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Year of the Black QB

Bridgewater’s brief but brilliant starting run was a glimpse of what could have been

In five games as the Saints starting quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater didn’t have to do anything extraordinary on the field – just being there in the first place accomplished that

NEW ORLEANS — His game-day ritual, whenever the Saints are playing at home in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, is the same. Teddy Bridgewater wakes up early at the team hotel and heads toward home. He makes himself oatmeal. He pulls on a dark hoodie — one that mostly covers his face, like a boxer’s as he weaves toward the ring, and lets him feel incognito — and pops in his earbuds.

Then he walks out his front door, climbs aboard his bike and begins pedaling to work.

The ride typically takes around 20 minutes, depending on the flow of traffic in the Big Easy. It’s rare, Bridgewater says, that anyone recognizes him.

He was never much of a bike guy; he just hates getting stalled in so much traffic. (Everyone is hyperaware of potholes here, and the electric grid that powers the traffic lights can, at times, feel possessed by demons.) His first year with the Saints, Bridgewater lived close enough to the Superdome to walk to games, but before his second season, he moved to a new place, and the journey was a bit too far to make on foot. Getting a bike was a simple solution to a minor inconvenience.

The serenity of the ride grew on him the more he did it — particularly this fall, as his life got bizarre again. No one pays any attention to the habits of a backup quarterback, but once you become the starter — as Bridgewater did when Drew Brees tore ligaments in his thumb in September — every one of your quirks gets a spin under the microscope.

After word got out that Bridgewater liked riding to work, the city wanted to turn it into an event. (Whatever its shortcomings, this town knows how to throw a parade.) Bridgewater joked with reporters that he’d be OK with fans joining him on the journey. “If anyone wants to ride a bike with me, I’m open to it,” he said when asked about his ride after a Week 5 win.

It was quintessential Bridgewater, playful and polite, warm and welcoming. His first year with the Saints, he rarely saw the field but still became something of a folk hero by doing his “Bike Life” dance set to the 2002 song “Choppa Style” by New Orleans rapper Choppa in the locker room after every win. He’d hop around on one leg and pretend to rev the accelerator on his imaginary handlebars. Soon the entire team, even head coach Sean Payton, was doing it in celebration.

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Bikes Up!!!! @therealking_rjj @thereal_larry

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But the prospect of “Bike Life” becoming real life, with Bridgewater leading hundreds of wheelie-popping strangers through downtown, felt overwhelming when a hypothetical threatened to morph into reality before the Saints’ Week 8 home game. When I asked Bridgewater whether an ESPN photographer and I could join him for his morning commute before the Saints’ game against the Arizona Cardinals, he considered it (for roughly half a second) before declining. “No one really knows where I ride from,” he said, standing in front of his locker, his soft voice polite but firm. “I just ride by myself.”

As it turned out, the morning of the Cardinals game – which was Bridgewater’s first one back on the bench after Brees’ return to the starting spot — he couldn’t even do that. When he pulled out his beach cruiser and started pedaling, he realized something was wrong. “It sounded like some air was coming out or something,” Bridgewater said. His tire was flat. He had to leave the bike at home and walk.

It was a quiet, almost metaphorical end to an emotional, six-week run for Bridgewater. He went 5-0 as a starter after Brees went down and played brilliantly (103.7 QB rating) in his first meaningful action since 2015, emerging as one of the best stories in the first half of the NFL season. He kept a team with Super Bowl aspirations in the mix for the NFC’s No. 1 seed. Then, on Sunday, Bridgewater watched from the bench as Brees threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns in his return. Bridgewater entered the game only briefly (in garbage time) to hand off twice.

“I blame you!” Bridgewater said after the game, teasing me as he got dressed. He was referring to the flat tire, not the game. His cycling karma had been fine, he made it clear, until I asked if ESPN could tag along. Bridgewater flashed a warm grin to let me know he was (at least halfway) kidding, but he planned to walk home. Alone. “After today, I might need a new bike deal or something,” he said. “I might get a couple bikes sent to the house. If you need a bike, you let me know.”

Although Bridgewater seemed upbeat, it seemed like a sobering reminder of how quickly life changes in the NFL. One minute you’re cruising; the next you’re walking home alone.

But even that detail becomes hopeful when you remember something else: A few years ago, just the idea of Bridgewater being able to make that walk would have seemed uplifting.

Teddy Bridgewater of the New Orleans Saints warms up before a game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Imagine, for a minute, we are living in a world in which Bridgewater didn’t take an awkward step in a noncontact drill on the Minnesota Vikings’ practice field in 2016, and his left knee didn’t break apart like a shattered candy cane, an injury so gruesome that doctors worried at one point that they might have to amputate. So much of the NFL landscape would look different.

For starters, the Philadelphia Eagles wouldn’t end up trading Sam Bradford to the Vikings, who were coming off an 11-5 season with Bridgewater as their starter. Does Philadelphia still win Super Bowl LII if Carson Wentz sits most of his rookie season behind Bradford? Do the Eagles even get to the Super Bowl without the play of defensive end Derek Barnett, whom they drafted in 2017 with the first-round pick they got from Minnesota? With the Vikings no longer an option in free agency, does Kirk Cousins sign with the New York Jets in 2018, meaning the Jets don’t make a trade with the Indianapolis Colts to move up and grab Sam Darnold in the next month’s draft?

The ripple effects caused by one injury, one moment in time, feel infinite.

Just as interesting, though, is imagining what might have been for Bridgewater if not for the infamous play that snapped the ligaments in his knee “like a toothpick,” he says. What if the Vikings had called for a different dropback or run a different drill? What if the play had started from something as simple as the other hashmark?

It’s easy to forget events that occurred four years ago in a world in which 350 million tweets are posted every minute, yanking our attention in countless directions. Recent history, especially the mundane, feels as disposable as ever. But there were stretches in Bridgewater’s second season with the Vikings in 2015 when he looked as promising as any young quarterback in football. He had a higher completion percentage (65.3) than Tom Brady. He threw fewer interceptions than Ben Roethlisberger with a similar number of attempts. He had a better QBR than Philip Rivers.

There were limitations to his game, certainly. His adjusted yards per passing attempt (6.9) ranked 25th in the league, meaning he was rarely trying to stretch the field. His arm strength rarely wowed you. But the risk-averse Vikings were still leaning heavily on Adrian Peterson, who ran for an NFL-best 1,485 yards that season. At least then, Minnesota didn’t need Bridgewater to be special in order to win.

In 2015, Stefon Diggs had just wrapped up a promising rookie season. Adam Thielen was still mostly stuck on special teams. How good could this team have been, if all those players hit their prime together? Bridgewater was just 23 years old.

He’s 26 now, with a knee healthy enough that he doesn’t wear a brace anymore. That’s a surreal development considering that the surgeon who rebuilt it — Dan Cooper, the Dallas Cowboys’ team physician — told ESPN in 2018 that Bridgewater’s knee injury was so gruesome, it was “almost like a war wound.” The threat of amputation was real as doctors assessed the damage to the arteries in Bridgewater’s leg. Now he hops around the Saints locker room on that same left leg every time he dances, and he spent his five weeks as the Saints’ starting quarterback deftly scrambling away from defenders for key first downs.

“He’s trying to juke people and all that,” Saints offensive lineman Terron Armstead said. “I’m like, ‘Get down!’ But that’s him. It’s backyard football when he’s running and scrambling. He’s having fun, but it scares the s— out of me.”

Still two weeks from his 27th birthday, Bridgewater is practically a teenager in a league in which two of the top quarterbacks (Brady and Brees) are in their 40s. And he believes, as poet Robert Browning once wrote, the best is yet to be. It might even come in New Orleans.

When Brees went down, it was hard not to think back to the past offseason, when Bridgewater turned down the Miami Dolphins — he could have competed for a starting job — to re-sign with the Saints on a one-year, $7.25 million deal that made him the highest-paid backup in the league. When the deal was announced, he joked that he hoped history was repeating itself, a nod to 2006, when Brees shunned Miami to sign with the Saints and became Drew Brees, Future Hall of Famer.

New Orleans Saints quarterbacks Drew Brees (right) and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (left) warm up before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals.

AP Photo/Bill Feig

“My team and I, we came together to think about what’s going to put Teddy in the best situation as a football player,” Bridgewater said. “That turned into New Orleans. Look at this team, this roster. Everyone talks about opportunity. Well, sometimes you don’t want to rush things, and you let things take their course. Why not come back here?”

What seemed like an opportunity for Bridgewater to spend another year learning from one of the best quarterbacks in the game turned into something else when Brees went down. The initial prognosis was six to eight weeks on the sideline – at least five games for Bridgewater to prove he still has what it takes to be a winning quarterback in the NFL.

It didn’t begin without skepticism. Before Bridgewater’s first start — on the road against the Seattle Seahawks — two former NFL-quarterbacks-turned-commentators, Chris Simms of NBC and Bruce Gradkowski of Pro Football Focus, argued that Payton ought to tap Taysom Hill as the starter, dismissing Bridgewater as little more than a game manager. If Payton stuck with him, they argued, the coach wouldn’t be giving his team the best chance to win.

Head coach Sean Payton (right) of the New Orleans Saints and Teddy Bridgewater (center) react to a play during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It was understandable. Bridgewater hadn’t won a game as a starter since September 2015, and no Saints quarterback not named Drew Brees had won a game in the Superdome since 2005. But with each passing game, it became clear how much the locker room and coaching staff seemed to relish playing for Bridgewater.

“He’s just such a standup guy. He never makes excuses. He takes responsibility. He prepares. He’s just one of those guys everyone loves to be around,” quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi said.

“My son broke his foot right before the season started, and he’s a senior in high school. He was crushed. Teddy reached out to him and forged a friendship with him. He told him he’d been through a serious injury situation, and he shared some mindset stuff on how to deal with it. My son really appreciated it, and I really appreciated it. He’s such a good man, and it’s been enjoyable to have that success with him running things.”

Bridgewater earned his team’s loyalty, gradually, in ways no one on the outside understood. Saints safety Vonn Bell said that last season during his first year with the Saints, Bridgewater — even though he wasn’t playing — would often drift over to the defensive backs after practice, eager to share what he’d seen going up against them that he thought would be helpful.

“Every week, he’d come to me for a little safety meeting,” Bell said. “I’d bring some of the other young safeties, and we’d really listen to him explain how he progresses the field. What’s he looking at when he gets two safeties versus one. What’s he seeing on certain coverages. If we gave him a certain look, he’d say, ‘I’m going here.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, why?’ He’d really break down the game to us, and it was a big help.”

In his first start this season, a 33-27 win over the Seahawks in Week 3, Bridgewater threw for two touchdowns and wasn’t sacked. Payton presented him with the game ball. In the locker room, Bridgewater gave an emotional speech that seemed to set the tone for everything to come. “I just want you to do one thing — and I’m trying not to bawl right now — but cherish this moment,” Bridgewater said. “Cherish these opportunities that we got, cherish this winning, and just, man, never take it for granted. I’m so speechless, but, man, I would not have rather been anywhere else but here, experiencing this right now with you guys. I appreciate you guys for accepting me, and I love y’all.”

With each game, the bond among Bridgewater, his teammates and even the fans seemed to solidify. Against the Cowboys in Week 4, he threw for only 193 yards but completed 76% of his passes in a 12-10 win. “I base everything on my past couple years,” Bridgewater said, wiping sweat off his face as he spoke to the media after the game. “The past couple years I had zero stats. The stat box said zero in every column. But the one stat that did add up for me over the past couple years was the Ws. I was winning in life. So I approach every game with that mindset. I don’t play this game for the numbers or, sorry to say this, your fantasy teams. I play this game for those guys in the locker room.”

When the Saints faced Tampa Bay at home in Week 5, it was clear that Payton was getting comfortable letting Bridgewater attack the defense, calling the game the same way he would if Brees were under center. Bridgewater threw an early interception that bounced off the hands of Alvin Kamara, but after that minor hiccup, he unleashed what should go down as one of the best games an NFL quarterback has played so far this season. Bridgewater tormented Tampa’s secondary, repeatedly zipping the ball through tight windows to wide receiver Michael Thomas. When the Bucs tried to smother him, he found Thomas on several perfectly gauged, hit-his-outside-shoulder touch passes.

Teddy Bridgewater of the New Orleans Saints throws a pass during the second half of a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Bridgewater went 26-of-34 for 314 yards and four touchdowns (two of them to Thomas) in the 34-27 victory, but there was one play that perhaps best represents the faith Payton grew to have in Bridgewater’s ability. The Saints were leading 24-17 with 1:55 to go in the third quarter, but it was not a comfortable lead. On its 9-yard-line, New Orleans was facing a crucial third-and-10. The conservative playcall would have been a handoff or, at most, a screen pass — something without the potential for disaster.

Payton did not make the conservative playcall.

The Saints put Bridgewater in the shotgun, then had him take a five-step drop after he got the snap. He was standing on his own goal line, and with two Bucs about to close in on him, he stepped up into the pocket and uncorked a dart to Thomas on a deep out that Thomas caught sliding out of bounds near the 30-yard line. It was as good a throw as an NFL quarterback can make in terms of timing, importance and placement. When, 10 plays later, the drive culminated with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Thomas that put the game away, the entire Superdome started changing Bridgewater’s name.

“Ted-dy! Ted-dy! Ted-dy!”

“In this town, people like underdogs,” said Saints Radio play-by-play man Zach Strief, who played offensive line for New Orleans for 12 seasons. “They like people that work hard. They like people who are like them. Teddy embodies all that. Certainly, the production helps, the fact that we’re winning helps, but I think the way that Teddy goes about his business does, too. He’s kind of quiet, he’s kind of soft-spoken, but he’s got kind of a confidence. He really embodies what the city is about: fighting your way out, being resilient.

“The things Teddy went through to get to this place, you could very easily build a metaphor of Katrina and what it was like rebuilding the city. At that time, people were talking about that this city may never come back. And yet it’s back, it’s better than it was before, it’s growing. It’s the same thing Teddy is going through right now.”

Payton tried to play it cool, to leave some air of mystery in the week leading up to the Cardinals game. But to those paying close attention, it seemed obvious that Brees was going to be the starter. Payton couldn’t help but slip into the past tense when he answered a question about Bridgewater’s strengths as a quarterback. “I think he’s a good decision-maker,” Payton said. “He protects the ball well. He did a great job of minimizing turnovers. I think he’s a real good leader. I think he gets the ball down the field well. Winning has kind of followed him wherever he’s been. You can see it’s kind of part of his DNA.”

Brees, meanwhile, looked like he might yank his hair out if he had to ride the bench another week. He pulled a football out of his locker during his weekly availability with reporters, demonstrating how his grip was back to normal and letting television cameras shoot footage of the scar on his thumb. He even pulled out a rubber football that belonged to his sons to explain what he’d used to strengthen his thumb while he was out. He talked about being thankful for his time away, but he was clearly relieved it was ending. “There is always something to learn,” Brees said. “Certainly perspective can make you more grateful. It’s what allows you to see things from a different angle, from a different way. It gives you a different appreciation and more gratitude.”

Grateful or not, it was no surprise to see Brees run out of the tunnel when the Saints’ starting lineup was announced. He pounded his chest, pumped his fist in the air with excitement and screamed as fireworks erupted around him.

During the opening kickoff, Bridgewater walked the length of the bench and shook hands with every Saints player. He certainly didn’t intend for it to come across this way, but from a distance, it felt like a thank you and the coda to an unlikely — but now expired — run of great football for him. There was some chatter on talk radio that the Saints might try to move him at the trade deadline, but it seemed like baseless speculation. New Orleans was where he wanted to be.

He clapped enthusiastically after every good throw by Brees and sat next to him while the defense was on the field, the two of them flipping through printouts of what the Cardinals’ secondary was doing, each of them pointing out weaknesses Brees might want to exploit. There were plenty to choose from.

Midway through the fourth quarter, with the game well in hand, “Choppa Style” came blaring out of the Superdome’s loudspeakers. Bridgewater, sitting nonchalantly on the bench, grinned when his face suddenly appeared on the giant screen, the cameras eager to capture his reaction. It was impossible to tell where inside the building the chant began, but within seconds it felt like the entire stadium had joined in.

“Ted-dy! Ted-dy! Ted-dy!”

Bridgewater grinned and raised his arms in the air, revving two imaginary handles, sending the crowd into a brief frenzy. It was the kind of moment you wish you could linger in for just a little longer, but then you blink, and it is already gone.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a senior writer with ESPN who lives in Baltimore.