Every Tuesday during the 2019 season, the New Orleans Saints’ defensive backs gathered in a room at the team’s training facility and watched their upcoming opponent’s first- and second-down offensive tape for about 90 minutes. This may sound like standard practice, but multiple Saints insisted it isn’t.
Tuesdays, you see, are the players’ mandated days off during the regular season, often the only one they get during the week. So if players want to come in and work, they have to do it of their own volition.
To the backfield members of the Saints’ 11th-ranked defense, the extra time investment was always worth it.
“You see the formation, and you’re able to get a beat on the play before it happens,” cornerback Eli Apple told Yahoo Sports late last season.
There was a secret ingredient to this. Turns out that in these Tuesday get-togethers, the defensive backs had an unofficial member — Teddy Bridgewater, the Saints’ 27-year-old No. 2 quarterback.
Bridgewater, teammates said, regularly popped his head into these meetings and served as both a sounding board and football professor of sorts, someone who regularly helped the Saints’ corners and safeties by explaining exactly what the quarterback was trying to accomplish on each play.
“I’d say, ‘Teddy, come in here with us — what is the progression of the quarterback right here? OK, we’re in this coverage — where is he going to go next?’ And he’d just break down the whole offense,” safety Vonn Bell, one of the leaders of the Tuesday get-togethers, told Yahoo Sports last season. “He’d show us where the quarterback is looking, how to break down defenses. He helped the safeties by saying what [the quarterback] is looking at.”
This willingness to help the first-string defense isn’t normal in the NFL, teammates said. Consider the fact that Bridgewater, who not very long ago was fighting for his professional life, stood to impress the coaching staff by shredding the defense on the scout team.
“It’s monumental to have that, because not every quarterback is willing to have that conversation with the defense,” Apple said. “He was very unselfish from the jump.”
So if you’re looking for a reason why the Saints rallied around Bridgewater last fall, when he went 5-0 as the starter while future Hall of Famer Drew Brees sat with a thumb injury, that unselfishness is as good a place as any to start.
Bridgewater goes from ‘Completion Thursday’ to big payday
Bridgewater’s extreme competitiveness often bubbled to the surface during those practices against the Saints’ first-string defense. While some backup quarterbacks are content to throw where they’re supposed to, giving the defense a cursory look during the week that allows for easy interceptions, Bridgewater was far too competitive for that. He used to openly tease his defensive teammates by calling Thursday, the day of the week the Saints’ first-string defense got most of the work in practice, “Completion Thursdays.”
“Just the way he attacks practice ... I mean, he comes in and makes it fun going against the ones,” defensive end Cam Jordan told Yahoo Sports. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I call it ‘Completion Thursday’ or ‘Toast ’em Friday.’ He brings a competitive edge so we were ready for it.”
Bridgewater never let it interfere with his desire to help his teammates off the field, earning him kudos in the Saints’ locker room.
“He’s a solid dude, man — he’s been helping us for real,” Bell said. “We appreciate him … he shows a passion for this game and it’s real. It’s not fake. He’s gonna let you know how he feels.”
Bridgewater says he’d also eat chicken wings and watch Thursday Night Football with the defensive line after practice and do competition drills with the linebackers on Saturdays. Long ago, he learned the importance of leading from the front as a quarterback, and to him, that meant ingratiating himself to every position group as much as possible.
“It’s just who I am, man,” said Bridgewater, who spoke to Yahoo Sports at the Super Bowl while attending a skills clinic sponsored by Panini at a Miami high school. “I believe in treating everyone the same, from the guy who’s cleaning the cafeteria tables to Lionel, the guy who is vacuuming the locker room floor. I feel like at the end of the day, we’re all gifted with the same 24 hours and we all bleed the same, so no one man is bigger than the next. So why not treat everyone the same and bond with everyone and show everyone that it’s all love, and have it be genuine?”
And that’s why, when Bridgewater killed it during his starting run in 2019 — completing nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,384 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions — his teammates couldn’t have been happier.
“It felt like a real close family member doing good, when you see him out there doing what he was doing,” Apple said.
Especially after everything Bridgewater has been through in his career. The former Louisville star was a first-round pick of the Vikings in 2014, earning a Pro Bowl appearance and leading Minnesota to an NFC North crown in 2015. But in 2016, he suffered a career-threatening non-contact knee injury that sidelined him nearly two years and ultimately led to his release in Minnesota. After a brief pit stop with the New York Jets, he was dealt to the Saints in 2018, where teammates say they’ve enjoyed watching him regain his old form.
“I wouldn’t say he was 100 percent healthy when he first got here, and we watched the work he put in,” Jordan said. “So it’s overly admirable, and that’s why he’s so respected.”
So much so that a funny thing started happening during his five-game starting run in 2019: Bridgewater says his teammates weren’t the only ones who seemed to be happy for him. Opposing defensive backs would warn him not to throw their way, but in the same vein, also tell him to keep being who he is and wish him the best.
“Man, there was a ton of support and it surprises me sometimes,” Bridgewater said. “When I was out there during that five-game stretch, guys on the opposite side of the ball were talking to me, having conversations, as if they’re not trying to take my head off and as if I’m not trying to beat those guys. It’s so cool man, the bond, the fraternity we have in this league. This year really opened my eyes.”
Much in the same way that Bridgewater’s stellar play opened up eyes around the league, setting up the significant payday he just received this offseason from Carolina.
Still love for New Orleans, even at an NFC South rival
Nearly four years after the devastating knee injury that almost derailed his career, Bridgewater agreed to a three-year, $63 million deal with the Panthers. He’ll be the starting quarterback for Carolina under new head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady. It’s the ultimate blessing for a man who never stopped believing he was an NFL starter, though the odds were stacked against him.
“That’s without a doubt — I didn’t go into one game last year telling myself I was a backup,” Bridgewater said. “My mindset [is], I’m a starter. I came into this as a starter, I’m going out of this league as a starter. I can’t allow myself to think that I’m a backup or anything.”
Bridgewater knew back in January that his career might take him elsewhere this offseason, especially if the opportunity for a starting job appeared. He insisted such a move would not affect his love for New Orleans or the Saints, the city and organization that helped him revive his career.
“Man, I love that place — that place ignited my passion for the game again,” Bridgewater said. “That place has a special place in my heart because I feel like my story is similar to the city of New Orleans’ story, a city that has been through a lot, just like I have in my career.
“I went through an injury and you talk about resurrecting your life, resurrecting your career, I think that’s what I’ve been able to do, and that’s what that city has been able to do by living through the Saints. These past two years have been the best two years of my football career.”
Now, Bridgewater must turn his attention to the future. He has rebuilt his football value, and reclaimed a starting job in the league. Even in January, he insisted his story is still being written.
“We just scratched the surface a little [this year],” Bridgewater said. “We’re still tapping in ... that’s why all my posts, you see me say, ‘Tap in,’ at the end of it. Because it’s time to.”
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