Is was a lot of hard work for Sam Bradford, to rehabilitate and work his way back to the position that, arguably, he held at the end of the 2008 season: the top overall pick. Six months of intense therapy, weight training, and throwing exercises, then weeks of navigating through the fog and smoke of the pre-draft poker game between the Rams’ Billy Devaney, his agent Tom Condon, and the many other potential suitors around the league. And in the end, he becomes a Saint Louis Ram, the new face of the franchise.
This was no easy task for the Rams either, who had to be mightily tempted by the prodigious talents of Ndamukong Suh. How much of a sales job had to be made to coach Steve Spagnuolo? We’ll never know. Spags must have been dreaming of the various schemes he could have drawn up around Suh since late December when the Rams locked up the first overall pick.
But guess what … all that was the easy part. Now comes the hard work of making this work. Here’s the five big tasks ahead, after the break:
1. Establish a Relationship
Spagnuolo has the defensive chops, has a creative and responsible mind, and has earned praise for his team-building ability. But his grip on the offense went beyond conservatism and into a realm of near paranoia. So many decisions were made on offense in 2009 based on a fear of what could go wrong — playing for the tie against Jacksonville, punting on fourth and two against Washington, keeping the ball away from Jackson in the red zone (in favor of a never ending parade of ineffective wide receiver bubble screens, no less), keeping Null out of game action until we had no other alternatives.
Now Spagnuolo has a young quarterback who needs time to learn the pro game, and has a reputation for fragility. All signs point to a continuation of the extra-cautious, motherly approach. Will Spagnuolo be able to establish a relationship that challenges Bradford to lead, challenges him to excel, and gives him the opportunity to do so?
The great dynastic teams are often led by iconic pairings of quarterback and coach — Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw. Tom Landry and Danny White. Steve Walsh and Joe Montana. Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Other times, though, the fit isn’t right. The star quarterback and the long-tenured, well-respected coach just can’t click. John Elway didn’t win a Super Bowl until after parting ways with Dan Reeves. Dan Marino never won one under Don Shula. And despite being ideally suited for each other, Jim Kelly and Bill Levy were paired in futility.
The pairing of coach and quarterback can make or break a franchise. The quarterback is now in place, and Spagnuolo has to prove he’s up to the task.
2. Protect Your Investment
The Rams have to establish a secure pocket for Bradford — not to play against the injury-prone label that Bradford has acquired, fairly or not, but to prevent him from becoming another top-picked tackling dummy in the mold of David Carr. If he takes the same number of hits over the next three years that Bulger and the Rams QBs took over the last three? Bradford’s ceiling gets dropped dramatically.
(Where’s David Carr today? Fighting to back up Alex Smith, another former first round bust fighting to stay employed by the 49ers past this year. That’s not where we want our $50 million dollars to end up.)
The Rams have already taken steps to rebuild the pocket — spending major dollars on Jacob Bell, Jason Brown and Jason Smith — but instead of reaping rewards on those investments, we have watched these players succumb to the turf monster more often than to opposing linemen. This offseason, they made significant moves to stem the tide of injuries, replacing their strength and conditioning coaches, and (finally) replacing their nightmarish turf. But do the renovations end there?
The ends of the line are still major question marks. No one knows whether Jason Smith will turn into a 16-game starter at either tackle spot. And while 16 games is a near certainty for Alex Barron, that hardly rates as a positive for the man taking snaps behind him. Adam Goldberg has been competent in relief, but there’s only one of him, and he only has so much to work with.
If Bradford is thrust behind a patchwork line and expected to show immediate returns on the investment of hope and capital that the Rams and its fans have made… we’re in trouble.
3. Give him weapons to work with
To be optimistic, we can say that the Rams have two receivers — Avery and Burton — ready to enter the mythical third year in the NFL, when everything is supposed to “click.” Give Laurent Robinson a medical redshirt for last season, and let him build on the momentum that he started to show, and that makes three. With Amendola and Gibson, we have two hungry and talented guys on the roster who will push for every chance at playing time. And, of course, we have the wise counsel, dogged determination, and multithreat capabilities of Steven Jackson.
To be pessimistic, we can point out that these six players combined to score only 12 touchdowns last season. That Jackson has little time left before the ruthless aging curve for physical runners (think Eddie George) catches up with him. That Avery and Burton and the rest make up an interchangeable stable of “#5” type receivers.
We can’t dismiss the fact that among all this young receiver talent, there is room for some emergent growth. But we can’t pretend that all will grow fast enough or high enough to form the nucleus of a legitimate passing game, without some additional catalyst. The Rams desperately need more competition here, more variety of threats (think big, physical WR/TE to pair with these slashers and slanters), more high-quality options.
Avery in particular is in the spotlight. He showed equal parts heart — playing every game, with pain and through pain — and immaturity — highly visible touchdown dances when the team is getting blown out, near invisibility in other weeks — in a difficult sophomore year. Reports are that he has followed Steven Jackson’s example and rededicated himself to his training, and has added 15 pounds of muscle. That’s a great start. But it seems to me that his surrounding cast — Burton, et al — is more like an entourage or a happy family than a source of budding rivalry, or outright competition to be the best.
Wide receiver is an extremely technically challenging position to play, especially with a young quarterback who is learning the flow of the offense. Precision and improvisation and incredible ball instincts are required just to make a single play work. Consistency of these attributes, play after play, is how a receiver develops chemistry with the quarterback.
There’s two ways of looking at it: either Avery has untapped potential to reach this excellence, or he doesn’t. Either way, he shouldn’t be expected to raise the bar on his own. Perhaps he needs a serious challenger within the WR corps.
We’ve seen it happen before. Torry Holt had to live up to Isaac Bruce’s pedigree, while Bruce had to rededicate himself to staying on the field, to prove to the brash young kid and everyone else that he was still #1. Each drove each other to greatness.
4. Get Him Signed
To be honest, this is the part I’m least worried about. Kevin Demoff and Tom Condon are professionals, and whether it’s Khan’s money or Kroenke’s, the money will be there. The contract will be embarrassingly huge, and will be posterized in the upcoming debate over a rookie wage cap. But it’s a part of doing business in the most successful sports business in the world. There’s no getting around it.
5. Keep Your Fingers Crossed
We’ve had our debate. The Rams have made their choice. All we can do is watch and hope it works out.