CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Long before Teddy Bridgewater was introduced to then offensive assistant Joe Brady with the New Orleans Saints, long before the Carolina Panthers' personnel department made Bridgewater the player to replace franchise quarterback Cam Newton, the former Louisville star was on coach Matt Rhule’s radar.
It was about seven years ago. Rhule, then the coach at Temple, watched on television as Bridgewater played for the Minnesota Vikings. Evan Cooper, his director of external operations and, like Bridgewater, a native of Miami, was with him.
“We always joked like, 'If you ever get one of those [NFL] jobs, that’s the first guy you should go after,'" Cooper recalled.
Fast-forward to Sunday’s NFC South showdown between the Panthers (3-3) and Saints (3-2), where a major storyline is Brady, now the Panthers' offensive coordinator, and Bridgewater running their version of the Saints' offense.
Indeed, the Panthers’ belief in Bridgewater was cemented in 2018, when Brady and Bridgewater were together in New Orleans as an offensive assistant and backup quarterback.
That played a role in the Panthers' decision to reunite them in Carolina, where Brady is in his first year as an offensive coordinator after helping LSU win the national title as the passing game coordinator.
But the foundation for Bridgewater being with the Panthers began with Cooper.
“His football acumen, his love for the game ... his intelligence ... he’s everything Coach Rhule and myself believe in as a player," said Cooper, now the cornerbacks coach at Carolina.
As Bridgewater and Brady return to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox), they'll bring a re-creation of the complicated system used by Saints coach Sean Payton.
And like Drew Brees in New Orleans, it’s the triggerman who makes it work in Carolina. The characteristics Cooper saw in Bridgewater way back when are why the quarterback is able to do for Brady what Brees has done for Payton.
“I’m not comparing him to Drew Brees -- he’s not Drew Brees,” ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said of Bridgewater. “But in terms of how they play the game and how they see the game, there are similarities.”
‘Teddy is elite’
Bridgewater is coming off his worst performance of the season, completing only 55.7% of his passes and throwing two interceptions against a Chicago defense that had him under constant duress.
Prior to that, he led the NFL in completion percentage (73.4), prompting Rhule to gush over his quarterback’s intelligence.
“Teddy is elite at knowing where to go with the ball,” Rhule said. “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.”
What the Panthers are trying to do is run the Saints' offense with a few twists Brady picked up last season at LSU.
“There’s a ton of it that you see,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “It’s matchup based, it’s different personnel groupings, it’s different formations. And it’s all based on being as efficient as possible, making it as easy on the quarterback as possible.
“The quarterback’s job, when Joe’s calling those plays, is just go operate that play because I know at minimum you’re going to get 5 yards. I can minimize that, but that’s really, really hard to do.”
Bridgewater, like Brees, is efficient. Even after a bad outing, he’s fourth in the NFL in completion percentage at 70.9, just behind Brees at 71.
Efficiency marked Bridgewater’s 5-0 record while Brees recovered from a thumb injury last season. He completed 70.2% of his passes during that span.
So what makes Bridgewater such a good fit for what Payton and Brady want to accomplish?
“He’s got an outstanding skill set. He moves, he’s got good arm strength, he’s accurate, he’s a fantastic leader,” Payton said. “And players play hard when they’re with him.
“But it starts with his ability. And I think you’re seeing him extend plays -- he does it throwing it, although he’ll tuck it if he needs to. And he’s spread the ball around well.”
Again, it’s being smart and efficient in a timing offense.
“That’s what he is: a timing and rhythm thrower who needs to be schemed on vertical opportunities,” Bowen said. “Teddy doesn’t have elite arm talent to push the ball down the field consistently for 16 weeks, so you scheme verticals for him -- just like Sean Payton did last year.
“And the verticals in Joe Brady’s offense are similar.”
Looking in a mirror
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You might not hear Bridgewater shout the terminology used in 2018 while Brady was there, but you might see the same play.
“I don't know the verbiage that they are using, but I am pretty sure it's probably similar to what we use; at least it was at LSU,” said Brees, referring to Brady’s offense that was the most prolific in college football history.
Bowen pointed to a pair of “Cross Country Dagger” plays run by each team -- one to Saints receiver Michael Thomas for a 49-yard gain in Week 14 of last season against the San Francisco 49ers and one to Panthers receiver D.J. Moore for a 27-yard gain in Week 3 of this season against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Thomas and Moore both ran deep over routes across the field out of the slot, while the outside receiver on their side ran a deep dig route. In both cases, the receiver on the other side of the field cleared out the boundary cornerback.
So there are variations.
But as Bowen said, “The theory is the same: Occupy the corner and attack a deep void in the coverage.”
Payton likes the balance Brady has achieved between the run and pass game, particularly since Mike Davis replaced Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey, who will miss his fifth game with a high ankle sprain.
It’s the same type of balance Payton tries to achieve with a multifaceted back like Alvin Kamara and an elite receiver such as Thomas, who is questionable to return this week (hamstring).
“You can see the confidence that those guys are playing with,” Payton said. “And you do recognize a lot of your schemes and a lot of different formations.”
But it all goes back to the quarterback being able to process the system and make it work. What Brady likes about Bridgewater and Brees is they see the gray areas in a play and don’t get tied to making black-and-white decisions.
“Football is never exactly what we expect,” Brady said. “The great quarterbacks are able to make decisions and process things and make elite plays.”
Fantasy becomes reality
Rhule and Cooper were at the Saints' practice facility late in December preparing Baylor to face Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Just over a week later, Rhule was headed to Carolina to begin the journey into the NFL they once joked about.
On that day, Rhule hung around to talk to Bridgewater after the quarterback finished his post-practice regimen of throwing to receivers to perfect his timing.
Again, the coach saw all the traits he was looking for in a quarterback. He later shared those thoughts with Carolina’s scouting department. He had Brady in the fold by then, and their relationship made it clearer Bridgewater was the guy to succeed Newton.
Because the Saints weren’t in position financially to compete with the three-year, $63 million deal Carolina gave Bridgewater, that set the stage for this NFC South reunion that Payton probably would like to have avoided for the same reason he blocked Carolina’s request to interview offensive line assistant Brendan Nugent.
“There are certain things you’re going to do to be smart, relative to the division," Payton said.
Brady has done his best to downplay all the comparisons of what he and Bridgewater brought from New Orleans. One thing he can’t downplay is Bridgewater’s role in helping a team in an apparent rebuilding situation become competitive enough to win now.
“He’s everything you want in a quarterback,” Cooper said. “You can see that from afar.”