CHARLOTTE — If there's one universally held thought about Teddy Bridgewater, it's that he has unimpeachable leadership skills. He knows how to motivate his teammates and bring them along.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn isn't around the quarterback on a daily basis, but even he can see it from watching Carolina's game film.
"The toughness at the position just shows up and then the accuracy on different types of throws, whether it's a receiver, it's a running back, all of that factors in," Quinn said this week. "And when you have those two things as a quarterback — the toughness and accuracy — I think people are generally wanting to follow those traits."
Bridgewater just completed his first four games as a full-time starter since 2015, and the Panthers are 2-2. With 12 games left, Bridgewater said he hasn't fully taken stock of his performances to date. But looking at the numbers, he's grown significantly as a quarterback since the last time he was a starter.
So far in 2020, Bridgewater has completed 73 percent of his passes with four touchdowns, three interceptions, and 1,147 yards. That works out to an average of 286.8 yards per game. His yards per attempt is up to 8.1, and he carries a 97.4 passer rating.
In his 2015 Pro Bowl season, Bridgewater completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 201.9 yards per game with 7.2 yards per attempt and an 88.7 passer rating.
That was five years ago, so it stands to reason that Bridgewater should have improved. But some of those numbers are even better than his five starts with New Orleans last year. In those games, Bridgewater completed 69.7 percent of his passes, averaged 241 yards per game, and 7.3 yards per attempt. However, he had nine touchdowns, just two interceptions, and carried a passer rating of 103.7.
"I think there's always room for improvements," offensive coordinator Joe Brady said. "I think he's doing a great job executing the game plan, putting our players in position to make plays, making plays with his feet, and I think his accuracy and his completion percentage is showing that. So I have full faith in everything that he's doing with control of the offense."
While the numbers are solid, they don't necessarily tell the whole story. Bridgewater's leadership and high football IQ have been instrumental in the Panthers' offensive success.
"He's one of the smartest quarterbacks, smartest football people I've ever been around," head coach Matt Rhule said. "I had the good fortune to be around Eli Manning, and Teddy reminds me so much of Eli in terms of the way that he studies the game, the way that he plays the mental game, the way that he understands the run game, he understands the protection game.
"He's just such a cerebral, intelligent, football guy that it makes everyone around us better."
Bridgewater has always strived to do that, both on and off the field. He revealed this week that back in his high school days, he'd get his teammates together on Thursday nights to play college football video games.
"Little did I know that those were actual coverages that I would see years later," Bridgewater said. "I think that right there might've helped my football IQ some."
He's brought that same presence to the Panthers, having weekly meetings between the offensive line and the quarterbacks to ensure everyone is on the same page.
That's not something every quarterback would suggest to do. But in a season without OTAs and on a team where players had to learn a new scheme, there's good reason for it.
"We didn't do that much when I was in New Orleans, but everyone was on the same page," Bridgewater said. "But here in Carolina, it's just something that I thought would be beneficial to everyone."
One way to tangibly see the positive effect is Carolina's long possessions. Only once have the Panthers scored with five plays or fewer, and that was in Week 1 against Las Vegas when wide receiver Robby Anderson caught a 75-yard touchdown.
Carolina has had a scoring possession of at least 10 plays in each game. And in three of the Panthers' four contests, they've had a touchdown drive of at least 13 plays.
The offense has needed to overcome multiple negative plays and penalties to keep the ball. Being able to do so depends a lot on the quarterback.
"I'd say it's 90 percent of it. And I don't mean to take that away from the other players. I think they would all say it to you," Rhule said. "But Teddy's running the show and making sure we're in the right play, the right protection. We motion, we shift, we check plays, we do all these things that not everyone does. And we do them because we have a quarterback who allows us to do them."
Aside from Bridgewater's ability to throw, the long scoring drives also demonstrate his leadership.
"It's just the way he manages the game, making sure we're all in sync and making sure we all have the right energy, making sure we're all locked in at the task at hand," right tackle Taylor Moton said. "It's difficult to explain. You've just got to be in the huddle with him, I guess."
Always one to spread credit, Bridgewater feels it's the offensive line and wide receivers executing their roles that make Carolina successful in those situations.
"And for me, it's just trying to stay even keel … and understanding that if it's third-and-17 and we can get 15 yards, with the head coach that we have, you never know, we may go for it on fourth-and-2," Bridgewater said.
But what Bridgewater isn't going to do is assign too much importance to in-game situations that may initially appear like checkpoints or milestones. He's been asked multiple times since Sunday if his 18-yard touchdown scramble was a broader representation of how he's all the way back and that he trusts his knee after the devastating injury he suffered before the 2016 season.
Each time he's said no. He was just playing football.
And that makes sense, considering it's been four years. Plus, Bridgewater has played a significant amount of football — including those five starts with the Saints last year.
It goes back to his low-key, supportive demeanor. Bridgewater doesn't appear to be someone who makes a lot of things about himself. Generally, that's what you expect from a quarterback, someone who says the right things and sets the tone by doing the right things, too.
Bridgewater has been doing that his whole life, which is part of what makes it so easy for players to gravitate toward him now as he enters the second quarter of this 2020 season.
"I know he had the bad injury before, but he's always bounced back, just like now," wide receiver DJ Moore said. "We had the two (losses), he just stayed level-headed and pulled everybody together and just said we're going to go on a run.
"We're just following his lead, week-by-week, one game at a time."
Carolina is 18-32 all-time against Atlanta.