CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers' acquisition of Sam Darnold doesn't mark the first time Teddy Bridgewater has been passed over for the former New York Jets quarterback.
In March of 2018, the Jets signed Bridgewater after the Minnesota Vikings declined to pick up his fifth-year option. That was viewed as a prove-it opportunity for the QB following his recovery from a major knee injury that affected him for the better part of two years.
The next month, the Jets drafted Darnold, a then-20-year-old quarterback out of Southern Cal third-overall. Along with Josh McCown, Bridgewater gave Darnold tips and worked alongside him.
"Oh man, that guy, he's cool. He's a cool guy," Bridgewater said of Darnold back in August 2018. "Seems like a guy you can't break, and that's what you want as a quarterback. He's even-keel. I just watch him, he makes throws, and it's like man, this guy, he's the real deal."
Bridgewater, 28, was then traded to the New Orleans Saints prior to the regular season, while Darnold, now 23, started the next three years in New York. And for now, at least, the Panthers have reunited the pair, with Darnold set to replace Bridgewater one season into Bridgewater's three-year deal in Carolina.
"I don't want to say Teddy couldn't do something. I just like focusing on the positives that Sam has," Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer said when asked about the duo's differences. "I really liked (Darnold's) ability to move in the pocket and really get the ball downfield and take those shots. I do think Teddy is a very valuable player, and I think he's a starting quarterback, but I just I really like the fit for Sam with Joe Brady and this offense."
Finding a fix
For months, led by a desire from team owner David Tepper, the team has explored options to correct the Bridgewater signing, including looking at Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson and the upcoming NFL draft. Trading second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 and a sixth-round pick this year for Darnold is the first official move to try and fix the mistake. While it certainly wasn't the first choice to grab Darnold for what the team did, it provides more flexibility in the draft and an alternative at quarterback with potential.
Having Bridgewater start in 2021 was never in the cards for the organization after his late-game struggles — some of which were not entirely on him. The Panthers know what they have in Bridgewater. Darnold has a perceived higher ceiling, assuming he can reach a level with offensive coordinator Joe Brady and head coach Matt Rhule than he never did with the Jets.
Signing Bridgewater to a $63 million deal that was set up for the team to get out of after two years did not work. There's plenty of blame to go around. Part of the allure of signing with Carolina last offseason was getting to work with running back Christian McCaffrey and being protected by left tackle Russell Okung. McCaffrey played in only three games due to injury and Okung played seven.
Bridgewater's own ability to stay healthy remains a question mark, and his overall performance could have been expected based on his first six seasons in the league. He did not have a bad season, but he didn't have a great one.
Deep passes weren't his strong suit before signed in Carolina. In 2020, Bridgewater's 5.1 average air yards per completed throw was ninth-fewest in the league, per Next Gen Stats. Darnold was worse — sixth-fewest with 4.7. Multiple times during Fitterer's post-trade news conference Monday, Darnold's ability to get the ball downfield was mentioned.
The idea was that in an odd offseason, and with a new coaching staff, Bridgewater's previous knowledge of Brady's offense from their time together in New Orleans would be a benefit. He came to be beloved by his teammates and earned the league's Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award.
His performance at the end of halves and in the red zone were issues throughout the season. Going 0-8 in end-of-game situations with chances to win or tie showed the team could stay in games, but the Panthers decided a new option was needed to take them over the edge.
Despite stressing patience, and referencing Rome not being built in a day prior to hiring Rhule more than a year ago, Tepper and the organization decided a change was needed to get closer to winning sooner rather later. Fitterer speaks with the owner daily, and he assists in the decision-making process.
"(Tepper) really helps us out on decision-making and just like value, why is this the right decision? He always wants to know why, why, why, and it really challenges you and makes you think about, why am I doing this? Are we making the right decision," Fitterer said.
What's next for Teddy Bridgewater?
There are a couple of scenarios for Bridgewater. If a trade can be worked out, then he will likely head elsewhere with a chance to compete. There's a reason one hasn't taken place yet, however. The problem is, few teams — if any — want to take on about $18 million in salary.
Other avenues include staying on the roster, if he is willing to take a pay cut, and being a mentor and competition for Darnold again, but it's hard for a likely backup quarterback to have the biggest cap hit on the roster. The Panthers could also work with a new team to restructure his contract and facilitate a trade.
If it became a situation where the team feels forced to cut Bridgewater, designating him as a post-June 1 release would save the most money. In that case, he would account for $15 million in dead cap with $8 million saved in 2021 and $5 million in dead cap with $21 million saved in 2022.
The opportunity to start again did not work out like anyone hoped for Bridgewater. The last time Darnold took over for him, Bridgewater found a solid backup job in New Orleans with a trade that benefited the Jets. Seeing Bridgewater again wearing a new jersey in 2021 wouldn't be a surprise.