Behind the scenes, Vikings employees say, Teddy Bridgewater has started coming out of his shell. Started cracking jokes. Started to act like a leader.
This evolution has coincided with Bridgewater growing more assured on the field. Where a few weeks ago he was throwing tentatively, sometimes not even stepping fully into his motion, on Sunday he zipped passes all over the field, releasing the ball, as offensive coordinator Norv Turner likes to say, “with a grunt.’’
The result: The best two-game stretch of Bridgewater’s rookie season, culminating on Sunday with him changing a play at the line of scrimmage in overtime, and throwing a receiver screen that Jarius Wright caught-and-carried for an 87-yard, game-winning touchdown.
That play is a prime example of how statistics can lie. Bridgewater made one of his simplest throws of the day and was rewarded with a gain that inflated his final passing yards to 309, giving him his first 300-yard game since September.
The stat sheet won’t show that Bridgewater took a brutal hit while passing to Charles Johnson on a play that, instead of becoming a passing touchdown, turned into a fumble recovery for a score by fullback Jerome Felton. The stat sheet won’t show that Bridgewater’s lone interception came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.
Bridgewater’s improvement was better judged by eyes and ears than calculators. As he did in his first NFL start, Bridgewater again looked on Sunday like the guy who starred at Louisville, one capable of moving in the pocket and making strong throws downfield. On his 56-yard touchdown pass to Johnson, he shoulder-faked then threw a strike, where so often this season he has overthrown open receivers deep.
He looked like the player the Vikings thought they drafted.
“I think when Teddy decides to be the leader of this football team … this franchise is Teddy’s,’’ coach Mike Zimmer said. “I know that was a good headline for you. That’s what he needs to do, he needs to take it over. This is his team now.’’
That might sound like salesmanship, except that it’s coming from a coach known to be hard on players, known to demand perfection. In fact, Zimmer started his press conference, minutes after Wright’s touchdown, by complaining about his team’s performance.
“He is a tough kid now , a tough kid,’’ Zimmer said. “He got racked a couple of times today and hung in there. He made a lot of great decisions with the ball and then he made some great throws.
“You people finally get a chance to see a lot of things I see in practice every single day — his composure and his competitiveness.’’
Zimmer admitted that he and Turner spoke with Bridgewater about his release on his overthrows a few weeks ago. He also credited the team’s strength coaches for helping Bridgewater and others become stronger during the season.
In what has been the definition of a mediocre season, the 6-7 Vikings have been able to develop some of their most important young players.
Linebacker Anthony Barr emerged as one of the league’s best defensive rookies before he was injured. Jerick McKinnon averaged 4.8 yards per rush before he was injured. Johnson has become, in the last four weeks, a No. 1 receiver.
All of those developments would be complemented and dwarfed by the emergence of Bridgewater as an effective passer and willing leader.
“The thing the veterans really respect and appreciate about Teddy is the way he prepares, the way he studies, the way he cares about his job, and I think the way he loves playing this game,’’ Zimmer said. “I know you guys don’t see him in practice … he missed maybe two throws in practice (earlier this week.) He practices to be perfect in the games as well.’’
Some losing seasons are failures. Some are classrooms. The injury to starting quarterback Matt Cassel and the suspension of star running back Adrian Peterson have turned the Vikings, prematurely, into a team dependent on its rookie quarterback.
Zimmer doesn’t seem to mind.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at SouhanUnfiltered.com. @Souhanstrib. Jsouhan@startribune.com