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Teddy Bridgewater looks like the quarterback the Saints (and Jets and Vikings) hoped he could be

Bridgewater was an absolute stud, but Sunday’s performance wasn’t about just one game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It took more than three years, but Teddy Bridgewater found his regular season stride.

The former Viking Pro Bowler finally looked like the player optimistic fans hoped he could be Sunday, putting together one of the best games of his career as his Saints improved to 4-1 on the season with a win over the Buccaneers. Bridgewater was accurate, efficient, and occasionally devastating in the pocket in Week 5, roasting Tampa Bay for 314 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-24 victory.

The win was Bridgewater’s second-ever four-touchdown game and first since 2015. It was the sixth 300+ yard performance of his career and first time he’d thrown for more than 200 yards in 1,386 days. It proved, definitively, that the Saints aren’t just surviving with a backup quarterback in the lineup; they’re thriving.

Bridgewater dialed up big plays downfield to add a new dimension to the New Orleans offense

Bridgewater wasn’t supposed to play much in 2019. He returned to New Orleans this spring to back up Drew Brees, who’d played much of the previous season at an MVP caliber despite being 39 years old.

But when Brees tore a thumb ligament in Week 2 of an eventual loss to the Rams, Bridgewater stepped up to join the first team offense.

His 2019 debut saw him serve up a wide range of short, conservative passes in a loss to the Rams. The Saints built up their offense a little more each week with their backup behind center, but still kept their gameplan close to the line of scrimmage. In three games, Bridgewater’s average throw depth was just 5.2 yards downfield — a mark that ranked between Jets’ QBs Luke Falk and Sam Darnold at the back end of the NFL’s starting passer leaderboard.

This was not the case against the Buccaneers. And it gave us this beautiful act of Ted-on-Ted defense-destroying brutality:

What changed in Week 5? Part of this uptick came from a Tampa defense that’s left plenty of room for opposing quarterbacks to thrive. The Bucs have been able to fluster opponents with a powerful pass rush, but when QBs have found time in the pocket they’ve been able to make Todd Bowles’ defense pay. A punishing offensive line kept Bridgewater upright, and that put entirely too much pressure on Tampa’s uneven secondary.

That helped, but a bigger component of offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael’s newfound aggressiveness was a product of Bridgewater’s growing comfort in the pocket. He’s upped his season high in passing yards each week since making his debut back in September, culminating in Sunday’s 314-yard explosion.

On Sunday, Carmichael dialed up a cache of deep routes and let Bridgewater choose his spots. The veteran showed off his decision-making by working those opportunities to perfection. He attempted five deep passes on the afternoon and completed each of them for 155 yards and a touchdown. A week prior, he’d only attempted three such passes, completing one and throwing an interception on another.

In the last three weeks, Bridgewater has beaten a Seahawks team that looks like a true Super Bowl contender, a then-undefeated Cowboys squad, and a Buccaneers team that’s ranged between brilliance and jabberwocky through a 2-2 start. And, as a result fans in New Orleans have taken to chanting his name and the Saints look like the best team the NFC has to offer.

This was the result of three-plus years of recuperation (and some smart decision-making)

Bridgewater never got the chance to reach his potential in Minnesota. The former first-round pick pushed the Vikings to an 11-win season as an NFL sophomore, but a catastrophic knee injury threatened to derail his football future in 2016. He missed the entire season and logged only two pass attempts in 2017 as Sam Bradford and, later, Case Keenum stepped into starring roles in Minneapolis.

Bridgewater didn’t have a ton of options when his rookie contract expired in 2018, making him a free agent. He signed with the Jets, but has his path to the starting lineup blocked by 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold. While he could have served as a high-value backup, New York already had Josh McCown to serve that role.

That left Bridgewater only one avenue to find playing time in 2018; impress enough in the preseason to show he’s worth a trade. He came through in spades. His three-week exhibition run with the Jets saw him complete nearly 74 percent of his passes at 8.3 yards per attempt.

That was enough to convince the Saints to buy tickets to his comeback tour, shipping a third-round pick north for a player who could back up a 40-year-old Drew Brees and potentially serve as a bridge to the future at quarterback. But he didn’t play up to his preseason hype or even his 2014 rookie year standard. In four games of mop-up duty and a Week 17 start for a team whose postseason fate was sealed, Bridgewater averaged just 5.1 yards per pass and posted a 70.6 passer rating.

This led to another massive decision. His poor 2018 chilled his market as a free agent in 2019. The Dolphins rose up to offer him a two-year, $10 million deal to be the face of their extensive rebuild. The Saints countered with one year and $7.25 million to spend another year as an important backup.

Bridgewater made the right decision.

While he couldn’t have known Brees would miss extended time with a thumb injury, he kept himself in a situation where he’d be surrounded by talent rather than serve as another asset in a fire sale. He’s playing behind an offensive line anchored by four different starters who were Pro Bowlers in 2018 and wasn’t sacked once against Tampa. The quarterbacks who went to South Beach in his stead, Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick, have been sacked on nearly 12 percent of their dropbacks.

Teddy Bridgewater is seizing an opportunity in his third start of 2019, but Sunday’s performance isn’t about a single game. It’s a leap forward in a three-year journey that started with a devastating practice field injury that would have ended a lesser quarterback’s career.

With one game, Bridgewater proved he can be more than a caretaker quarterback who does just enough to keep his team alive. New Orleans improved to 4-1 Sunday thanks to an explosive quarterback from the man behind center. A 314-yard, four-touchdown performance is the foundation the Saints offense is built on. In Week 5, it wasn’t Drew Brees engineering that four-quarter explosion; it was a player who couldn’t crack the Jets’ top-two lineup at QB less than 15 months ago.