I knew Teddy Bridgewater was pretty good.
What I didn't know _ and what I bet a lot of Carolina Panthers fans didn't know _ was that he was this good.
As the surprising 3-2 Panthers prepare to take on Chicago at home Sunday, it's worth noting and appreciating the sea change that has occurred over the past several weeks within Carolina's organization. Even if the Panthers lose this home game against the 4-1 Bears, it won't change the fact that their new quarterback has stabilized a franchise that badly needed to find solid ground.
For a 10-month period from November 2019 through September 2020, the Panthers felt like they were huddled in the middle of a perpetual earthquake. Cam Newton, Ron Rivera, Greg Olsen and Luke Kuechly walked _ or in the first three cases were pushed _ out the door. A global pandemic caused uncertainty and death worldwide, and in the Panthers' small corner of the world the accompanying COVID-19 restrictions meant the new players didn't even know their teammates' names all summer.
By the time the season began, the Panthers hadn't won a game for 315 days.
In the middle of that drought, Carolina fired Newton and signed Bridgewater, who resurrected his career last season in New Orleans by going 5-0 as a starter in place of an injured Drew Brees.
Rarely has a nickname been more apropos than Bridgewater's "Steady Teddy" moniker. Only 27 years old but having already recovered from a career-threatening left knee injury while in Minnesota, Bridgewater has the expertise and the gravitas to lead a team that was in desperate need of a leader.
"I just try to live with conviction and be myself," Bridgewater said, "and eventually people gravitate toward my personality."
Of the 14 Panthers' quarterbacks throughout history who have started at least three games, Bridgewater reminds me most of two former Carolina QBs _ Jake Delhomme and Steve Beuerlein.
"And by the way, I love Bridgewater," Beuerlein told me the other day. "I said long before the Panthers signed him that he would be the perfect fit."
Like Beuerlein, Bridgewater has spent some of his career as a backup. Beuerlein was a steady, accurate passer, too, as well as a tough guy who had five surgeries after the 1999 season and then didn't miss a start in 2000 for Carolina.
Delhomme had that "je ne sais quoi" quality. He was a better player than by all rights he should have been, especially in the fourth quarter.
Delhomme was extremely smart on the field, and that may also be Bridgewater's defining characteristic. I remember Delhomme once describing a play after a game in which he threw the ball to his fifth read. And if you watched it on tape, he really had looked at four other guys in about two seconds.
NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick once said driver Jimmie Johnson was "like a computer in the car" when Johnson was at his best. That was Delhomme, too, and that is Bridgewater. He leads the NFL with a 73.4 completion percentage and is sixth in passing yardage, but those numbers don't account for plays like this.
Bridgewater checked out of a pass play and instead handed the ball to Curtis Samuel on a third-and-2 in the fourth quarter against Atlanta last week. His reasoning: Bridgewater decided he was going to force a defensive back the Falcons had just sent into the game to make a tackle on Samuel.
Samuel burst through that tackle for a critical 17-yard gain.
Another example of the quarterback's attention to detail: Bridgewater makes time each week to talk to the offensive line coaches. This isn't normal. NFL quarterbacks have more than enough to do already, dealing with the other team's defense and their own trio of coaches (quarterbacks, offensive coordinator and head coach). But Bridgewater thinks it gives him a slight edge, so he does it.
The passing offense the Panthers are running in 2020 is based on a horizontal approach, not vertical. Short passes. Get the ball out fast to your playmakers. It wouldn't fit Cam Newton very well, just as Carolina's explosive 2015 offense wouldn't fit Bridgewater.
But this offense _ which looks a lot like what Brees does in New Orleans, where Bridgewater and offensive coordinator Joe Brady understudied together _ takes advantage of Bridgewater's knack for quick decisions.
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"Teddy is elite at knowing where to go with the ball," said Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, whose role in Carolina's turnaround has also been instrumental. "He's one of the best pocket movement guys I've ever been around. ... And he's so smart. He has tremendous expectation and understanding of what we're trying to do."
Bridgewater isn't perfect. He had three turnovers in a single game in a loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2. He sometimes doesn't take a necessary risk in the red zone. And like all quarterbacks, he's better when he has time _ and his offensive line hasn't allowed a sack for two consecutive weeks.
As with his temporary ascension at New Orleans in 2019, Bridgewater has followed a legend at Carolina. Newton was a charismatic and singular talent before he got hurt _ a player who once ended a 72-yard touchdown run with a leaping somersault into the end zone.
"I understand Cam was a fan favorite, and he still is," Bridgewater said. "But at the end of the day, my job is to win football games. I'm not here to really try to win people over. The only way I'm trying to win them over is by winning football games. I think what's happened so far in my career is ... the folks in Minnesota. They loved me. They appreciated me.... In New Orleans they didn't know me at first, and then we started winning and they started coming around. ... That's been the current trend of my career. I've got to just go play football and the rest will take care of itself."
Winning is the bottom line. In his NFL career, after these last three wins with Carolina, Bridgewater is now 25-14 as a starter.
It's a limited sample size, but his winning percentage as an NFL starter is 64.1. Delhomme's winning percentage was 58.3. Newton's is 55.5%.
It's early, and there's no need to go overboard on Bridgewater. Remember, Kyle Allen won his first five starts as a Panther quarterback _ and didn't throw a single interception in those five starts. Then things fell apart.
So it could go bad. But as long as Bridgewater stays healthy, I don't think it will. In Bridgewater, the Panthers have found a quarterback who can win.
There are still things to do. The rest of the team needs to get better, especially the run defense. Bridgewater has to successfully integrate Christian McCaffrey back into the offense once he returns from a high-ankle sprain.
But what's going on now is promising. Under the direction of Bridgewater, the Panthers have become fun again.
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