In Week 2 last season, three years after suffering a gruesome knee injury that stalled his once-promising career, Teddy Bridgewater found himself as the proverbial “next man up” for the New Orleans Saints following a thumb injury to Drew Brees.
Bridgewater had been shelved for more than a year following his injury before bouncing from the Minnesota Vikings to the New York Jets to the Saints. With him at the controls for three-and-a-half quarters, the New Orleans offense failed to score a touchdown in that Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. But Bridgewater started and won the Saints’ next five games with nine touchdown passes before returning to the bench when Brees’ thumb healed.
That five-game stretch was enough to establish Bridgewater as a free-agent commodity, and the Carolina Panthers rewarded him with a three-year, $63 million contract this offseason.
The 2020 campaign will bring change to Carolina. For the first time since 2014, the Panthers’ Week 1 starting QB won’t be Cam Newton, and for the first time since 2010, the team will start a season with a head coach other than Ron Rivera.
Carolina’s new head coach is Matt Rhule, whose previous NFL experience consists of exactly one season as the Giants’ assistant offensive line coach in 2012. That’s a far cry from Bridgewater’s coach at New Orleans. Sean Payton ranks statistically as the top offensive coach the game has ever seen. Payton’s teams have scored 27.9 points per game, the highest average by any head coach in NFL history (minimum 100 games).
The numbers weren’t quite that impressive in Bridgewater’s starts: an average of 25.0 points, compared to 30.3 when Brees started last season. When the Saints’ backup was under center, safe passes were the rule. Of the 36 QBs to complete at least 100 passes last season, Bridgewater had the lowest air yards per completion, a meager 4.62 yards. Brees ranked 27th at 5.35. What was devised as a short passing game under Brees’ management was modified to a “dink-and-dunk” operation for Bridgewater.
One set of numbers differentiating the two QBs jumps out: passes of intermediate distance—that is, 11 to 20 yards downfield. The contrast could hardly be more striking:
Bridgewater was the only QB in the NFL to throw at least 25 passes of that length without completing any of them for touchdowns, while Brees had the second-most such TD passes (behind Jameis Winston’s 12). And Bridgewater rarely tested the waters on deeper throws, attempting only 11 passes more than 20 yards downfield. He was effective as far as 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, but not beyond.
No quarterback wants to be labeled a “game manager,” but the numbers suggest that’s what Bridgewater was in 2019. The Saints ran the ball on 44.4% of their snaps when he was under center, compared to 35.3% with Brees. It’s a fairly clear picture: Payton, the master, devised an offense to protect Bridgewater, and his QB executed.
Can the Panthers do the same? Barring a trade, the team’s top offensive weapon remains running back Christian McCaffrey, who is coming off a two-year run the likes of which have rarely been seen in the NFL. McCaffrey piled up 4,357 scrimmage yards over the 2018 and ’19 seasons, the most by any player in a two-year span in the last dozen years.
With 114 receptions that were no more than 10 yards downfield, including 63 behind the line of scrimmage – both of those figures were league highs – McCaffrey appears to be a good fit for Bridgewater. The concern is that his workload of the past two seasons will take its toll, reducing his production and leaving him susceptible to injury.
The 2019 Saints had an elite pass-catching running back of their own in Alvin Kamara. Both McCaffrey and Kamara caught 80 or more passes in each season from 2017 through ’19. Marshall Faulk is the only other running back in league history with that many receptions in each of three consecutive years.
New Orleans also boasted the NFL’s ultimate possession receiver in Michael Thomas, who set a league record with 149 catches while rarely venturing deep: Only eight of his 185 targets came on passes thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Carolina’s top wide receiver, DJ Moore, was more of a deep threat, with eight catches and 18 targets on throws 21 or more yards downfield.
If Carolina’s intention is to throw deeper with Bridgewater, it will be, at best, uncharted territory. While his 5-0 record for the 2019 Saints was impressive, he likely needs more of an intermediate passing game to maintain success over a 16-game slate. Dinking-and-dunking to a successful season seems unlikely.