He was drafted in the first round, considered the savior of a franchise coming off a tough year.
After some ups and downs as a rookie, he led the Vikings to the playoffs in his second year with the help of Adrian Peterson.
There was optimism that greater things were ahead for the former ACC quarterback, but things, unfortunately, went south, and two years later, he was gone from Minnesota.
Fans neither dwell on his tenure, nor his unrealized potential. He is largely an afterthought.
But you hesitated, didn’t you? How can a pair of one-time franchise quarterbacks carry such different reputations in the local zeitgeist when their career arcs had such apparent similarity?
For one, there was the visible talent gap between them — the athleticism, the accuracy, etc. — but there’s also the gravitational pull of Bridgewater, an almost inexplicable, universal feeling of appreciation for what he’s done, what he’s doing and what he’s yet to do.
“I’m pretty certain making this statement that in the 10 years I’ve been here he has to be the most likeable player that we’ve had in the locker room,” said veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph, who chats with Bridgewater once a month. “I mean, you just talk to people in the front office, coaching staff, players that played with him, workers in the category, everyone loved Teddy. You loved his energy and positivity that he brought every day, his work ethic that he brought every day.”
The much-beloved passer is preparing to face his former team for the third time — but for the first time as a starter. After three seasons away from Minnesota, however, the novelty of facing Teddy (yes, they’re on a first-name basis with him) doesn’t seem to have worn off for Vikings fans. Social media has been set ablaze with old Bridgewater videos, memories of his cataclysmic 2016 injury and his triumphant 2017 return. Local writers were invited to join his Wednesday press conference to see how the wildly popular former quarterback is adjusting to his new home in Carolina, where he’s off to just a 3-7 start as their full-time quarterback.
Bridgewater’s local popularity exceeds that of many former Vikings who had longer and more prosperous careers in Minnesota. Bridgewater, for instance, only won three more career games than Ponder. In his two years as a starter, he’d yet to blossom into the gregarious, eclectic public figure he is today. His stats were extremely ordinary. Yet he remains arguably the most revered former Viking playing in the league right now.
It seems the hybrid of Bridgewater’s shyness combined with his competitiveness and work ethic endeared him to the fan base indefinitely.
“He’s just one of those guys that’s always in a good mood,” head coach Mike Zimmer said, agreeing with Rudolph’s assessment of Bridgewater’s likeability. “Everybody gravitates towards him. Nothing really phases him, just goes about his business.”
The 32nd overall pick in 2014 draft, Bridgewater was associated with an exciting time in the franchise’s history. There was a no-nonsense new coach, a state-of-the-art stadium on the way and a Super Bowl not far behind. It’s not hard to understand why fans would remember the 2014-15 seasons fondly.
Or maybe Vikings fans just like their quarterbacks in short bursts, having nobody to cling to in the long-term since Fran Tarkenton. Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham, Case Keenum, Bridgewater. Those are the popular ones. Daunte Culpepper? Kirk Cousins? Ponder? Familiarity, they say, can only breed contempt, or at least the urge to nitpick.
Rather than overstaying his welcome, Bridgewater understayed due to circumstances out of his control — circumstances that also demonstrated his drive and unique ability to galvanize others. Bridgewater’s knee gave out in late August of 2016, one year before he might’ve signed a handsome fifth-year option on his contract, perhaps two years before negotiating a life-changing contract extension. All that was gone in one seemingly harmless dropback at a Tuesday practice. There was speculation he could lose his leg and along with it his career.
“Well, when he got hurt, we went back and looked at the history of people who had had that injury,” Zimmer said. “There wasn’t very many of them. I think there was one basketball player, one football player. I think the basketball player came back after 24 months, and he didn’t have a long career. So for [Teddy] to come back after 16 months, or whatever it was, it’s very unique and one-of-a-kind.”
A career-threatening injury might’ve aged Bridgewater’s knee prematurely, but it also seemed to expedite his maturation. The moxie he was preparing to display in the huddle as a third-year quarterback instead got manifested in the training room. Rudolph said he was “the most positive one in the room” despite everything in his life that had been jeopardized. In 2017, Bridgewater took then-rookie Dalvin Cook under his wing after Cook’s own torn ACL.
“I was just happy that I had him in my corner when I got here,” Cook said. “I was just so far away from home and I’d never been this far away. And just to have a guy in my corner that can relate to me and know what I’ve been through with some of the struggles and knowing the effect of being away from home, it was great for me to sit back and analyze Teddy’s situation. … It’s something that carried on with me forever.”
How did Bridgewater find the strength to persevere? From the outside, his 2016 season was spent in a cocoon. Bridgewater didn’t speak to reporters for a year after his injury. It was only after his reemergence that fans started to understand why Bridgewater’s selflessness seemed to implant with everyone he encountered.
“I just remind myself that there’s always somebody out there going through something 10 times worse than what I may have gone through,” Bridgewater said Wednesday, “or what I may be experiencing at the moment. It’s all about the mindset that I have. … It’s all about how I maximize my 24 hours. I see myself as a humble servant. One of my pursuits in life is to make people around me better.”
So what is the source of the soft spot Vikings fans have for Bridgewater? The statement above speaks volumes.
Perhaps it’s also a mix of nostalgia, admiration and jealousy. Bridgewater was on the brink of realizing his full potential as early as 2016. The more that time goes by, the greater the legend grows of how great Bridgewater looked in his final preseason tune-up before the injury. The Vikings practically had one hand on the Lombardi Trophy, goes the tale, with Bridgewater at the helm.
Now he is the Vikings’ ex. The breakup was mostly amicably, but there are still feelings, at least on the Minnesota side. There was little doubt that letting Bridgewater move on to carve out a new path was the correct decision as the Vikings tried to jump on a Super Bowl window with Kirk Cousins, but that doesn’t mean the separation was easy. For Bridgewater to re-embark on that mission in a color other than purple leads to myriad what-ifs and endless laments.
Regardless of his NFL affiliation, it’s nearly impossible not to like Bridgewater the individual. He’s left an imprint everywhere he’s gone by being, in his words, genuine.
“As you go throughout the years, you latch onto guys who are genuine,” Bridgewater said Wednesday. “Guys who appreciate you just as much as you appreciate them. Guys who have the same common goals in life as you, and you tend to grow as a person, as a friend and as a teammate.”