The kid definitely can think on his feet. Or while he sits in a small room fidgeting with a golf club at Winter Park.
Teddy Bridgewater, perhaps the oldest 22-year-old NFL player you’ll ever meet, had misunderstood the question. This miscommunication caused him to start explaining how he, as second-year quarterback of the Vikings, handles the pessimism surrounding the 2015 team.
“I don’t blame people,” Bridgewater said. “We haven’t done anything yet and …”
No, no, Teddy. We said optimism. As in, “How do you handle the Vikings being such a trendy playoff pick” heading into Monday night’s season opener at San Francisco?
“Oh,” Bridgewater said. “In that case, we can’t buy into what’s being said. We’re not as good as we think we are. We have a long way to go.”
Then he flashed that budding face-of-the-franchise smile. Either way, Teddy Bridgewater knew he was going to complete that answer.
The Vikings, 7-9 a year ago, open what appears to be a more difficult schedule than last year. Monday, they visit a 49ers team that missed the playoffs and parted ways with coach Jim Harbaugh and several key players but will benefit from a partisan Monday night crowd in brand new Levi’s Stadium.
Overall, the Vikings have the 12th-most-difficult schedule, facing teams that went a combined 138-118 (.539) a year ago. The rest of the NFC North ranks lower, with Chicago at No. 13 (.531), defending champion Green Bay at No. 14 (.529) and Detroit, a wild-card playoff team last year, at No. 15 (.527).
Yet there is enormous positivity surrounding a Vikings team that didn’t beat a team with a winning record a year ago. So what gives?
Well, there’s a widespread belief that coach Mike Zimmer’s aggressive defense will take another step forward after last year’s leap. On offense, there’s a healthy Kyle Rudolph, a new deep threat in Mike Wallace and the long-awaited return of Adrian Peterson, the league’s MVP in 2012.
But there is only one position in the NFL that can generate this kind of optimism. This kind of optimism comes only when there’s widespread belief in the quarterback.
Bridgewater’s professional body of work includes 12 starts, six wins and six losses. That’s hardly deserving of blind faith. But the popular take on Bridgewater is he’ll continue to progress because of his poised pocket presence, a deepening command of offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense and, an accuracy level that saw him complete 72.1 percent of his passes over the final five games last year and a team preseason record 82.9 percent this preseason.
“Who knows if I’ll be a good quarterback in this league when it’s all said and done,” Bridgewater said. “Right now, I’m just focusing on being a better player for my teammates. Eventually, playing in this system, you are going to get the individual stats. But I can’t be concerned with stats.”
Bridgewater was asked to name his strongest trait. His answer was as fast as the quick release and decisiveness he showed during the preseason.
“My confidence,” he said. “No matter what happens, I’m confident. I trust my preparation. I trust the coaching staff and everything they tell me throughout the course of the week. Going into the battle, there are never any doubts in my mind.”
Three Teddy-time plays
We selected three plays from the preseason to illustrate why the Vikings trust Bridgewater to quickly make and execute the right decisions at the right time.
The first was a 26-yard completion to Jarius Wright on the third snap of the second preseason game at home against Tampa Bay. Wright lined up in the right slot and ran a crossing route to his left. Rudolph lined up tight left and ran a crossing route to his right.
“My job on that play is to create traffic over the middle and pretty much get Jarius open,” Rudolph said. “We know when we get that look, that’s going to happen. Jarius was able to avoid the linebacker who was standing in the middle of the field waiting for someone to cross like that.”
That particular play takes a little extra time to develop.
“Teddy was being Teddy on that play,” Wright said. “He stood in the pocket and kept his composure long enough for me to get through the traffic to where I needed to be to get the ball. And I didn’t break stride either. That’s one of the best things about Teddy. He puts the ball on you where you keep running full speed.”
Bridgewater said Wright was “probably” his fourth option on that play.
“I hit my seventh step at the top of my drop and Jarius was wide open,” Bridgewater said. “I just put the ball on him, and he made the rest happen.”
The second play was a 10-yard touchdown pass to Charles Johnson against the Raiders. From the right slot, Johnson beat man coverage, catching a perfectly thrown ball in tight coverage. Bridgewater released the ball when Johnson was at the 5-yard line. The touch Bridgewater put on the pass gave Johnson time to get 8 yards into the end zone before the ball hit his fingertips.
“Pre-snap, it was a different play and I had a different route option,” Johnson said. “Teddy and I saw the same thing. It was just like practice. Nothing super hard. Our standard is to be one of the smartest teams in the league.”
The cornerback lined up in press coverage on Johnson. Bridgewater’s first look was to the running back coming out of the backfield. But when the linebacker came out to tightly cover the running back, Johnson went to an alternate route, knowing Bridgewater would be thinking the same thing.
“Knowing that 99 percent of the time in that situation, he’s coming to me, all I have to do is win my matchup,” Johnson said.
And last, but not least, was the 39-yard ball to Mike Wallace down the right sideline in Dallas. Turner was most impressed because it was an audible into a favorable man-to-man matchup on the road.
“To me, it felt like practice,” Wallace said. “I was encouraged because he saw the same thing I saw at the same time I saw it. It was a great check and a great throw right to my fingertips. He has great anticipation and great accuracy.”
Wallace had only three other preseason catches, for 13 yards. But he said he has seen enough to join the bandwagon of Bridgewater believers.
“He seems a lot older than 22,” Wallace said. “Just the grasp he has of the offense and the respect he has. He knows the system front to back and he’s not going to put guys in bad situations. So we trust him to take us where we want to go.”