With Drew Brees out, Teddy Bridgewater's Saints audition begins

Clark: Super Bowl hopes could go out the window with Brees' surgery (1:58)

Ryan Clark explains how big of a blow Drew Brees' injury is to the Saints and how Brees missing time for surgery will impact the team's offense. (1:58)

LOS ANGELES -- The NFL’s highest-paid backup quarterback just might have become the most important one, too.

So far, Teddy Bridgewater's brief tenure with the New Orleans Saints has been less than awe-inspiring. But now that Drew Brees is expected to undergo thumb surgery -- Adam Schefter reports that Brees is expected to be out for six weeks -- the Saints need Bridgewater to start delivering on their faith in him.

The Saints have invested way more in Bridgewater than any other backup quarterback during the Brees-Sean Payton era -- trading a third-round draft pick for him last summer, then re-signing him to a one-year deal worth at least $7.25 million in free agency.

They did that, in part, to evaluate the 26-year-old Bridgewater as a possible successor to the 40-year-old Brees. But they also did it as an insurance policy for this exact scenario -- to keep New Orleans’ playoff hopes afloat if something happened to Brees.

Brees left Sunday’s 27-9 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the first quarter after his right (throwing) hand hit Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's hand at the end of an incomplete pass. The recovery timetable has Brees back in early November, so the Saints might not need Bridgewater to be their own version of Nick Foles or Jeff Hostetler or 2001 Tom Brady.

But those are the kinds of comparisons we’re talking about. Because the Saints have a Super Bowl-caliber roster. And because that’s the kind of confidence they have expressed in Bridgewater, the former first-round draft pick who has a 17-12 record as starter and led the Minnesota Vikings to the playoffs in 2015 before a devastating knee injury sidelined him for nearly two full seasons.

“Look, he’s a pro. He knows how to win. He knows how to win in this league,” Payton said Sunday after Bridgewater completed 17 of 30 passes for 165 yards with no touchdown drives, no interceptions and two sacks.

It was just the third game in the 14-year Payton era when the Saints failed to score a touchdown.

But Payton blamed others around Bridgewater for hurting his cause on Sunday. The offensive line got “whupped” up front, according to Payton, while the Saints ran for just 57 yards on 20 carries. And New Orleans repeatedly killed its own drives with penalties. (The Saints had 11 penalties for 87 yards.)

Bridgewater faced a second-and-16, second-and-26 and third-and-28 during his first drive of the game. Later, a third-and-2 turned into a third-and-7. And he faced a second-and-15 and two first-and-20s.

“Teddy came in ready to go,” Payton said. “I don’t think we played particularly well around him. And I think when we watch that tape tomorrow, it’s not gonna be pleasant to watch for some guys.

“I felt real confident in Teddy -- and do feel confident. … Listen, if you’re not playing well up front, I don’t care if it’s your Hall of Fame guy or your No. 3 guy. It’s gonna be difficult.”

In other words, don’t expect a quarterback controversy between Bridgewater and fellow backup Taysom Hill -- even though Hill is a dynamic dual threat who was much more effective than Bridgewater during the preseason.

But you do have to wonder how long Bridgewater’s leash will be if he keeps struggling to create a spark.

As I wrote this summer, the competition to become Brees’ long-term successor seems more wide-open now after Hill outshined Bridgewater in the preseason.

And let’s face it: Bridgewater will be auditioning for 31 other teams as well, since he is scheduled to be a free agent again next March. Other teams clearly had their doubts about Bridgewater’s ability to be a starter again after the long injury layoff. His hometown Miami Dolphins were the only other team to seriously pursue him this past offseason.

So Bridgewater has a lot to prove while Brees is out -- starting with two very difficult tests in Week 3 at Seattle and back home in Week 4 against a Dallas Cowboys defense that silenced the Saints last year.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Bridgewater said after Sunday’s game, when asked how he feels now in his first full year in the Saints’ offense. “I’m familiar with the offense, got a year under my belt. And I’m excited.”

Heading into the preseason, Bridgewater said, “I can honestly say that this is the best I've ever felt in my six years. I feel great mentally, physically and spiritually.”

There have been plenty of excuses why Bridgewater hasn’t looked good in limited appearances with the Saints. He was playing with a backup offensive line and without running back Alvin Kamara when he started in Week 17 last year because New Orleans had the No. 1 seed locked up. Bridgewater completed 14 of 22 passes for 118 yards with one touchdown and one interception in that loss to the Carolina Panthers.

And he was playing with several offensive backups again when he struggled at times this preseason (43-of-70 passing for 400 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble).

One of Bridgewater’s consistent issues, which showed up again Sunday, has been holding on to the ball too long.

But Bridgewater did look very good at times on the practice field throughout the summer -- just as he did last preseason with the New York Jets and throughout last season while running the Saints’ scout-team offense and giving the defense all it could handle. Payton has raved about his intelligence, his poise and "demeanor."

Heading into Sunday, Bridgewater will have a full complement of starters around him and a full week of practice and game-planning to get ready.

So Bridgewater will have his best opportunity yet to hit his stride in New Orleans -- which is a good thing, since neither he nor the Saints can afford to wait much longer for that to happen.