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Teddy Bridgewater's new start with the Carolina Panthers is the NFL's feel-good story

There were fears Teddy Bridgewater might never walk again when he suffered a gruesome knee injury with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016. Now he is kickstarting a new era for the Carolina Panthers as one of the NFL's incredible comeback stories.

Teddy Bridgewater's success has been one of the 2020 NFL season's great storylines

In some ways, Teddy Bridgewater's story has already been written.

Four years ago girlfriend Erika Cardona evolved her love of poetry and Early Childhood Education studies into a debut children's book titled 'Little Bear Teddy: Big Dreams Come True'.

She needn't look far for inspiration, basing the story on Bridgewater and teaching the core values of hard work, resilience, determination and perseverance at the foundation of his comeback from a gruesome knee injury.

A heart-rending read could yet deliver a rousing repair to the narrative as Bridgewater embarks on his own fresh chapter, the 27-year-old having breathed new life into his career by signing a three-year, $63m contract with the Carolina Panthers during free agency.

In dislodging Cam Newton, he was greeted by another deserved opportunity to establish himself as a full-time NFL starter under a newly-appointed head coach in Matt Rhule. It's been a page-turner so far.

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The Good Morning Football team discuss whether the Carolina Panthers can make the playoffs this season.

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The cruel plot twist

Bridgewater, a first-round pick out of Louisville in 2014, was named to the All-Rookie team and voted by fans as the Pepsi Rookie of the Year after recording an 85.2 passer rating along with 209 rushing yards in his maiden season with the Minnesota Vikings.

Year two saw him honoured with his first Pro Bowl selection in reward for helping the Vikings reach the wildcard round of the playoffs with 3,231 passing yards for 14 touchdowns and 192 rushing yards for three touchdowns.

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Teddy Bridgewater was selected No. 32 overall in 2014
Image: Bridgewater was selected No. 32 overall in 2014

Cardona's work was already in motion by the time Bridgewater tore his ACL, dislocated his knee joint and sustained additional damage during a practice session on August 30, 2016. Recollections of the day cite harrowing screams and teammates praying amid fears he might never walk again.

It didn't matter how the quarterback's story subsequently unfolded, though. Cardona knew those values of hard work, resiliency, determination and perseverance were an ever-present, regardless of the ending.

Speaking to ESPN at the time, Bridgewater's surgeon Dan Cooper referred to the injury as "the worst knee dislocation in sports I've ever seen without having a nerve or (blood) vessel injury".

"This surgery was an absolute gut test, a test of what you're made of, and I've seen it break people down," he added.

I never saw it break Teddy down. Most people have no idea the volume of the workload this kid had to put in. He had a toothpick of a leg he had to rebuild.
Bridgewater's surgeon Dan Cooper on his recovery

The first of Bridgewater's two surgeries lasted four-and-a-half hours. The second was around an hour. There was no easy fix.

All arrows pointed despairingly to another career-ending injury, the NFL's element of risk mercilessly swallowing up its latest victim. There were major doubts over whether Bridgewater would ever play a professional snap again, let alone rediscover his previous form.

Faced with a 19-month recovery period, Bridgewater missed the entire 2016 season before staring at free agency as the Vikings declined the fifth-year option on his contract in May 2017.

An unlikely farewell arrived in Week 15 of the 2017 season when he took to the field to a standing ovation during the fourth quarter of the Vikings' win over the Cincinnati Bengals, finishing with one interception from two pass attempts.

The road back

"When I look in his eyes, I see greatness," future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson said of Bridgewater in 2016, speaking to ESPN.

"He has that leadership, he has that leader inside him and it's coming out even more. He has a good soul, a good spirit. And when you combine that with talent, and the mindset that he has, greatness will come out."

Bridgewater during a preseason game for the Jets at MetLife Stadium on August 10, 2018
Image: Bridgewater during a preseason game for the Jets at MetLife Stadium on August 10, 2018

Even with the talent worthy of AP's recognition, there were understandable questions over Bridgewater's capabilities upon his return to health.

He signed a one-year deal with the New York Jets in March 2018, though it quickly became clear that first-round draft pick Sam Darnold was the team's Week One man. Nonetheless, Bridgewater had taken heart-warming strides in preseason by the end of August, at which time he was traded to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a third-round pick.

His sole start came on the final day when he went 14 of 22 for 118 yards and a touchdown in a 33-14 defeat to the Panthers.

He then signed a new one-year, $7.25m fully guaranteed deal in March 2019, before a thumb injury to Brees in Week Two paved the way for Bridgewater to shoot for a starting job in 2020.

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A quick look back at the action and major talking points from Week Seven of the NFL season.

Bridgewater was 5-0 in his run under center, finishing 115 of 165 passing for 1,205 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions to maintain the Saints' path to the playoffs. This included 314 yards for four touchdowns in the 31-24 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It's testament to the job Bridgewater did in New Orleans that Sean Payton persisted with him as opposed to the multi-purpose Taysom Hill, a starting quarterback in-waiting in the eyes of his head coach, at least back then.

Leading a new era

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Teddy Bridgewater goes deep to DJ Moore for a 74-yard touchdown for the Carolina Panthers.

Now Teddy is onto Carolina, where he finds himself armed with a dynamic receiving corps and, once Christian McCaffrey makes his return from injury, a Pro Bowl running back. He has also been reunited with Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady after the pair's time together in New Orleans.

Through the first seven games of the season Bridgewater is fifth in passing yards (1,930) and second in completion percentage (72.2) behind only Brees, having helped the Panthers to three successive wins over the Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons earlier this year.

In offseason pickup Robby Anderson he has unearthed a trusted favourite target, while DJ Moore has emerged as a valuable deep threat option of late.

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Bridgewater was 23 of 28 for 254 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers were edged out 27-24 by the Saints in Week Seven, Rhule critical of his quarterback for taking an eight-yard sack with two minutes to play that left kicker Joey Slye facing what would have been an NFL-record 65-yard field goal.

In a near faultless display up until the sack, he had delivered another marker of where he is at on a third-and-eight situation as he produced a spin move to escape the Saints blitz before delivering a strike to a diving Curtis Samuel while taking a hit to move the chains.

"Teddy is elite at knowing where to go with the ball," said Rhule earlier in the season. "He's one of the best pocket movement guys I've ever been around. And he's so smart. He has tremendous expectation and understanding of what we're trying to do."

Another run in his most physically-testing game yet saw his momentum take him over to the Saints sideline, where Bridgewater proceeded to take a seat between his smiling former teammates Brees and Hill, the former giving him a pat on the back.

It was touching. A reflection of his incredible journey, the respect he has earned across the league and simply Bridgewater having fun on a football field once again.

While converting in the red zone has been one of few stumbling blocks, he looks to have rediscovered the scrambling ability that had been so useful to him before his injury. If you hadn't known about it, you might not know he hurt his knee at all.

Four years after his devastating setback, Bridgewater has the faith of a new head coach to reignite a franchise that was prepared to part ways with one of the NFL's great dual-threat quarterbacks.

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It's reminding of the most shattering and demoralising layoff a professional athlete could envision going through that truly tells the story of his extraordinary comeback.

No player could be blamed for stepping away from the game in light of such a setback, but it's a mark of the man that Bridgewater salvaged the motivation and mental strength to get back on his feet and resume his career. Regardless of allegiances, it's a story all will wish has a happy ending.

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