September 1, 2014

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NFL Draft 2014: Criticism of Teddy Bridgewater’s potential doesn’t bother his coach, who still sees greatness in QB

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater scores on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28, 2013. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)

Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater scores on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28, 2013. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)

Shawn Watson doesn’t usually ask Teddy Bridgewater about the draft. Bridgewater gets enough questions from everyone else that his former coach at Louisville keeps their chats to other topics.

Watson recently made an exception. The increasingly loud buzz in the national media is that Bridgewater — an intelligent and accurate, if not dazzling, quarterback — has dropped on draft boards across the NFL. Once considered a possibility to be taken with the No. 1 pick, “experts” are suggesting Bridgewater could slip into the second round.

So Watson wanted to make sure Bridgewater was doing OK.

“I think he’s handling it the way I’ve seen him handle everything that’s been in his life, good, bad, it could be adversity, it could be something just flat awesome for him, he’s never, ever changed,” Watson said by phone.

“He’s not shaken nor is he the kind of person who is going to weigh much into it.

“He is calm. He knows that he has to prove himself and he has to earn everything in front of him. So that’s where poise comes from. That’s where character shows up.”

Watson has been a coach for 32 years, making stops at eight schools. After three years with Bridgewater at Louisville — all three as quarterbacks coach, the last two as coordinator – Watson puts Bridgewater in elite company.

“I’ve said it a lot. He’s one of the five best people in my life,” Watson said.

What makes Bridgewater so special?

“Just respect for his work ethic and his heart,” said Watson, who followed head coach Charlie Strong from Louisville to Texas after the season as assistant head coach for offense/quarterbacks coach. “He changed our whole program because of the love he has for the game and the energy he brought to the building, the energy he brought to all of us. There’s no doubt everybody on our football team, offense, defense, it didn’t matter, whenever we had a tough situation and we were faced with it, he answered. They knew they could count on him.

“He pulls you in because — whoever’s lucky enough to coach him, he’ll do the same thing for them — he’s a guy you can count on.”

Watson’s been giving the same message to NFL teams trying to learn everything they can about the top quarterbacks. That includes the Browns, who will undoubtedly select a quarterback — possibly two — in the three-day draft from May 8-10. The question is: Will they take one with the fourth pick?

Bridgewater is in the discussion. Trumpeted by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock as the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft, Bridgewater has an impressive resume.

He started for all three of his seasons, and the Cardinals went 23-3 the last two years. His completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio improved each season, peaking with 71 percent, 31 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2013.

But the draft process is about a lot more than college credentials. If they were all that mattered, Ken Dorsey and Colt McCoy would’ve been first-round picks and successful professionals.

The draft is about projecting. Will Bridgewater’s skills and performance translate to the NFL?

Three concerns continue to come up. His 9¼-inch hands are smaller than preferred, he has less-than-ideal arm strength and is slight of build at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds.

None of these issues is new. But a subpar performance at his pro day shot them to the surface. Against no defense and using a script of throws he’d practiced for weeks, Bridgewater’s trademark accuracy was missing as the ball fluttered and floated out of his right hand.

His naked right hand.

Bridgewater, a Miami native, started wearing gloves when he arrived at Louisville and said at the scouting combine he wore them for every game. But after training in the nice weather of Florida without gloves, he kept them off for the pro day in Louisville.

“I went back to my high school days, no glove,” he told ESPN’s Jon Gruden. “I’m one of those guys that trusts preparation. I was training without the glove.

“I learned a valuable lesson that day. I had a few balls that got away from me. I was able to learn walking away from there just do what got you there. If you’re confident with the gloves, continue to wear the gloves. Everywhere I go, I make sure I carry my gloves with me.”

Bridgewater doesn’t appear to be fretting a slide. He accepted the NFL’s invitation to the draft in New York, which means he’s either been living in a cave, is confident he’ll be drafted high or wants the TV time inevitable with a prolonged stay in the green room.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter about your hand size,” he said at the combine. “The only thing that matters is the pass getting completed to wide receivers, and I feel that with my accuracy, my arm strength, my decision-making, the hand size shouldn’t be a factor.”

What Bridgewater lacks in measurables he tries to make up for with intelligence, devotion and accuracy. His film study would’ve made Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert proud, and enabled him to command Louisville’s offense from the line of scrimmage. Watson said Bridgewater went from “running” it as a freshman to “executing” it his final two years, when he was responsible for audibles, line protections and full-field reads.

“It’s very unusual to have a guy that can handle as much as he did for us at the line of scrimmage,” Watson said. “Whenever you can take your quarterback and make the defensive coordinator wrong, that’s the biggest weapon an offense has.

“Football comes really easy to him and he has got the unique ability, I just refer to it as an ‘it factor,’ and he can take it to the field when everything’s going really fast and he can slow it down and make you right. He processes it very smoothly. He’s got a great feel for the game of football and the strategies behind the game of football because, one, he loves the game and then, two, he’ll grind, he’ll do what’s necessary to learn what it is he
needs to learn. And he’s a brilliant kid. You show him one time and you never see the error again.”

Bridgewater also showed toughness that belies his frame by playing through a broken left wrist and sprained right ankle. And he is quick to point out his 71 percent completion rate in 2013 — which wasn’t inflated by the bubble screens relied on by Johnny Manziel and Derek Carr. Then there’s the impressive matter of only four interceptions in 427 throws last season.

“It’s a combination of his accuracy. The other part of the combination is his ability to make decisions,” Watson said. “He’s an unbelievable rhythm thrower. He gets it out and he gets it out on time and gets it out fast. He’s a very athletic, competitive passer.”

Bridgewater might not be the total package — which could make him available for the Browns at No. 26 or with a trade up into the high-teens — but Watson believes he’ll be a great value no matter when his name is called.

“If I were building a football team — and I know him on a very intimate basis because I’ve been with him for three years every day — I’d start with him,” Watson said. “I think he’s got a great skill set. He’s got a great competitive edge. All the big games we were in that changed our program, he showed up big. He showed up when the lights turned on and they got really bright. He didn’t shrink. He got bigger than the lights.

“He’s a great competitor. You put that with his work ethic and his character, and those two things I believe really helped him to realize his talent. I think he is a slam dunk. It’s an easy one.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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