- Vikings rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater had a strong starting debut but has experienced some "ups and downs" since
- Bridgewater appreciates the manner in which Minnesota Head Coach Mike Zimmer works to get the best out of his players
- The Vikings have allowed 13 sacks in the last two games, and Bridgewater thinks he is to blame
Heading into the summer of 2013, Teddy Bridgewater looked like a good bet to be the first quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL draft, if not the first player overall. This "way too early" mock draft on SI.com, for instance, had Bridgewater following only South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. SBNation.com put Bridgewater all the way at the top.
However, a lot can change in 12 months, even if Bridgewater himself did not. The Louisville star got on the NFL radar with stellar freshman and sophomore campaigns but his 2013 senior season was statistically his best, highlighted by a 31-4 touchdown-interception ratio. And yet he was not the first player off the board in the spring of 2014, or even the first quarterback.
It was after that 2013 season that things became unpredictable. There was little consensus as to the order that top QB prospects Bridgewater, Blake Bortles and Johnny Manziel would fall on draft weekend, or which teams were even interested. In the end, Clowney did go first overall, to Houston, while Bortles was the first passer taken, by Jacksonville at #3. Bridgewater waited until Manziel went to Cleveland at #19 and the Minnesota Vikings finally came calling at #32, just before the first night of the draft ended. In the end, though, he was still a first-round pick, and he was on a team that believed he was their quarterback of the future.
"I tried not to pay any attention to it, but at the same time I'm human," said Bridgewater about the ups and downs of the lead-up to the draft. "The things that I took away from it were that you can't control what people say about you, only focus on the things that you can control. After going through that process, I just kept telling myself, 'No one else's word matters but the coach that I'm going to play for and my teammates that are going to go to war with me each and every Sunday.'"
Bridgewater has given those people that matter to him reason to be excited. If getting picked at the end of the first round can be considered a matter of "falling draft stock," then perhaps it was due to a scouting report that didn't absolutely rave about Bridgewater's arm strength or accuracy. No one, however, has ever questioned his intelligence, poise or work ethic. That, and the fact that he's already turned in some rather impressive stretches of play – particularly in leading the Vikings to 41 points in a win over Atlanta in his starting debut – has Head Coach Mike Zimmer expecting good things from his young quarterback as his career progresses.
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"Teddy has been a little bit up and down," said Zimmer in a characteristically uncompromising manner. "I thought he came in against New Orleans, into a tough situation and played well. He played great against Atlanta and then he's been a little bit up and down the last two weeks. Actually, in the ballgame last week against Buffalo, he started out and had a rough stretch and then composed himself and did much better in the end. He's got a bunch of learning experiences. I really like this kid, his mentality, his toughness, really the way he throws the ball and the way he carries himself. We're hoping that he continues on the track that we expect him to."
Maybe in part because the pre-draft evaluations were so hard to pin down, with so many opinions coming from so many angles, Bridgewater is enjoying the straightforward nature of the man whose evaluation now matters the most to him.
"Coach Zimmer is a guy who's going to get the best out of you," said Bridgewater. "He's going to push you until you go over the edge. He's not satisfied with mediocrity, he wants the best for the team and he wants us to win. We understand his message we're just going to continue to try and apply it throughout the rest of the season."
Bridgewater threw for 313 yards and wasn't intercepted in that win over Atlanta, and he even ran effectively, getting 27 yards and a touchdown on six carries. His very first NFL regular-season action came the week before when he relieved Matt Cassel in New Orleans and did not look at all overwhelmed, calmly completing 12 of 20 passes for 150 yards.
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Those were the main ups. The downs have largely come in the last two weeks, after he returned from an ankle injury that cost him one game, and they've been in the form of five interceptions and 13 sacks. Bridgewater has taken the blame for those negative plays and knows what he has to do to eliminate them.
"I would say that it's just me holding on to the football whenever I'm in the pocket," he said. "I'm trying to look for the big plays, trying to win the game in one play when there are easy throws right in front of me. I have to understand that I need to continue to nickel-and-dime a team and eventually the big play is going to come."
The wait probably won't be long, but you can count on Bridgewater and the Vikings to be patient, just as both were on draft day. Bridgewater has found a team that values him, a starting job more quickly than anticipated and a head coach that can bring out his best. It was worth the wait.
"I've been extremely blessed," he said. "Unfortunately I was called upon in a situation where it was a loss for the team – we lost our starting quarterback – but it was an opportunity for me to get a chance to showcase my talents."