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McCaffrey injury gives Panthers' Teddy Bridgewater an opportunity

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How much will the Panthers struggle without McCaffrey? (0:37)

Ryan Clark explains why the Panthers will have a hard time competing while Christian McCaffrey is sidelined for multiple weeks. (0:37)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has a reputation for being more of a game manager than a game changer. His role with the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and now the Panthers has been to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.

Now the Panthers' best playmaker -- running back Christian McCaffrey -- is out for four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. It puts some pressure on Bridgewater to become more of a game changer to make up for the loss of the league’s best all-around running back.

“I’m definitely ready for whatever is expected," Bridgewater said as he prepares to face the Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) on Sunday (4:05 p.m., Fox). “As long as they see I have that determination, my coming to work every day with that chip on my shoulder, everyone is going to elevate their game also.

“I’m in a unique position where I’m able to get the guys around me to follow my lead. That’s something I take pride in."

Coach Matt Rhule said he has “full confidence" in Bridgewater as a playmaker even though the 27-year-old is coming off a three-turnover performance in Sunday’s 31-17 loss at Tampa Bay.

“He brought a young team back from double-digit leads twice," Rhule said of Bridgewater's efforts in the first two games of the season against the Raiders and Buccaneers. “When you do that, you’re not a game manager. You’re a quarterback."

Rhule said the game-manager term usually is for a quarterback that hands off 40 times a game and throws between 18 and 20 times.

“That’s not us," he said. “We’re out there, we’re winging it around. It’s not perfect yet."

Statistics and history, however, indicate Bridgewater has never been a guy who carried a team with his arm since he was selected with the last pick of the first round in 2014 out of Louisville. Thrust into the starting lineup at Minnesota as a rookie, he went 6-6 with star running back Adrian Peterson suspended. He threw 12 interceptions to 14 touchdowns.

Bridgewater and the Vikings went 11-5 in 2015, when Peterson returned to have an huge season. Even then, Bridgewater threw only 14 touchdown passes with nine interceptions.

Last year, when Bridgewater went 5-0 as Drew Brees’ replacement in New Orleans, he was aided by stars at running back (Alvin Kamara) and receiver (Michael Thomas). Bridgewater was efficient -- nine touchdowns to two interceptions, but rarely dynamic.

Bridgewater is in a unique situation in the next month. If he can’t be more dynamic and help turn around an 0-2 team that McCaffrey insists still has a chance to make the playoffs, can he be the Panthers’ long-term quarterback in Joe Brady’s pass-happy offense?

If the Panthers continue to lose, they will be linked even closer to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields in the 2021 draft, even though Bridgewater will have two years left on his three-year, $63 million deal.

Carolina’s next two opponents didn’t hesitate to move on from veteran quarterbacks in search of more dynamic starters in the past two seasons. The Chargers this past offseason parted with Philip Rivers, who owns 30 franchise passing records, and selected Justin Herbert with the sixth pick in April.

Herbert made his debut this past week, with starter Tyrod Taylor suffering from pregame chest pains that later were determined to be a collapsed lung, caused by a team doctor's mistake on an injection. Herbert almost pulled off the upset of the day against defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City, completing 21 of 31 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 18 yards and a touchdown. Herbert will start again Sunday against the Panthers.

Arizona drafted Kyler Murray with the first overall pick in 2019. Murray has the Cardinals at 2-0 and is already getting some MVP buzz.

The most comprehensive statistic for how a quarterback can carry a team is ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating.

Seven of the top eight in Total QBR this year are on teams with a 2-0 record.

Bridgewater ranks 19th at 58.1 and has a career QBR of 54.0. His rating last season at New Orleans was 50.9. When he won 11 games in 2015 it was 57.7 and in 2014 it was 51.6.

Still, Bridgewater doesn’t believe in labels.

“That’s the funny part about this position," he said. “If you win and you don’t light up the stat sheet, you’re a game manager. If you win and light up the stat sheet, you’re a gunslinger. If you lose and light up the stat sheet, you’re a gunslinger."

Rivers, who last Sunday earned his first win for Indianapolis, was more a game manager than a gunslinger in the Colts' victory.

“I’ve always felt like the term game manger is seen as a negative," he said after Sunday’s win against Minnesota. “I don’t think it’s a negative. Sometimes a quarterback’s job is to sink it and throw it all over the field and find a way to lead a two-minute drive. Sometimes it’s to hand it off and not turn it over and get everyone lined up and handle motions and make a few checks here and there.

“If that’s the term game manager, and that’s what [last Sunday] was, it was a heck of a lot of fun."

To be fair to Bridgewater, he hasn’t spent a lot of time running "gunslinger" offenses. He hasn’t been asked to make a lot of big plays, particularly downfield. This stretch without McCaffrey might be his best chance to change some minds.

“Myself, I just try to play this game to win," Bridgewater said. “Whatever everyone wants to label you, that’s what it is. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how my teammates see me, how this organization sees me."