Bad pro day. Weak arm. Small hands. Narrow hips. Quiet personality.
Teddy Bridgewater went from being the quarterback who had won at every level to the draft prospect who couldn't win. One by one NFL teams jumped off the Bridgewater train until you could hear an echo in every car. Even the Vikings, who had him rated as the top quarterback in the class after the season, took a step back at one point.
This is the story about how Cam Newton, Bill Walsh, Brad Johnson, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Kurt Warner, Alex Smith and Rose Murphy helped the Vikings get over their concerns and get comfortable with Bridgewater again, and why Bridgewater will be wearing purple on Thursday when the Vikings take the field for their first day of rookie camp.
In 2011, the Panthers had the first pick in the draft and were in need of a quarterback. Their challenge was to ascertain if Cam Newton should be chosen ahead of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick.
The plan the Panthers put in place to evaluate the quarterbacks and then develop one was extensive and exhaustive. It led them to choose Newton, who subsequently became one of three players in NFL history to throw for 3,000 yards in each of their first three seasons. Scott Turner was the offensive quality control coach on the Panthers that year, and he brought the plan to Minnesota this year when he became quarterbacks coach of the Vikings.
The process started with casting a wide net. The Vikings spent significant time with nine quarterbacks who would be drafted. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, a veteran of 23 NFL front office seasons, said he spent more time on the road this spring than ever before, asking face-to-face questions of every prospect and the people who knew them best.
In the case of Bridgewater, the Vikings interviewed him as a group at the combine, and then Turner spent alone time with him. Spielman, Turner and Norv Turner, Scott's father and the Vikings' offensive coordinator, attended his pro day at the University of Louisville. The day before, they had a private meeting with him. For three hours, they talked football. For another hour and a half, they watched tape together.
Then Spielman and the Turners went to Fort Lauderdale's University High School to put Bridgewater through another hour-and-a-half workout. Finally, they flew Bridgewater to the team's Eden Prairie, Minn., facility, where he spent more time with the assistant coaches and head coach Mike Zimmer.
Bridgewater decided against throwing at the combine, so the Louisville pro day was his only chance to impress a large group of NFL evaluators. Representatives from 29 teams showed up at the Trager Center at Louisville, including head coaches Dennis Allen from the Raiders, Gus Bradley from the Jaguars, Chip Kelly from the Eagles, Bill O'Brien from the Texans and Ken Whisenhunt from the Titans.
Bridgewater was throwing beneath a sign that read "Stay Hungry, Stay Humble." His performance left him little choice. Many of the balls he threw that day fluttered and dipped, and his draft stock would do the same.
Afterward, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said he would not take Bridgewater in the first round of the draft. "I've never seen a top-level quarterback in the last 10 years have a bad pro day, until Teddy Bridgewater," he said. "He had no accuracy, the ball came out funny, the arm strength wasn't there, and it made me question everything I saw on tape because this was live."
Many agreed with Mayock. But Norv Turner, one of the NFL's premier quarterback coaches for 24 years now, saw it differently. He did not want to overreact, so he waited a couple of weeks to get some separation from the event and then watched the tape of the workout. He concluded that of Bridgewater's 65 passes, six of them were what he categorized as bad throws. And all of them were throws to the right.
A receiver could not catch up with one pass that was about 45 yards downfield. The play was shown on television repeatedly as an example of Bridgewater's inefficiency. Turner thought it was a great throw.
It was clear, though, that Bridgewater could not throw with the velocity of, say, JaMarcus Russell, who had the best pro day for a quarterback anyone can remember.
So Turner thought back to a conversation he had maybe 20 years ago. It was at a gathering of NFL coaches, and he had a chance to sit down with legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh. They talked about quarterbacks, and about arm strength. Turner asked a lot of questions.
Walsh told him functional arm strength isn't always about RPMs. For instance, he said, look at Joe Montana's throws. Whereas some quarterbacks throw rockets that peter off when they get to the receiver, Montana's passes always look like they are gaining ground. They carry through the receiver. Walsh told him that quality is more important than sheer arm strength.
Turner paid particular attention to how Bridgewater's passes traveled through the air. As much as he looked for it, he saw no evidence of insufficient arm strength.
The perception is that Norv Turner needs a quarterback with a cannon in order to operate his system effectively -- Troy Aikman or Kerry Collins.
What is true is he likes to push the ball downfield. What is not true is that he needs a quarterback who can throw it into the upper deck. The reality is Turner has spent many coaching hours trying to get quarterbacks to throw with less velocity so they give their receivers a better chance to catch the ball.
Turner even liked Johnny Manziel. In fact, it has been reported the Vikings were trying to trade up in the first round to draft Manziel. But they were not willing to pay a premium to get him, not when they believed Bridgewater was a solid option.
Turner thought back to the 1999 season, when he was the head coach of the Redskins. He had traded for Brad Johnson, who was considered to have average arm strength at best. His arm probably was diminished that year, as the 31-year old was coming off knee surgery. Yet Johnson threw for 4,005 yards in 1999, more than any other Turner quarterback ever except Philip Rivers. He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, fifth best in the NFL. He was named to the Pro Bowl. And the Redskins won the NFC East.
What Johnson had was a quick delivery. As Turner watched the tape of Bridgewater, he saw the same thing.
In 2001, Turner was the offensive coordinator of the Chargers, who needed a quarterback. They could have taken Michael Vick with the first overall pick of the draft. Instead, they traded the pick and took running back LaDainian Tomlinson in the first round. Then the Chargers were left in the second round taking a quarterback who had less than ideal size, and who didn't have the strongest arm.
What they learned after selecting Drew Brees is that quarterbacks sometimes physically mature after they get into the league. They can even improve their arm strength. It happened with Brees. The Vikings talked about it in one meeting, and made note of the fact that Bridgewater is only 21 years old.
Bridgewater weighed 208 pounds at his pro day, down six pounds from his weight at the combine. The NFL likes quarterbacks meatier than that, because big hits are coming.
Spielman went back and studied Bridgewater's durability. He missed one start in his college career but came off the bench in that game and led his team to a victory. He played through a fractured wrist and ankle sprain. Spielman was at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, 2013, when Florida linebacker Jon Bostic went helmet to helmet on Bridgewater, knocking his headgear off and sending Bridgewater sprawling. Bridgewater, he noted, sprung back up and went right back to the huddle.
At the 2001 combine, Brees checked in at a shade over six feet and 213 pounds. There was concern about his ability to hold up. In 13 NFL seasons, Brees has yet to miss a game because of injury.
So this spring the Vikings offensive coordinator did not hesitate to recommend taking a quarterback at the exact same spot in the draft as the Chargers did in 2001 -- with the 32nd overall selection.
One week before the Vikings' private workout with Bridgewater, they sent him a condensed version of their playbook and told him they would ask him to teach the coaches the offense at the workout.
Physical skills are necessary to play quarterback, but through the years Turner has come to value the mental aspects of the game -- learning, communicating and especially visualizing. That's visualizing where a pass will end up, how a receiver will run a route and what a defensive adjustment will do to a play.
After the 2007 season, Turner coached the AFC team in the Pro Bowl. One of his quarterbacks was Peyton Manning. As Turner watched a play develop from the sideline, he thought Manning had no chance to make a throw. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was running a seam route, and the coverage was as good as it could have been. Manning was not going to throw the pass, he said to himself. But he did. And he completed it for a 16-yard touchdown.
Manning knew the exact spot to throw the ball, and the precise speed with which to throw it, so the defender could not get it and the receiver had a chance. The window in that coverage also was a window into Manning's greatness. Manning, Turner learned, could feel holes opening on the field. And from that point on, Turner would look for that ability whenever he evaluated quarterbacks.
As Turner watched the tape of Bridgewater this spring, he did not quite see what he saw that day from Manning, arguably the most accomplished passer in history. But he saw intuitive throws, and a feel for how plays would develop.
When Bridgewater explained the Vikings offense to the Turners, it was clear he had absorbed it well, and he could communicate what he had absorbed.
After playing at Louisville wearing a glove on his throwing hand, Bridgewater went without one at his pro day. When the Vikings arrived for the private workout, Bridgewater had his glove on.
The value in the private workout is that Bridgewater could be coached up. He could be corrected, and the Turners could see if he could make changes. That's part of the evaluation. What they found out was Bridgewater could do pretty much anything they asked him to do. It wasn't just about the glove.
They tweaked some of the footwork that led to the shaky throws to his right at his pro day. They made sure his feet were under him when he delivered, and that his weight was not forward. They increased the "speed at the top of his drop," which means they got him to set his feet quickly on his hitch.
The Turners also asked Bridgewater to make every throw that he would be making in their scheme. It was a long workout, because the Vikings coaches wanted see if his mechanics held up when he was fatigued. They had Bridgewater throw 15 routes to four receivers, and they had him throw a number of them over again. So he might have thrown as many as 80 passes.
His mechanics held up, and his throws were strong and on target. Some of it may have been because of his handwear. But that didn't bother Norv Turner.
He has seen other quarterbacks through the years who throw better wearing a glove because it gives them a better grip on the ball. Watching Bridgewater, he was reminded of Kurt Warner and how much more effective he was wearing gloves.
Turner thought about other similarities between them. Bridgewater, he said, has the ability to get the pass out without using his whole body, much like Warner did. And he envisioned Bridgewater making some of the kinds of throws Warner was famous for -- quick hits to runners out of the backfield and catchable passes to receivers on seam routes.
Turner was the offensive coordinator of the 49ers in 2006, the year after they made Alex Smith the first overall pick in the draft. One of the knocks on Smith was that he had small hands -- 9 1/8 inches. Small hands and turnovers can go together like slick roads and car crashes.
But Turner believes smaller hands don't have to be problematic -- if the player carries the ball, handles the ball and holds the ball correctly. So Turner paid attention to how Smith's hands impacted him. He saw no issues because of the way Smith compensated. In fact, a decade into his NFL career, Smith has become known as a "caretaker" quarterback.
When Bridgewater's hands measured 9 ¼ inches, Turner went to the tape. He saw three fumbles and four interceptions last season, not bad for a player who handled the ball as much as Bridgewater did. Bridgewater, he thought, was doing something right.
After interviews with Bridgewater at the combine, some front-office men were a little uncomfortable with how quiet he was. NFL teams often like their quarterback leaders to have big personalities as well as big arms.
So the Vikings searched for leadership and strength of character in Bridgewater. Spielman checked his notes from a Louisville game he attended in 2012 at Rutgers. He saw Bridgewater lead his team to a big victory at a difficult place to play that day. And then he looked at his notes from a Louisville-Central Florida game this year. With Spielman in the stadium, the Cardinals lost, but not before Bridgewater led them on a scoring drive that gave them the lead late in the fourth quarter.
Spielman figured he could get former Louisville coach Charlie Strong to level with him. Strong had been on the staff at Southern Illinois when Spielman was a player there in the '80s, and they had maintained a friendly relationship. Strong talked about how the coaches were impressed with Bridgewater's makeup from the day he walked in the door, and how he had an uplifting affect on those around him. Strong had only good feelings about who the young man was and what he could become.
Spielman learned the most about Bridgewater's character over a dinner with Bridgewater's mother, Rose Murphy, the night before his pro day. She trended last week when Bridgewater presented her with a pink Cadillac Escalade.
A breast cancer survivor, Murphy impressed Spielman and the Turners with her core values. For 26 years, she had held a job as a transportation supervisor with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Spielman asked her if she planned on retiring and relaxing now that Bridgewater's payday was coming. Absolutely not, she said. Murphy intended on getting her 30 years in.
Spielman noticed Murphy didn't show up for Bridgewater's private workout. He asked where she was. Turns out she counsels kids whose mothers have breast cancer, and she needed to be with one of them at their mother's funeral that day.
So when Vikings turned on the tape of Bridgewater and saw resolve, purpose and poise, they knew they could trust their eyes. And they became very comfortable with the idea of putting the future of the Minnesota Vikings in a small, gloved hand.