Overcoming serious injury and multiple NFL stops, Teddy Bridgewater is latest quarterback to lead Broncos: “I’m a survivor” – The Denver Post

Five years later, they remember how their lungs couldn’t fill with air, how their stomachs felt empty, how their minds raced in concern.

Through wins and losses, setbacks and triumphs, these experienced football men had seen a lot.

But this was Their Guy. This was Teddy Bridgewater.

It was Aug. 30, 2016, in Eden Prairie, Minn., the day Bridgewater and others saw the end of his career flash before them when he sustained a devastating knee/leg injury at practice.

“There was just a silence,” then-Vikings quarterbacks coach Scott Turner said.

“It shook the whole building to its core,” said Broncos general manager George Paton, who was a Vikings executive.

“It took my breath away when I heard,” said Shawn Watson, who was Bridgewater’s offensive coordinator at Louisville.

The brakes were hit on a promising career, eight-plus months after Bridgewater started in Minnesota’s playoff loss to Seattle and two days after he completed 12 of his 16 passes for 161 yards in an exhibition game victory over San Diego.

Just as quickly, though, Bridgewater and his camp pivoted. Get the surgery done. Start rehabilitation. Stay positive. Think about playing again. Don’t even think about giving up. It was his ethos, mindset and attitude all wrapped into one.

Fast forward 1,839 days.

Having long ago proven he could return to play competent football, Bridgewater — after winning a narrow training camp competition against Drew Lock — will make his third career Week 1 start when the Broncos face the New York Giants on Sunday.

“It’s a great feeling to have been on my journey and the biggest takeaway that I learned from all of my stops is that I’m a survivor,” Bridgewater said. “No matter the circumstance, no matter the situation, it’s, ‘How are you going to survive?’ You can lay down and be eaten alive or you can survive and keep hunting.”

Teddy is still hunting.

Starring at Louisville

The offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Colorado for all six years of Gary Barnett’s tenure, Watson had moved onto Nebraska in 2006. Four years later, the Cornhuskers were trying to generate interest from Bridgewater, a four-star, dual-threat quarterback from Miami Northwestern High School.

Bridgewater de-committed from the hometown Hurricanes when coach Randy Shannon was fired and pledged himself to Louisville on Dec. 21, 2010. Six weeks later, Watson joined the Cardinals as their quarterback coach.

“Teddy was part of the deal for me because I loved the kid and thought he was a great player and great person,” said Watson, currently the quarterbacks coach at Northern Iowa, in a phone interview.

Bridgewater was a spring enrollee at Louisville and went right to work.

“He really legitimized our second-team offense against what was becoming a very good defense and it was because of his ability to comprehend the passing game and execute and his ability to create outside the system,” Watson said. “He had natural play-making instincts.”

Early in his career, Watson coached for Mike White at Illinois. White’s philosophy was to give young and promising backups practice and game snaps with the starters so their first start wouldn’t be their first step on the field.

To start his true freshman year, Bridgewater threw one pass against Murray State (an interception) and two against Florida International (both complete) and took over for an injured Will Stein early in the second quarter of the third game at Kentucky. In a rivalry win, Bridgewater was 10-of-18 passing for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He was the new starter.

The next week, in a loss at North Carolina, head coach Charlie Strong elevated Watson to the play-calling role. After a 2-4 start, Louisville won five of six games to become bowl eligible.

Bridgewater’s sophomore season was a coming-out party with six 300-yard passing games and a 10-2 record entering the Sugar Bowl against Florida. Louisville, ranked No. 22, was a 14-point underdog to the fourth-ranked Gators.

“We were very confident (entering the game),” Watson said. “I loved our players, our plan and the guy directing it because I knew Teddy got it.”

The game was no contest.

Louisville rolled, 33-23, as Bridgewater was 20-of-32 passing for 266 yards, one interception and two touchdowns. That showing put Bridgewater on the national radar entering his junior year and he didn’t disappoint, posting totals of 31 touchdowns, only four interceptions and a completion rate of 71.4% as the Cardinals went 12-1 and capped the season with a 36-9 win over Miami.

Bridgewater was thinking about the NFL, but his mom, Rose, would only give her blessing if he had graduated. He earned his degree in December 2013 and declared for the draft.

“Coach Watson was a guy who saw so much potential in me at an early stage of my career,” Bridgewater said. “He really harped the fundamentals and taught me out to be a student of the game. Every day, he drilled me on different aspects that got me ready for Saturdays. Still to this day, I’m finding myself doing some of those drills that I was doing with him.”

Steady NFL improvement

The Vikings signed veteran Matt Cassel to be their starter and passed on Bridgewater with the ninth pick in the draft, instead choosing linebacker Anthony Barr.

The sliding-down-the-draft-board of Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel were primary subplots on the night of May 9, 2014.

Bridgewater’s Louisville Pro Day got the rap of being a disaster, but …

“I think there was a little more made of it than it should have been,” said Turner, who attended the workout with his father, Norv, then the Vikings’ offensive coordinator. “He missed a couple of throws and then there was a big, negative reaction publicly. We didn’t think it was that bad.”

The Vikings had met with Bridgewater at the scouting combine and watched him in-person at the pro day, but they wanted to complete the puzzle so a contingent traveled to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a private workout and an extensive meeting.

“He was quiet at first, but had a good sense of humor and the biggest thing that stood out was how intelligent he was and how well he understood the game,” said Turner, now the Washington Football Team’s offensive coordinator, in a phone interview. “He was accurate, the ball came out on time and he had enough athleticism to get himself out of issues, but he always remained a passer and he always seemed to play his best in the most crucial moments.”

The Vikings didn’t have a second-round pick so general manager Rick Spielman went to work as Bridgewater tumbled down the draft board. To move up eight spots to No. 32, the Vikings traded Nos. 40 and 108 to Seattle.

As he did at Louisville, Bridgewater played for the Vikings earlier than anticipated. In the season’s third game, at New Orleans, Cassel broke his foot and Bridgewater finished the 20-9 loss and started the next week, a 41-28 win over Atlanta in which he sprained his ankle and missed the next game.

Bridgewater returned and started 27 consecutive regular-season games. As a rookie, he had 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

In 2015, Bridgewater, benefiting from a full offseason of first-team snaps, lowered his interception total to nine while matching his 14-touchdown total.

The Vikings won their final three games to clinch the NFC North, leaning on the league’s leading tailback (Adrian Peterson with 1,485 yards). The Vikings hosted Seattle in a first-round playoff game (game-time temperature: minus-6 degrees) and lost 10-9 when Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining.

The plan going into the 2016 season was to open up the offense to take advantage of Bridgewater’s maturity as a passer.

But then came the injury.

The injury and rehabilitation

Turner was standing yards away from Bridgewater on the fateful play.

“He was coming away from center and however it happened, he stumbled and when he went to plant his foot, his knee just gave way,” Turner said. “He was obviously in a lot of pain and there was a reaction by the team because everybody knew what had happened and knew it was a season-ending type deal at least.”

Bridgewater’s leg basically exploded.

The medical term, in addition to a torn ACL, was a tibiofemoral dislocation. The immediate concern was the potential for the detached bones to sever arteries, which would have put his life in danger and increased the chance for amputation.

“Our training staff did an unbelievable job being prompt,” Turner said.

Days after the injury, Minnesota acquired quarterback Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Once the threat of losing his leg was eliminated, Bridgewater began a lengthy rehabilitation. He was out of all ’16 and started ’17 on the physically unable to perform list before appearing in one game.

Already a respected leader, the admiration for Bridgewater only grew within the Vikings.

“Just to see him come back and rehab when they told him he probably wasn’t going to play again (was impressive),” Paton said. “He came in everyday with a smile on his face. It was never a ‘woe is me,’ and he never felt sorry for himself. He just kept grinding and working. That’s the type of person Teddy is.”

A trip back to Minnesota last month for two Broncos-Vikings practices and preseason game put Bridgewater in a reflective mood.

“I have found myself thinking about it more lately than I have in the past,” he said. “Before, I used to brush it off like, ‘It happened. Keep going.’ Now, it’s, ‘Here I am (playing) when I could have been counted out, almost had to have my leg amputated.’ … When I wake up in the morning, I’m blessed. I get to play a game that I love and I have so much fun playing this game now, more than I ever had.”

Bridgewater left the Vikings after the ’17 season and Minnesota went all-in with quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Bridgewater signed a one-year contract with the New York Jets, but was traded to New Orleans late in the ’18 preseason when rookie Sam Darnold and veteran Josh McCown were named starter and backup for the Jets, respectively.

After throwing only 23 passes in ’18, Bridgewater’s breakthrough came in a five-start relief effort for an injured Drew Brees in ’19 (5-0 record, nine touchdowns and two interceptions).

“Teddy is one of my favorite guys,” said Joe Lombardi, who was New Orleans’ quarterback coach during Bridgewater’s stay and is now the Los Angeles Chargers’ offensive coordinator. “When he went in there (in ’19), we were so confident. When he needs to make a play, he can make a play.”

Bridgewater parlayed his Saints work into a starting contract with Carolina, but last year was forgettable (15 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 4-11 record) and included his post-trade criticism of the coaching staff.

On the week of the draft, Bridgewater was acquired by the Broncos, the next step in his football journey.

A common goal

To halt the Broncos’ five-year playoff drought, Bridgewater doesn’t have to be spectacular. If he can play to his career statistics in terms of completion (66.5%) and interceptions rates (2.3%) and passer rating (89.5), the offense should score more points and lean on the defense to finish off games.

Bridgewater will provide experience, but also leadership and calmness. Teammates rave about his even-keel approach, huddle demeanor and encouraging words.

If the offense has a sage, it’s Teddy, who leans on his myriad NFL experiences to paint the right kind of picture for his young teammates that, yes, pro football is a hard business, but it should also be fun.

“I’ve learned so much on my journey,” he said. “In Minnesota, I went from a young boy to Teddy Bridgewater, the man. I stopped in New York and it just taught me briefly that I can still do this and it just reassured my confidence. New Orleans, I learned the value of the process. I got to Carolina and I learned to stand on my word and my integrity.

“Now I’m here in Denver and I get the opportunity to be one of the older guys on the team. We have an opportunity to do something special here but it can’t be all talk. We have a common goal and that’s the thing I love about football — you put aside your personal goals and egos and you come together to win.

“It’s about the team and I love being a part of this.”

Bridgewater File

Age: 28

Height/weight: 6-2/215

Hometown: Miami

College: Louisville

NFL games/starts: 59/49

Entered NFL: First-round pick (No. 32 overall) by Minnesota in 2014

Teams: Minnesota (2014-17), New York Jets (2018 training camp), New Orleans (2018-19), Carolina (2020) and Broncos (2021)

Career statistics: Passing — 1,038-of-1,562 passing (66.5%), 11,385 yards, 53 touchdowns, 36 interceptions and an 89.5 rating. Rushing — 186 attempts for 713 yards and nine touchdowns…26-23 as a starter…9 career 300-yard passing games.

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