A three-year/$63 million contract for Teddy Bridgewater caught many off-guard when the Carolina Panthers handed that out this past offseason. Perhaps, especially because the Carolina Panthers were the team that handed out the contract.
The common belief was the talent-poor Panthers would be rebuilding and picking at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft, which would make Bridgewater an overqualified and overpaid bridge quarterback while Carolina would figure out the next step at the position.
But the Panthers have surprised. The 3-6 record doesn’t have the team in playoff position but the defense has been feisty and the offense was been one of the better units in the league: second in yards per drive, 10th in points per drive, and eighth in offensive DVOA per Football Outsiders. Bridgewater himself has played a significant role, with the help of offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Bridgewater ranks ninth in passing Expected Points Added per Sports Info Solutions, 11th in positive play rate (the percentage of plays that produce positive EPA), and 13th in QBR.
Bridgewater’s success isn’t just a welcome development from one of the most beloved players in the NFL, it could considerably alter the Panthers’ rebuilding plans. Bridge quarterbacks don’t typically come in and lead top-10 offenses. It’s that combination of success and possible future upside that could give the Panthers something more than a short-term option. Despite coming into the league in 2014, Bridgewater just turned 28 years old. He’s younger than the likes of Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo and just a month older than Carson Wentz and eight months older than Dak Prescott, who were drafted two years after Bridgewater.
That Bridgewater was viewed as a “game manager” after his role as the backup with the New Orleans Saints also shaped the reaction to his signing, but what has sparked more optimism is that Bridgewater has been able to successfully open up his game more with Brady and the Panthers.
Overall, the quarterback’s numbers might appear game-managery. Currently, his 6.7-yard average depth of target is the fifth-lowest among starting quarterbacks per NFL Next Gen Stats and his 9.8% rate of throws into tight windows is tied for the lowest. But his 4.1% Completion Percentage Over Expectation is sixth-best, meaning he’s not just living off of short, open throws.
The Panthers aren’t even creating those opportunities in the ways other teams have been. While Brady has been one of the league’s best and most innovative offensive playcallers in 2020, so much of that has been about creating that space and allowing Bridgewater to quickly take advantage and find the right play. It’s a bit surprising how much a forward-thinking modern offense has relied on straight dropbacks this season. Only 19.5% of Carolina’s dropbacks this season have used play-action, a rate that ranks 26th in the league.
In addition, Bridgewater has done better this season on deeper dropbacks that have allowed him to push the ball down the field. On pass attempts without play-action, Bridgewater actually has negative EPA on 0/1-step drops, per SIS charting, with higher EPA and positive play rates on 3- and 5-step drops.
Teddy Bridgewater, Non-Play-Action Dropbacks, 2020
|Drop Type||Att||EPA/Att||Positive Play%|
Bridgewater’s success on 5-step drops this season has been among the best in the league. He’s first in EPA on those drops and second only to Deshaun Watson in positive play rate.
Intuitively, that should make sense that deeper drops and deeper attempts would add more value to throws but that’s not always the case with quarterbacks and wasn’t how Bridgewater performed last season when he started for the Saints. His New Orleans pass attempts were heavy on the quick drops.
Teddy Bridgewater, Non-Play-Action Dropbacks, 2019
|Drop Type||Att||EPA/Att||Positive Play%|
It should be no surprise, then, that Bridgewater’s rate of throws to each part of the field has shifted deeper over 2019.
Teddy Bridgewater, Non-Play-Action Pass Attempts By Depth, 2019-2020
This season, only Russell Wilson has been on target more often on passing attempts than Bridgewater, per SIS. Carolina’s offense has structured itself around Bridgewater’s ability to make quick reads and decisions. That’s allowed for things like getting Robby Anderson open on shorter routes and allowing him to run after the catch in space or working that quick release on back shoulder throws, like this one to D.J. Moore against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2.
Late in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 9, Bridgewater hit Anderson deep down the sideline for 22 yards.
Brady has been able to open up space for Bridgewater in both the short and deep game, which has allowed for more shots down the field. On a 74-yard touchdown pass to Moore against the Saints, Brady sent both Moore and Curtis Samuel deep and at safety Marcus Williams (43). The play was designed in such a way to target that coverage that no matter who Williams picked up in coverage, the other would have been wide-open.
Another way the Panthers have gotten the most out of Bridgewater has been getting him in empty sets. Brady used those often with Joe Burrow at LSU and those empty concepts have worked their way into the Carolina offense. Through Week 9, Bridgewater is ninth in passing attempts from empty, fifth in EPA, and fourth in positive play rate among 36 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts.
Empty is often used to get the ball out quickly, but the Panthers have started to push the ball downfield more often and it’s also been a place where Bridgewater has gotten more comfortable working outside of structure. The open concept and five-man protection allows Bridgewater to have more control over the incoming pressure — the offensive line ranks 24th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate — and lately, Bridgewater has gotten better on the move.
Here’s Bridgewater reading and reacting to a defensive back blitz off the edge, resetting, and finding Curtis Samuel for a 22-yard gain on a third-and-8.
Bridgewater also hasn’t hesitated to take off and run from empty if nothing is open. Five quarterbacks have at least five scramble attempts from empty and Bridgewater’s 7.7 EPA is more than double the next quarterback, mostly because Bridgewater’s runs have been in high leverage situations.
He had an 18-yard touchdown run against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4:
And against the Chiefs in Week 9, he had a Herculean 15-yard run on a fourth-and14.
Bridgewater’s current success poses an interesting dilemma for the Panthers. The short-term solution at quarterback could be good enough to be more than that and he’s young enough for that to be a serious consideration. Without needing to spend immediate draft capital on a quarterback, the Panthers could use more resources in the draft and free agency to continue to build up a defense that is one of the younger and cheaper units in the league.
It’s not as if embracing this offense would be a short-term fix for a long-term problem, either. The receivers are all still young, with the 27-year-old Anderson the eldest of the trio. Though, Moore will be due an extension soon with just one-year plus the fifth-year option left on his contract and Samuel will be a free agent.
Much of this is also contingent on the status of Brady in 2021. It’s certainly possible that the 31-year-old offensive coordinator has shown enough in his one season to warrant a head coaching job by a team that wants to build around a young, innovative offensive mind.
Still, there is enough to like about what the individual offensive players have done individually to believe they could sustain at least some success should the coordinator leave. And Matt Rhule was smart enough to target and hire Brady, which gives hope that the replacement wouldn’t be a massive change in philosophy.
Without needing a quarterback, the Panthers could also have an advantage be given the state of the division in 2021 when the Saints, Buccaneers, and Falcons could be in panic mode to get their quarterbacks of the future. Or do the Panthers see an edge in getting out ahead of those teams should they continue an all-in strategy around their current veteran options?
The 2020 Panthers have been fun even if the results haven’t always been there. How the Panthers view that success, especially at quarterback, could shape everything they thought about where this team could go in 2021 and beyond.