Can Teddy Bridgewater follow Jake Delhomme's path, lead Panthers to Super Bowl?

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Imagine this: The Carolina Panthers sign a backup quarterback from the New Orleans Saints in free agency. He’s not a big name entering his seventh NFL season and doesn’t overly excite the fan base, but general manager Marty Hurney believes in him and the talent around him.

Then that quarterback leads the Panthers to the Super Bowl in his first season.

It happened in 2003, when Carolina signed Jake Delhomme in what arguably was the best free-agent move in team history.

Could history repeat with Teddy Bridgewater, who spent the past two seasons with the Saints before signing in March a three-year, $63 million deal with Carolina?

It seems unlikely, but the coach who built around Delhomme in 2003 says there’s a chance.

“From the leadership stuff, Jake and Teddy are very similar," said John Fox, who coached the Panthers from 2002 to '10. "Dudes will play hard for him. They’ll want to play for him. They’ll like to play for him."

Delhomme is an analyst on Carolina’s radio team, in addition to raising racehorses in Louisiana.

“I just think you look at the five games last year, what he did [when Drew Brees was out]," Delhomme said. “I go back to his first game against Seattle. He had a week to prepare, away from home, and he plays really well.

“He just went out and made plays. Listen, he didn’t turn the ball over. He’s not a turnover machine, which is extremely critical."

Bridgewater went 5-0 as the starter last season, throwing nine touchdowns and two interceptions. He compiled a passer rating of 103.7 in those games.

Granted, he was surrounded by great talent in running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, wide receiver Michael Thomas and tight end Jared Cook. He had a burner in Ted Ginn Jr.

But Bridgewater also will be surrounded by great talent at Carolina in running back Christian McCaffrey, who last season became the third player in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in the same season. He’ll have an elite receiver in D.J. Moore and elite speed in Curtis Samuel and Robby Anderson.

“He’s got a lot of pieces around him," Fox said. “I will say this: I don’t believe the [2020] defense is anywhere nearly as qualified [as 2003]. The style you can play when the defense is good versus when it’s not is different."

The 2003 Panthers ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed and eighth in total defense. They had future Hall of Famer Julius Peppers at defensive end, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Kris Jenkins and a veteran secondary led by Mike Minter.

Nine of Carolina’s 11 regular-season wins came when Delhomme & Co. scored 24 or fewer points.

The Carolina defense was overhauled this offseason, with four starters returning, including Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short, who missed last season with a shoulder injury. They’ll be led by a first-time NFL defensive coordinator in Phil Snow.

So Bridgewater might be forced to do more than Delhomme in 2003, particularly early.

“That’ll be interesting to see how they manage that," Fox said. “Regardless of how good you are, it’s hard to be throwing it all the time. That’s not a formula for success when you don’t have balance."

In terms of experience, Bridgewater is far ahead of 2003 Delhomme, who’d started only two games and played in six before he arrived at Carolina. Most of his experience came in NFL Europe with Amsterdam as the backup for future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner.

Bridgewater, a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, started 12 games and won six as a rookie. He was 11-5 in his second season and seemingly headed for stardom until suffering a non-contact dislocated knee and ACL tear in 2016 training camp.

When he was ready to return in 2017, the Vikings had moved on to Sam Bradford. Instead of keeping Bridgewater in 2018, the organization signed Kirk Cousins.

Bridgewater landed in New Orleans after a brief stint with the New York Jets during the 2018 training camp.

“He was definitely their glue in Minnesota until he got hurt that day in practice," said Fox, who as the head coach at Denver faced Bridgewater in 2015.

Bridgewater also has the benefit of entering camp as the declared starter. Delhomme began 2003 as Rodney Peete’s backup. That changed in the second half of the opener, when he entered down 17-0 and engineered a 24-23 victory against Jacksonville.

What both have in common is a strong football mind.

“Teddy comes in with a cerebral mindset," Delhomme said. “If we spread them out a little bit, especially with Christian, Teddy can kind of just do his deal. He’ll be throwing to a bunch of guys that can make plays."

Bridgewater’s relationship with first-year offensive coordinator Joe Brady -- who was with the 2018 Saints -- also gives him an edge. He already has a grasp of the offense because much of it will come from what Brady learned in New Orleans in 2017 and '18.

That allowed Bridgewater to hold private workouts with other Carolina players last week at a local high school without coaches.

“They can talk about level-three or level-four coaching points because Teddy's been in it," Carolina coach Matt Rhule said of Bridgewater and Brady. “And the things that Joe's added, or changed, or brought from [LSU], Teddy's picked up on so quickly."

Rhule said after releasing franchise quarterback Cam Newton that Bridgewater was the better fit for what he wanted to do. He didn’t elaborate, but one easily could see Delhomme fit the same mold because both players are singularly focused on football and offer no off-the-field distractions.

“He likes to talk about it. He likes to think about it. ... If it were up to him he’d be here all day," Rhule said of Bridgewater. “That’s important because only half the quarterback is the physical stuff. He just strikes me so far as someone who really is into it."

That was Delhomme in 2003, but there was one major difference.

“I signed a two-year, $5 million contract, not a three-year, $63 million contract, so a little different," Delhomme said with a laugh. “But I’m like everyone else with Teddy, I’m waiting to see what happens."