Bridgewater was on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback.

The 32nd-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft posted back-to-back stellar seasons at Louisville to put his name in the conversation among the nation's top quarterbacks. In 2012, Bridgewater earned 2012 Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors as he threw for 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions and capped the season with a win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

A year later, he completed 71 percent of his passes for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions as the Cardinals finished 12-1 and beat Miami in their bowl game. Bridgewater finished that 2013 season with the highest completion percentage in the nation and the most passing yards and passing touchdowns in the American Athletic Conference.

His draft stock dropped slightly as he struggled at his pro day and had an abnormal heartbeat detected during the Combine process.

By the time the Vikings traded up to select Bridgewater on draft night — sending the 40th-overall pick and 108th-overall pick to Seattle — those concerns had been assuaged, and they picked a player they believed could lead them forward.

"We wouldn't have moved up for just anybody," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said after the draft. "He leads. He makes the players around him better."

That became clear early. After being named the Vikings' starter in Week 4 of his rookie season, he completed 64.4 percent of his passes as he threw for 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He led Minnesota to a 6-6 record in his 12 starts, and in his final five games of the year, he completed at least 70 percent of his passes in four of those opportunities. On three occasions during that final five-game stretch, he posted a quarterback rating of at least 114.1. The Vikings' final three losses of the year came by a combined seven points.

As he entered his second season, Bridgewater's career continued to take off. He led the Vikings to an 11-5 record — starting the season 7-2 — and an NFC North title, and he posted eight games with at least a 90.0 quarterback rating. Bridgewater and the Vikings led the Seahawks in the fourth quarter of a home playoff game, and they had a chance to steal the lead back late before Blair Walsh's 27-yard field goal soared wide left.

Bridgewater made the Pro Bowl as an alternate, and he appeared to be the league's next rising star. Picked behind Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel and a few spots before Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo, Bridgewater seemed set to cement himself as the class' best quarterback.

Bridgewater certainly thought he was in position to be deemed the Vikings' franchise quarterback.

"I definitely did," Bridgewater says now, just off the practice field at UCHealth Training Center. "I think you can ask most of the people who were there during that year, they sensed the same thing. But you know, things happen, injuries and changes happen throughout the league, so [you] can't blink. Just gotta go where the wind blows or the train rolls and take advantage of that opportunity."

Things did indeed change.

During a non-contact 11-on-11 drill during the Vikings' 2016 training camp, Bridgewater faked a handoff to Adrian Peterson and dropped back in the pocket. When he planted his foot, Bridgewater dislocated his left knee and tore his ACL.

"I remember the day he got hurt like it was yesterday," Paton said in May. "It shook the whole building to its core. It was hard for the building to get over it and start the season."

He wouldn't start another game for more than two years.

Bridgewater's path from that Minnesota practice field to the Broncos was circuitous.

He attempted two passes — both incompletions, one an interception — during a late-season game against the Bengals in 2017. The ensuing offseason, Bridgewater signed a one-year deal with the Jets, but a crowded quarterback room pushed him to New Orleans in a trade. Bridgewater started just a single game in 2018 as he backed up Drew Brees, an end-of-season loss to the Panthers in which he went 14-of-22 for 118 yards, one touchdown and an interception.

During training camp earlier this year Bridgewater declared himself a survivor — "You can throw me in the jungle and I'm gonna come out with a fur coat [and] a headband that I made out of some leaves" — but surviving wasn't always easy.

And if there was a moment that proved most difficult for Bridgewater, it may have been in those months with the Jets and while initially serving as a backup in New Orleans. Bridgewater knew he had the talent to be a starting quarterback; he just had no pathway to prove it.

"Honestly, man, it was kind of crazy," Bridgewater says now. "I think my survival skills came that offseason that I was with the Jets, because it was like, man. I think they had [second-round pick Christian] Hackenberg who was drafted the year before, had just taken Sam Darnold — top five pick. So I was like 'Man, how do I fit in? How am I going to show that I still belong?'"

Bridgewater's preseason performance helped him do just that. He completed 28-of-38 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. That was enough to convince the Saints to make the trade, but even a new setting posed its challenges.

"I think what kind of set me back a little bit was when I did get to New Orleans at first, I was like, 'Man, I'm behind Drew [Brees],'" Bridgewater says. "You know, I'm just gonna be his backup, you know, I haven't heard of Drew missing games. And that whole year he [missed one game], I think. The next year, after not playing, I was like, 'All right, well I'm gonna just do this backup thing again.' And he got hurt like the third game of the season, and I was still in my backup mindset, wasn't prepared and lost to the Rams, and that helped me shift my focus back to like really train myself like, 'Man, I'm still a starter in this league. I belong in this league.' And everything took off from there.

"I definitely kept the faith. I didn't know when it would happen but I definitely kept faith."

Bridgewater finally got another chance.

It came in Carolina in 2020, and only a depleted roster and midseason injury may have disguised Bridgewater's ability to lead an offense. Early in the season, Bridgewater posted a quarterback rating of at least 95.0 in seven of his first 10 games. After the injury, Bridgewater's play became more erratic, and Carolina sent a high draft pick to the Jets in the offseason for Darnold.

That left Bridgewater, again, without a home. And as Broncos fans debated which rookie quarterback the team should pick, General Manager George Paton swapped a late-round pick for Bridgewater on the eve of the 2021 Draft.

Four months later, after beating out Drew Lock for the job, Bridgewater was declared the starting quarterback.

He's a different player now than he was in Minnesota. He's more patient and more aware. His game is more finely tuned, and he can make plays that he wouldn't have made even during his Pro Bowl season. His fourth-and-1 touchdown pass to Albert Okwuegbunam against the Giants? He says it's unlikely he could have made that play as a second-year quarterback.

"I think when I was young, I relied on pure talent to allow me to try to make those plays and Sunday [against the Giants was] understanding situations," Bridgewater says.

In the huddle and in the locker room, Bridgewater's impact may be even more pronounced. Veteran running back Melvin Gordon III says Bridgewater brings a sense of calm to the huddle in big moments, and the soft-spoken leader has taken young players like KJ Hamler under his wing. After the preseason, Bridgewater requested that Hamler's locker be moved next to his.

"Teddy's been awesome and amazing, like a big brother to me," Hamler said of Bridgewater having his locker moved. "… And I ain't never had that before. … I've never been next to my quarterback."

It's possible Bridgewater could share the locker next to Hamler for the foreseeable future. Denver has longed for a franchise quarterback since Peyton Manning retired, and while Bridgewater would certainly have to beat the odds to earn that role, it's far from impossible. He's just 28 years old, has a Pro Bowl pedigree and innate emotional intelligence that has endeared him to his teammates.

Perhaps most importantly, the Broncos are winning — and that's what Bridgewater will focus on as the season and his career continue. He knows the media and the fan base will debate the future of the quarterback position; he'll focus on his teammates and, this week, the New York Jets.

Make no mistake: Bridgewater wants to be the Broncos' long-term starter. He just won't look too far ahead.

"Honestly, man I'm focused on right now," Bridgewater says. "I just want to prove that, you know, I'm the guy right now, and whatever happens down the road, what happens tomorrow isn't promised. I got injured thinking about tomorrow. I've got to be where my feet are and right now, it's here in this moment, being the best teammate that I can be, trying to be the best version of Teddy, the best quarterback that I can be, and lead this team."

That, too, shows growth. For a player who was a starter and then lost that opportunity to a brutal injury, you could hardly blame him if he was focused on his future security, on making sure this chance didn't slip away.

It requires an awareness — and perhaps a quiet confidence — he doesn't believe he would have had in Minnesota.

"It's definitely a perspective that I didn't have back then," Bridgewater says. "Back then, it was always what's next, what's next, looking forward to this and that. But, you know, life will humble you, God will humble you and now it's just like, be where your feet are."

Where he is now is a chance to improve to 3-0 as the Broncos starter and push the team back toward the postseason for the first time since that same winter when Bridgewater led the Vikings to the playoffs. It's been a long wait for both entities, but they're hopeful the drought will soon end.

With Bridgewater under center, both as a player and a leader, that goal no longer seems out of reach.

Back in 2015, there was little doubt that Bridgewater was on his way to becoming a franchise quarterback — and perhaps there shouldn't be much doubt now.

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