Bad pro day. Weak arm. Small hands. Narrow hips. Quiet
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
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 didn’t throw
at the combine, then was criticized for a poor pro-day
performance. (USA TODAY Sports)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Vikings GM Rick Spielman had
dinner with Bridgewater’s mother, Rose Murphy, before his pro
day. (USA TODAY Sports)
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
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
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
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.