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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Why Teddy Bridgwater’s clutch history matters

By Matthew Coller

Here’s a riddle for you: If a quarterback leads a potential game-winning drive, but his team loses, was he clutch?

Teddy Bridgewater knows this paradox too well. The last time he played in a real NFL game, the Vikings’ quarterback hit tight end Kyle Rudolph for a 24-yard pass with 1:34 left in Minnesota’s Wild Card playoff matchup with the Seattle Seahawks to bring his team within range for a game-winning field goal.

It should have gone down as a career-defining play for Bridgewater and evidence that the Vikings’ belief in him as their franchise quarterback was justified.

Instead, the field goal went wide left and the Vikings by one point.

Twenty-two months later, Bridgewater has recovered from a gruesome knee injury suffered during practice prior to the 2016 season and debates are raging over whether the Vikings should stick with backup Case Keenum or turn the ball back over to Bridgewater in the heat of a playoff race.

Those debates are only happening outside the building at Winter Park. Inside the compound, head coach Mike Zimmer knows looks at Bridgwater and channels Terrell Owens’ famous, “That’s my quarterback” speech.

Bridgewater’s leadership and personality play a role in forging Zimmer’s opinion, but the 61-year-old ball coach also believes that some quarterbacks like Teddy are clutch.

“That’s the guys that usually win the big games,” Zimmer said on a warm Thursday afternoon before the weather changed. “There’s lots of them you have to be really careful with in situations [as a defensive coach]. Guys who are cool under pressure, that don’t let all the outside things affect them.”

Since the beginning of the Moneyball era in sports, where statistical analysis and data-driven conclusions are a major part of the landscape, the concept of some players being more clutch than others has become more questionable than it once was. On the baseball side, you’d darn near be called a heretic for suggesting that one player was more clutch than another.

Matthew Kory, who writes for the baseball industry’s leader in analytical analysis, Baseball Prospectus, explains:

“Clutch is more of a statement about what is past as opposed to what will happen in the future,” he said. “When you say someone is clutch, you’re saying they’ve outperformed what you would expect them to in certain situations. The common perception in baseball is that it isn’t the type of thing you can do going forward. It’s not a skill in the sense that throwing hard or hitting home runs or running the bases are skills. Hitting better in difficult situations or pitching better in difficult situations is not a skill.”

Baseball folks argue that over a small sample size – say a World Series – a player’s performance can vary widely. If a particular player hits 10 home runs per year, but drills three in a World Series, he might be called clutch but he would be very unlikely to hit three home runs every year if his team played in the World Series for 10 straight seasons.

“Most players are going to be right around their career averages because that’s who they are,” Kory said. “If you keep playing things out you will get to a point where players fall toward their career averages.”

Kory points to the example of the all-time clutch player in baseball Derek Jeter – winner of five World Series. During his regular season career, the former New York Yankee captain batted .310 with a .377 on-base percentage and .440 slugging percentage. He’s one of the few players that would have a large enough postseason sample to judge with 158 playoff games. Over a full season’s worth of postseason play, Jeter batted .308 with a .374 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage – nearly identical to his regular season numbers. The takeaway: Derek Jeter was good at baseball whether it was the playoffs or regular season – he wasn’t better in big games.

A lot of athletes look at the word “clutch” the same way. You’re only clutch until you’re not and you’re only not clutch until you are.

“Sometimes it’s about perception,” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “There’s always going to be perceptions and things said about you that you’re going to have to get over, whether it’s ‘injury prone’ or ‘can’t win a close game’ or ‘can’t come through down the stretch.’”

“Nobody is always clutch,” Vikings cornerback Terence Newman said. “Take LeBron. He’s made game-winning shots and he’s not made game-winning shots. You can’t be clutch without having some sort of fault. You can’t always be clutch – it’s just kind of the nature of the word. I think clutch is a bad word for what you’re looking for.”

Pro Football Focus analyst slash math professor Eric Eager believes we can isolate key situations where certain quarterbacks rise to the top.

“What you want to do when you evaluate quarterback play is throw away all the situations where the quarterback’s ability is hidden,” Eager said. “To me third-and-long is the quintessential place – and when a quarterback is kept clean, can he complete passes, is he accurate, does he have the guts to throw the ball down the field when he has to.”

Over his two years as a starter, Bridgewater ranked among the best in the NFL on third-and-long. He produced “Expected Points” totals comparable to Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Drew Brees in such situations. Between 2014 and 2015, Bridgewater averaged 8.4 yards per attempt (154 attempts) on third-and-long (more than six yards), and complete 68.9% of his passes – No. 1 in the NFL.

Could this be a sample size issue?

“We looked at how stable situations are and third down and third-and-long were among the more stable situations year to year,” Eager said. “That’s shaped my world view on this… It is stable but sample size is a legitimate concern. There are a lot of third-and-longs, but the entire game of football is small sample size.”

Bridgewater’s numbers when coming from behind were also near the top. Down by one score in 2014 and 2015, he ranked fourth in yards per attempt among QBs with more than 100 passes.

Unlike the Jeter example, Bridgewater’s yards per attempt and quarterback ratings on third-and-long and when down by one score are significantly higher than his career marks.

So what’s the explanation? Why does Bridgewater have a career of performing better in big situations? It even goes back to his days in college, where the 25-year-old QB’s big-game performances became a thing of lore a Louisville. His Cardinals stunned the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl 33-23 despite being 14.5 point underdogs. Bridgewater threw for 266 yards and two touchdowns.

How can we explain his body of work in important situations without bringing up the concept of clutch?

Owner of Premier Sport Psychology Justin Anderson explains there is a misconception surrounding the word.

“I think that people think it’s innate,” Anderson said. “I think people say that a guy either has it or he doesn’t. We know that’s just not true.”

Clutch would be better defined as the ability to block out outside noise and focus on tasks at hand. Maybe Derek Jeter didn’t change as a player, but he was able to continue being great during the World Series because he didn’t let nerves, criticism, worldwide viewership etc. get in his way.

Anderson likes the example of forward TJ Oshie winning a shootout against the Russians in the Olympics. Following the game, Oshie admitted to his legs shaking while skating toward the goalie to take shot after shot.

“Some athletes put in that situation are like, ‘Why now, in the most important time in my whole athletic career are my legs shaking?’” Anderson said. “Why do they feel so heavy now?’ Ultimately if they are thinking about why their legs are shaking, it’s enough distraction to pull away from, where’s that hole going to be? Where can I snap this shot? That’s the difference between scoring a goal and missing.”

Anderson said that the human brain has similar reactions to clutch situations in sports as it might to a life-or-death situation, so training the brain to recognize them differently isn’t as simple as pretending they don’t exist.

“Some people will say, ‘Should I pretend that I’m not there in the big moment? Should I pretend I’m in practice?’ And we say, no, you’re going to know,” Anderson said. “You can’t pretend. If you do that, if you think, ‘I’m at practice, I’m at practice,’ the next thing that comes through your mind is, ‘No it’s not, this is freaking big time.’ Now you’re distracted battling yourself about what it is and what it isn’t.”

Aaron Rodgers, who is so obsessed with his craft he had an astronaut help him with Hail Mary passes, has trained himself to stay cool under pressure.

“For me in those moments, it’s about just doing the little things and thinking about my breathing and thinking about my responsibilities and trying to keep the moment what it is. It’s only as big as you allow it to be,” Rodgers said. “It’s just about the little things and executing at the most important time. We’ve been able to do that lately and that’s how you change perception and manifest the things that you want to be said about you and your team.”

Experience also plays a major role in success under stress.

“[Bridgewater] has been doing this all his life,” Newman said. “He’s comfortable doing whatever it is that he needs to get done in order to make plays. Whether it’s avoiding the rush, scrambling for 10 yards, throwing a precise go-ball down the left sideline, he’s trained himself to do that.

Anderson said some of the difficult life circumstances that Bridgewater endured – such as his mother’s battle with cancer at an early age – could add to his mental makeup.

“People who come from adverse situations say, ‘At the end of the day, I’m going to go home in a very nice car, I’ve got a beautiful house, a beautiful wife, I’m going to be OK,’” Anderson said. “And it does calm you and helps the mind say, ‘This isn’t a cease-to-exist type moment, it’s just an important moment.”

Dealing with the fact that things might go wrong – and sometimes do in the form of a wide-left field goal – is another part of being good in key spots more often than not.

LeBron, Michael, Kobe, Montana, Jeter – they have all had bad moments in the clutch. It never bothered them the next time.

“One thing that’s different about Teddy from a lot of different quarterbacks is that he moves on to the next play, that’s what we love about him,” star cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. “He’s poised, he’s calm, he’s not easily rattled and if he throws an interception, he might get upset but once he gets back under center, he’s calm. He has a defensive back’s mentality like ‘alright, that was the last play, I messed up, now it’s time to make up.’ That’s his mindset.”

Receiver Stefon Diggs said Bridgewater will often lean over and make a joke in the huddle before an important down.

That anecdote rung a bell with Anderson.

“One tool we help players find is, when you’re really in the flow, what are you doing?” Anderson said. “It might be having fun, making jokes out there in the huddle. Great, there’s a behavior that we’re going to do no matter what. It could be fourth quarter, two minutes to go in the Super Bowl and I want you making jokes in the huddle.”

For now, Bridgewater isn’t the one running the huddle. Backup quarterback Case Keenum is in charge of the Vikings’ offense, but whether it’s this week, in the playoffs or next year, his return under center appears inevitable. Whenever it happens, Bridgewater will face a situation that he’s never seen before.

That doesn’t concern his teammates.

“Mentally he’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever been around,” Newman said. “I’ve never seen him shaken. So it’s not about clutch, it’s just a mentality.”

The post Why Teddy Bridgwater’s clutch history matters appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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