CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The last time Teddy Bridgewater took a snap at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium, it was just as a footnote.
On Oct. 28, 2018, he was part of a three-quarterback formation for the New Orleans Saints on second-and-goal from the 3. He lined up wide left at receiver with Drew Brees on the right and Taysom Hill under center. Bridgewater was supposed to run a fade route, like he did in high school when receiver was his primary position.
“Trae Waynes was covering me," Bridgewater recalled earlier this week. “The play didn’t really work. That’s all I can really remember."
The focus of that game wasn’t on Bridgewater’s return to Minnesota for the first time since suffering a horrific left knee injury during the Vikings' 2016 training camp. It was all about New Orleans trying to earn a measure of revenge for its last-second playoff loss to the sixth-seeded Vikings a year earlier.
That changes Sunday, as the focus will be on Bridgewater when he returns as the starting quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.
There is a bit of irony that he returns coming off a left knee injury, albeit only a slight sprain that kept him out of last week’s win against Detroit. It was nothing close to the career-threatening torn ACL and dislocation he suffered on his right knee in 2016.
The Vikings have been searching for a franchise quarterback since the injury to Bridgewater, their 2014 first-round pick out of Louisville. The jury is still out on Kirk Cousins, who is Minnesota’s third full-time starter in five years.
The only thing Bridgewater is concerned with is getting Carolina (4-8), which gave him a three-year, $63 million deal during the offseason, a second consecutive victory.
“You can’t make these games bigger than what they are," he said. “I’m aware of the story and the buildups and things like that, but [this is] the most important game because it’s the next game.
“Like I said a couple of weeks ago about previous games, we’ve got to make this game about us. We can’t be too caught up in Thanksgiving, the Vikings. It’s all about Carolina."
Bridgewater’s unselfish attitude is one of the many reasons he was so popular with teammates.
“In the 10 years I’ve been here, he has to be the most likeable player that we’ve had in the locker room," Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I mean, you just talk to people in the front office, coaching staff, players that played with him ... everyone loved Teddy.
“To see Teddy back as a franchise quarterback and playing really well ... for me, as a huge Teddy Bridgewater fan, it’s good to see."
Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady turned a few heads when he recently called Bridgewater a “franchise quarterback." As well as Bridgewater has played this season, some still look at him as a bridge between Cam Newton and the next quarterback.
“He has this locker room; he has this organization,” Brady said. “Everybody on this football team believes in him, and he goes out there and executes.
“I fully expect Teddy Bridgewater to continue doing this the rest of the season and his career as a Carolina Panther.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer believed Bridgewater would be his franchise quarterback before the 2016 injury that was so scary he called off the rest of practice. Zimmer said this week it was tough parting ways with such a popular player after the 2017 season, as doctors weren’t convinced the knee would hold up long term.
“When he got hurt, we went back and looked at the history of people who had had that injury," Zimmer said. “I think there was one basketball player, one football player. I think the basketball player came back after 24 months, and he didn’t have a long career."
Bridgewater returned to take a snap for the Vikings 16 months after surgery, even though it was in a mop-up role with a 34-0 lead against Cincinnati in 2017. It still was a testament to his hard work and heart.
Zimmer recalled how after every workout during the rehab process, Bridgewater finished with the “victory kneel," similar to what quarterbacks do at the end of sure victories when running out the clock. Zimmer has nothing but admiration and respect for his former quarterback, and still talks to him on a regular basis.
“I’m proud of what he’s done," he said.
Bridgewater never doubted he would return.
“I just remind myself there’s always somebody out there going through something 10 times worse," he said. “It’s all about the mindset that I have. I tell myself every day I get the same 24 hours that the guys cleaning the toilets or mopping floors at hospitals and schools do, so it’s all about how I maximize my 24 hours."
Whether or not Bridgewater, 28, truly becomes Carolina’s franchise quarterback remains to be seen. As well as he has played, the Panthers are 3-7 with him as the starter. Despite his outstanding leadership, he hasn’t shown the ability to carry the offense when everything else goes awry.
But Bridgewater is playing at a high level, to the level the Vikings hoped he would when they handed him the keys to the offense and he began his career with a 17-11 record.
On Sunday, they have to devise a plan to stop Bridgewater, whose 72.1 completion percentage ranks second in the NFL to Brees (73.5).
“Our job is to go out there and try and figure out ways to beat him, try to affect the quarterback and do things he’s not prepared for," Zimmer said.
The moment Bridgewater went down in 2016 had a profound impact on players on the practice field.
“It was definitely one of those things where you’re, ‘Man, did I just watch Teddy Bridgewater take his last snap under center?’" said right tackle Jeremiah Sirles.
Bridgewater felt the love from his teammates that day, just as he felt it in 2017 when he returned for the final few minutes of the Cincinnati win.
“I was on the sideline and that’s probably the loudest I’ve heard that stadium since I’ve been here," Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said.
Bridgewater got a standing ovation. It will be much quieter on Sunday with no fans allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but from stadium employees to former teammates, there still will be an outpouring of support.
Even Cousins, who met Bridgewater when he was a rising senior in high school at the Elite 11 camp for the top quarterbacks in the country, can’t help but appreciate the moment.
“He's been that same guy all the way through his career," Cousins said. “He's faced a tremendous amount of adversity and just responded so well to it.
“I'm happy for him in the way his career has gone lately, and I think his best days of football are still ahead of him."