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.