LOS ANGELES — Determined to prevent their Super Bowl hopes from disintegrating if Drew Brees went down with an injury, the New Orleans Saints made an unusual investment at backup quarterback the past two years.
They parted with a 2019 third-round draft pick to acquire Teddy Bridgewater from the New York Jets before last season. Then they signed the 26-year-old to a 1-year, $7.25 million contract during free agency this past offseason, making him the NFL’s highest-paid backup quarterback.
Over the next six weeks, at least, Bridgewater will have the chance to validate the Saints’ faith in him. With the 40-year-old Brees reportedly expected to undergo thumb surgery this week to repair ligament damage, the Saints will give Bridgewater the opportunity to keep a promising season afloat and audition to be the franchise’s heir apparent at quarterback.
It’s understandable if Saints fans are nervous about turning a Super Bowl-caliber roster over to Bridgewater. Not only has the former Minnesota Vikings first-round draft pick played very few meaningful snaps since a devastating 2016 knee injury, he also hasn’t produced many highlights in his brief appearances in a Saints uniform.
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Bridgewater started in place of Brees in a meaningless Week 17 game last season, completing 14-of-22 passes for 118 yards behind a makeshift offensive line that included only one typical starter. He also performed only adequately during the preseason last month, completing a respectable 61.4 percent of his passes but getting out-played by jack-of-all-trades third stringer Taysom Hill.
It was more of the same when Bridgewater came on in relief of Brees early in Sunday’s 27-9 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He completed 17-of-30 passes for 165 yards and did not turn the ball over, but the Saints struggled to sustain drives with him under center, only advancing beyond the Rams’ 30-yard line twice in his eight possessions.
“It was great to get the opportunity to go back out there and play football again,” Bridgewater said. “It sucks that it had to happen the way that it did, but I appreciate every opportunity I get to play this game.”
The surface-level reaction to the Saints’ struggles on Sunday is that the transition from Brees to Bridgewater could be bumpy, but a more nuanced assessment suggests that’s a bit premature. Ill-timed penalties, poor run blocking and too much pressure stymied the Saints’ momentum as much as Bridgewater’s errant passes or bad habit of holding the ball too long.
Saints coach Sean Payton made a point of defending Bridgewater after Sunday’s loss, blaming the quarterback’s supporting cast for the lack of touchdowns. He noted that because of all the Saints’ penalties, Bridgewater faced first-and-long or second-and-long scenarios on seemingly every drive.
“I thought he was ready to play,” Payton said. “He’s a pro. He knows how to win in this league. I didn’t think we played particularly well around him. When we watch that tape tomorrow, it’s not going to be pleasant for some guys.
“If you’re not playing well up front, I don’t care if it’s your Hall of Fame guy or your No. 3 guy. It’s going to be difficult.”
Payton also shot down multiple questions about giving Hill an extended look at quarterback. Not only did Payton argue Bridgewater is more ready to fill in for Brees, he also pointed out that the Saints needed Hill at slot receiver after injuries left them thin at that position.
This offseason, Bridgewater turned down an opportunity to start for the Miami Dolphins in lieu of staying in New Orleans to back up Brees. Now, if Bridgewater can thrive in Brees’ absence, it would be the culmination of a remarkable comeback. It was only a little over three years ago that Bridgewater blew out his knee in practice so severely that his surgeon likened it to a “war wound” that kept him on the sidelines for more than a year.
In December 2017, Bridgewater appeared in an NFL game again. In December 2018, Bridgewater started a game for the first time since the injury.
Now comes the real test: Meaningful playing time. He’ll take the field Sunday in Seattle with the hopes of a Super Bowl-caliber team resting on his shoulders and the chance to entrench himself as Brees’ successor in the palm of his hands.
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