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If the Colts or Panthers wanted affordable insurance for their roughed-up franchise quarterbacks, they could have acquired Bridgewater. If the Jaguars or Dolphins sought inexpensive, viable exit strategies for moving on from their faltering young starters, Bridgewater was available. If the Steelers wanted to plan for the post-Ben Roethlisberger future, they could have traded for Bridgewater. If Washington had realized that putting all of its faith in a then-34-year-old Alex Smith wasn’t such a swell long-range plan, it could have traded for Bridgewater.
Heck, the Jets could have retained Bridgewater, spent some of their cap-space wealth to keep him financially satisfied as Sam Darnold’s mentor and may be averaging more than 9.8 points per game right now.
All of those teams passed on Bridgewater because he fell into the NFL’s blind spot. The league’s decision-makers believe quality quarterbacks cost $80 million-plus or high first-round picks; backups are either 30-something-year-old has-beens or anonymous randos; and backups who can actually keep their teams in playoff contention are rare-to-nonexistent. An affordable, starting-caliber quarterback? Preposterous. There has to be a catch.
The Saints thought slightly outside of the box when they traded for Bridgewater in August 2018, even though Drew Brees was among the league’s most durable quarterbacks, and then retained him this offseason, even though Bridgewater was barely used last year and their cap situation made a veteran backup seem like too much of a luxury.
Now the Saints may earn a trip to the Super Bowl as the return on their very small investment in a very good quarterback.
Bridgewater has led the Saints to three straight wins in relief of Brees, who is recovering from a thumb injury on his throwing hand. The Saints are 4-1, and Football Outsiders ranks their future schedule as less difficult than the schedules of the Seahawks, Bears, Rams, Packers, Vikings, Cowboys and Panthers, all teams they may find themselves jockeying against for playoff seedings. The Football Outsiders playoff odds system now gives the Saints an 82.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, in part because Bridgewater-led victories against the Seahawks and Cowboys are likely to have important playoff tiebreaker implications.
And here’s the best news of all for Saints fans: Brees was upgraded this week from posting pictures of himself throwing a Nerf football on Instagram to actually participating in some Saints practices. He’s not throwing real footballs yet. But Brees, who was expected to miss six-to-eight weeks (Sunday was week three), told WWL Radio that he thinks he can return sooner, via ESPN’s Mike Triplett.
So Bridgewater is doing exactly what a backup quarterback is supposed to do: keeping his team in contention. It wouldn’t be a noteworthy accomplishment if it wasn’t so rare.
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Sure, Bridgewater tossed a lot of glorified handoffs to Alvin Kamara in the Seahawks win and watched his running back go into Invincibility Mode. And yes, the Saints offense managed four measly field goals against the Cowboys. Bridgewater hasn’t done anything single-handedly: Kamara and Michael Thomas have stepped up, the Saints defense and offensive line have played well, the game plans started out a little conservatively, kicker Wil Lutz has done his part, etc.
Then again, Brees has been known to rely quite a bit on Kamara, Thomas, the defense and some dink-and-dunk tactics himself. And very few backup NFL quarterbacks could win back-to-back games at Seattle and against the Cowboys, even with a playoff-caliber supporting cast.
Bridgewater is also getting better. Sunday’s win against the Buccaneers wasn’t another dink-and-dunk demonstration. Sean Payton appears to be opening up the offense as Bridgewater gets more comfortable with his role. Most backup quarterbacks start to fade after a few starts, not improve, as opponents get film on them. But most backup quarterbacks aren’t 26-year-old former first-round picks and playoff-caliber starters whose careers were derailed by freak practice-field injuries.
The Saints could be reeling right now if they were counting on some garden-variety backup. They remain Super Bowl contenders because they didn’t pigeonhole Bridgewater as damaged goods, a failed prospect or whatever other categories other teams must have placed him in when they passed over him last summer.
The rest of the NFL will get another chance to look smart by acquiring Bridgewater next season. Lots of teams will need a starting quarterback. Bridgewater is technically signed through 2021, but that’s just salary-cap paperwork: He’s essentially a free agent after this season. The Saints could try to keep him as Brees’ insurance policy/heir apparent, but they are already using complicated economics to keep their roster intact, and many teams could be vying for his services:
- The Panthers may still be looking for that Cam Newton alternative next year. (Kyle Allen, like a typical backup, is curdling now that he has been in the spotlight for a while.)
- The Colts may still be seeking Andrew Luck‘s replacement in the offseason. (Jacoby Brissett is OK. Bridgewater is better.)
- The Steelers would look pretty good with Bridgewater throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster and handing off to James Conner behind a solid line, with the support of a speedy young defense. Why should a team overdue for a fresh start keep paying for a declining Roethlisberger?
- The Dolphins are Tanking for Tua Tagovailoa (or insert your preferred quarterback prospect this week here), but here’s a wild thought: What if they signed a quarterback they don’t need to develop and then spent all those high picks on receivers, linemen and everything else?
- Round up the usual quarterback-hungry suspects: Washington, Bengals, Broncos, etc.
- The Patriots are never-ever-ever-ever-ever-ever-ever going to need a replacement for Tom Brady, who is immortal and perfect. And now that we’ve written that sentence to calm Patriots fans down, remember that Act Two of Bridgewater’s career began with a perennial powerhouse trading to add some quarterback talent it didn’t need just yet.
Whoever Bridgewater’s next employer will be, it will be one that’s shrewd enough to not pigeonhole him as some sturdy backup or mentor but a bona fide franchise quarterback. Nick Foles got $88 million from the Jaguars because of some (extremely) high-profile relief appearances. Bridgewater is younger, more multidimensional and was leading the Vikings to the playoffs back when Foles was getting benched by the Rams.
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Bridgewater is the quarterback teams think they’re getting when they overpay for Foles types. Yes, he’s a very good game manager. But he’s also capable of more, and he’s still young enough to get even better. He’ll make some team that’s smart enough to realize that look very happy.
Right now, he’s making the Saints happy. And he could cash in—and help win a Super Bowl—as a result.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.