For Teddy Bridgewater just a couple years ago, the thought of an NFL Playoff game between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints would have him thinking about how he would handle the crowd noise and get his Vikings offense ready for a likely shootout as is often the case when competing against Drew Brees in the New Orleans Superdome. The reality for Bridgewater, however, is that he will be preparing for today’s game against his former team as Brees’ backup as the Saints try to once again get back to the Super Bowl that has evaded the team since they won Super XLIV back in 2010.
While this is not the script Bridgewater anticipated after being a first-round draft pick in 2014, it is an accomplishment in itself that he is still playing in the NFL at all. He sustained a gruesome non-contact, training camp injury right before the 2016 NFL season that left his knee so damaged it was not clear if he would ever be able to play again in the NFL. Doctors originally estimated a 17-19 month recovery process, which would have not only ended his 2016 season but also offer little chance of playing in the 2017 season regardless of how well his rehab went.
With the reality hitting the quarterback that he would not be on his feet for a very long time, he focused his rehab on two separate tracks; getting his body and knee healthy physically and staying in shape mentally so that when his body was ready, once again, to play football he would be as ready as possible to read defenses and handle the demands that his position of quarterback requires to play at a high level.
Bridgewater turned to technology, specifically virtual reality, to stay sharp off the field and keep gaining reps even though he knew he’d be off the practice field for a very long time. The Vikings were one of the first teams to use the STRIVR virtual reality system, in 2015 when the team was an early adopter of the technology which allows players to use the 360-degree cameras that capture practice from different perspectives to read defenses and scan the field in game situations, sometimes from the comfort of their own home.
“He (Bridgewater) was one of our original users in the NFL,” Derek Belch, CEO of STRIVR told KARE back in 2017. “They actually have a room at the facility and there’s enough space for a player to move around a little bit and feel as if he’s on the field. Is he throwing the ball? Is he sweating? No. But he’s doing things at 10-20 percent speed, going through the mental mechanics along with the physical mechanics, that make his brain feel like he’s there.”
While not specifically designed for the purpose for which Bridgewater used it, the STRIVR system was perfect for his needs. Without the virtual reality goggles and full 360-degree visualizations of his reads, he would have fallen even further behind if he had had to wait until he was physically healthy to get back on a football field. The virtual reality technology allowed Bridgewater to keep fine-tuning the mental aspect of playing quarterback, which oftentimes is more than half the battle.
“I would definitely steal reps with the virtual reality that we do around here,” Bridgewater told KARE during his rehab process. “Especially when I wasn’t practicing, I would go in and watch Wednesday’s practice, Thursday’s practice and Friday’s practice and, you know, steal those virtual reps and it helped.”
As Bridgewater continued to heal, he was able enter a late season game for the Vikings in December 2017, but became a free agent a few later when the team declined his fifth year option on his contact. He signed a one-year contract with the New York Jets that guaranteed $500K but had incentives up to $15 million if he was able to achieve them. While his time at the Jets was short-lived, it was clear he was ready to be an NFL player again and was traded in August, just before the start of the 2018 season, along with a 2019 6th round pick, to the Saints for a 2019 3rd round pick. He was able to play in a few games for the Saints and turned his contributions on the field into a one-year, $7.25 million contract (all guaranteed) with the Saints for the 2019 season, making him the league’s highest-paid backup quarterback.
Entering the 2019 NFL season, Bridgewater had job security but didn’t have much expectation of seeing the field. Entering the season he was slotted behind future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, one of the most durable quarterbacks, playing in 15 or 16 games in each NFL season in every year since 2004. That changed, though, in Week 2 when Brees, tore a ligament in his right thumb during his team’s Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The injury allowed Bridgewater to start the next five games for the Saints, almost half the season. Unless he performed well he could severely reduce the Saints’ playoff hopes, but Bridgewater defied all expectations, finishing with a perfect 5-0 record in those games. In the very competitive NFC conference this year, Bridgewater’s strong play likely represented the difference between the Saints making the playoffs or being on the outside looking in.
Bridgewater wasn’t the only Saints quarterback to take advantage of technology to make possible this 2019 visit to the postseason. Brees’ injury required a typical six to eight weeks of recovery time, a timeline he immediately looked to reduce. The Saints and Brees approached his rehab with all the available technology and resources needed to get Brees back on the field more quickly than the traditional time-frame.
“As far as the timetable for getting back though, they say six-to-eight weeks,” Brees said on a radio interview with WWL Radio immediately after his injury, via nola.com. “I think I can beat that, but I’m just gonna take it one week at a time and see how things go.”
Early on Brees shared his rehab plan with Fox Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer, who was able to demonstrate the technology Brees planned to use to get on the field faster.
“It would’ve been a lot longer if he didn’t use this brand-new technology,” Glazer said Brees informed him. “They put an internal brace in his thumb, he (Brees) said, ‘It’s crazy. I’m already able to grip a little bit. And really the pain tolerance is going all the way down.’
For Brees, the exploratory technology proved to be a very worthwhile risk. He was able to return to the Saints lineup after missing only the five games, fewer than even the low end of the prognosis. Not only was he able to return to the field early, but he was also able to return at his customary high-level of play. A common pitfall for players of all sports when pushing up the timetables for their return from injury is the risk of coming back at a sub-par level or re-aggravating the injury and then missing more game action. Neither of these issues plagued Brees, who played in every game for the remainder of the season and went 7-2 with a 27/4 TD to Interception ratio. In total, the Saints were able to finish with a 13-3 overall record.
There’s a lot that goes into the preparation for any NFL team that is fortunate enough to make the playoffs, but with strong quarterback play being tantamount to any prolonged postseason run, the Saints can thank the assistance of technology for getting both of their quarterbacks back on the field and playing well. The team hopes the payoff could result in a February trip to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.