Analysis Notebook: Week 16
I’ve been skirting around the Teddy Bridgewater question all season long. He has been the best of the rookie quarterbacks, but at times this season that has been a little like being the best of the airline meal options – you’re not overjoyed with any of it.
Even with a few good games of late, his PFF grade is still hovering below zero, but creeping towards the positive by the week. This isn’t all that surprising. If you look at the rookie seasons of most quarterbacks, just being average on a league-wide level is a success in Year 1. It’s fine to say that a guy’s playing average at best but still be excited about his potential for the future. This is why you talk about players “flashing” ability and talent. You know there will be mistakes and growing pains in there, but if you can see the highs you can at least be optimistic about the future.
The problem is certain rookie quarterbacks have ruined expectations for everybody. Every time a Russell Wilson comes along and is excellent right out of the box it makes us all expect more from the next crop. I’ve probably been a little hard on him, but I have been expecting a little more from Bridgewater, a guy many people thought was the best quarterback prospect in this year’s group. He has looked pretty good for a rookie most of the year, but this week he looked good period.
This was a statement game for the rookie because he didn’t just flash, but showed what he was really capable with a complete performance bereft of any major mistakes. Even his interception was actually a good play that went to the hands of his dumpoff option only for him to knock it to a defender for a turnover.
Let’s first look at the really good throws that Bridgewater made in this game. He’s thrown some nice balls all season, but never so many in one game.
It’s tough to pick out one pass and say it was the best one he threw in the game, but there were multiple plays like this. Tough, intermediate distance throws that he dropped into a bucket and hit his target perfectly.
There isn’t a better example than this touchdown pass to Greg Jennings. The receiver runs a nice route, but look how perfectly the pass hits his outstretched hands. He doesn’t have to break stride or adjust his hands at all, just extend and the ball lands in them.
This is not an easy throw to make, and is demonstrates a legitimate NFL arm, beating coverage to a point and hitting his man in a rapidly closing window. This is the kind of throw that Bridgewater has flashed this season, but hadn’t put together the kind of game around them that he did against Miami.
There was another pass that should have been a touchdown but for a questionable official review near the end of the second half. With the clock winding down and after a spike to stop the clock Bridgewater hit his tight end Chase Ford down the right sideline with 19 seconds left in the half. The coverage wasn’t bad and it was between him and his target, but he dropped it in a rapidly shrinking area perfectly.
Now, let’s move beyond pretty looking throws. Those are nice, but in all honesty they are only a part of being a legitimate quarterback in the NFL. You need pocket presence to go along with them.
What was really impressive in this game is how Bridgewater was able to work the pocket. He hung in there when he knew he had the room to deliver a strike, he moved when he knew he needed to, and he displayed a fantastic ability to find a checkdown target instantly as soon as he saw pressure coming that was beyond rescuing.
The interception as I mentioned earlier was a pretty good example of this. He hung in the pocket for a while, started to move away from the pressure before flicking the ball to Matt Asiata for what should have been a minimal gain to escape the pressure that was closing rapidly. He got unlucky with how that play ended.
Here is another great example. Look at how quickly Bridgewater reacts when he finally feels the pressure coming in a major way. He goes from calmly reading the field to snapping to his left and delivering an accurate checkdown pass, like it’s a reflex.
This is some high-level stuff. These plays look like nothing when you take them in isolation – this one actually lost a yard – but these are the plays that make Peyton Manning or Tom Brady who they are. Those guys have been masters of turning danger into safety for years. If you get the ball into the hands of one of your skill players, even if it is only a checkdown, every now and then they are going to do something impressive with it. Here it turns a major potential loss in the form of a sack into a minimal loss. If Joe Banyard is able to beat the first man he probably picks up 10 yards, moves the chains and takes them one step closer to a successful drive. If he makes two people miss he takes it 65 yards for a touchdown. At times in the NFL playing the percentages well, and consistently, is all a quarterback needs to be able to do. Simply being able to read when the pressure is an acute problem and neutralizing it is a hugely important ability, one he displayed in this game several times.
The play below is another example of that pocket presence in action. This time, instead of bailing on the pressure, he read that he had enough space to hang tall and deliver the ball down field. Watch the subtle little slide to his right to avoid the first threat and then his ability to set his feet and throw with a second threat flying just past him to his right. When people talk about pocket presence, these are the kind of plays they are talking about.
It’s important to point out that this was just one game. It was by far the best graded game of his rookie season, and the next step for him will be repeating it before building on it. However, this was the first game where I think you can look at the tape and be confident that Bridgewater has everything you need to become a franchise quarterback down the line.
In previous games you could see hints that he could, but there was never enough all stitched together to show it conclusively. This game was different. The only shame is that his pass protection deserted him on the final Vikings drive so we never got to see him try and orchestrate a potential game-winning drive at the death, but that shouldn’t take away from what he had done before that.
The Minnesota Vikings have been searching for a new franchise quarterback since Daunte Culpepper went down with a devastating knee injury in the 2005 season. They were able to get a decent rental season out of Brett Favre in 2009, but other than that it has been a succession of letdown passers from Tarvaris Jackson to Christian Ponder. Teddy Bridgewater just put together a game better than either of those players ever managed, and displayed traits that they never did.
Maybe, just maybe, the Vikings finally have their successor to Culpepper.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam