NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest moment of Teddy Bridgewater's college career came on this field, in a Sugar Bowl MVP-winning performance that thrust him into Heisman Trophy conversations and had him among the early favorites to be the top pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
On Sunday, Bridgewater was back in the Superdome, for another career milestone that looked nothing like the last one.
The Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback made his NFL debut on Sunday in the middle of a game where his mentor had gone down with a broken foot. He operated behind an offensive line that struggled to protect him, with a sometimes-malfunctioning communications system in his helmet and at the end of a week where they took Adrian Peterson out of action. By the end of the game, Bridgewater was without the last two players the Vikings signed to contract extensions -- tight end Kyle Rudolph and right guard Brandon Fusco -- as he tried to engineer a comeback in a stadium that once cheered him but was now snarling at him.
Little about it fit the carefully manicured environment the Vikings had constructed for Bridgewater's development, when they could take advantage of veteran Matt Cassel's presence and bring the rookie along at his own speed. Now, with Cassel likely to miss months after breaking several bones in his foot on a second-quarter scramble, Bridgewater's initiation to the NFL will come through live fire.
"This is where I've always wanted to be," Bridgewater said. "Unfortunately, the way it happened wasn't the way I expected it to. But I was relaxed. The guys put their trust in me. They told me, 'Hey, nothing's changed. The game plan isn't going to change. We're just going to continue to play football.'"
The Vikings have little choice at this point but to throw their fortunes behind Bridgewater, and while their prospects this season will hinge on how effective the rookie can be in the NFL, Bridgewater didn't look rattled on Sunday. He completed 12 of his 20 passes for 150 yards, making several nice throws on the run against a Saints defense that rarely gave him opportunities to set his feet and gaining 27 yards on six rushing attempts, including one designed run. Bridgewater wasn't asked to run much in college, but he was effective doing it on Sunday, largely out of necessity, and he did an impressive job extending plays; running back Jerick McKinnon dropped Bridgewater's final throw of the day, but it should be noted that Bridgewater delivered the ball on third-and-13 after making several Saints defenders miss.
"I thought he was very composed. I didn't see any panic," coach Mike Zimmer said. "I believe he's going to be very good."
The Vikings have believed that since they evaluated Bridgewater before the draft, and in a season where carefully laid plans have already been blown to bits, maybe it's for the best that the team will devote significant resources to Bridgewater's development. The fates of Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman were likely going to hang on Bridgewater at some point anyway. Serendipity has dictated that process will start now.
"He's ready," Rudolph said. "Since he got here in the offseason, he's worked extremely hard to put himself in a situation that when the opportunity came -- he didn't know if it was going to be at all this year, but I felt like he came out there and showed a lot of poise and composure in the huddle. He did well."