Sam Bradford and the Light in the Attic


I exchanged a little Q&A with Eric Schmidt of this week, in advance of the Rams’ week 3 matchup with Washington. And while we Rams fans are caught up in measuring our disappointment — apparently, the closer the margin of defeat, the angrier and more frustrated we get — Schmidt’s first question takes the long view:

Question: It’s only been 2 regular season games, but what is your opinion of Sam Bradford and is he what you expected?

RamsHerd: Going back even to his first day with the Rams, Bradford has exceeded my admittedly limited expectations. After missing almost all of 2009, I really didn’t know what kind of quarterback we would get. Obviously he was touted for his accuracy and intelligence, but knocked for his apparent fragility and quiet demeanor. Just on words alone, that sounds like Bulger 2.0. But he has been far more than that. Its obvious that the team believes in him, and not a word has been spoken grousing about having a rookie lead this team. While I was originally a proponent of taking Ndamukong Suh and getting our QB later in the draft, I have reversed my stance. I firmly believe the Rams made the right choice in Bradford.

[Read more of this Q&A]

The big part of my optimism is grounded in seeing the quantum leaps that Bradford has taken at various points so far as a Ram. For rookie quarterbacks, making adjustments to the pro game is the definer of success. Pundits talk about game speed, the necessity of having an NFL-caliber arm, but the gray matter between the ears might matter most.

Let’s look at the major hurdles that Bradford has already faced, and leaped over.

Pre-draft: He hasn’t thrown a football since October

Bradford rehabbed like a beast in private workouts, then with speculation building that the Rams’ desperate need at quarterback might push him over “guaranteed” talents like Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, Bradford came out of his shell and put on a pro day to remember.

Contract negotiation: Does he want to play here?

Once Devaney and the Rams’ brain trust had met Bradford, seen him work out, and spoken with his agent, the notion of trading down from the #1 overall pick turned to vapor. (If, in fact, there were any legitimate offers on the table by that point.) Bradford was the pick, and he immediately got his hands on the playbook and turned to film study, preparing to become a Ram. He brooked no drama in minicamps, but without a contract in hand, he was not allowed to join the team’s first Training Camp practices.

Officially, Sam Bradford’s “holdout” lasted about 36 hours. Knowing that this contract will be his legacy, Devaney erased any doubts and inked the quarterback to $50 million guaranteed — not just an increase over Stafford’s deal of the year previous, a landmark number in the NFL’s salary history. And Bradford showed up to practice the next day, firing on all cylinders in front of more than 1,000 fans.

Training camp: Getting up to game speed

Not every practice went so well, though, and he found himself firmly stuck behind AJ Feeley on the depth chart. But a scrimmage at Lindenwood University in front of 7,000 fans gave him his first simulated game experience, and again Bradford took a leap forward, having a nearly perfect day and hitting Danny Amendola on an eye-opening “go” route on his last drive. In the simulation, it capped a two-minute drill and set up a game-winning field goal. A sign of things to come?

Preseason: Taking his first hit

Maybe it’s morbid, but in a way this was the test every Rams fan wanted Bradford to take — and hoped desperately for him to pass. Once the red “no-touch” practice jersey came off, how would Bradford’s surgically rebuilt shoulder react to getting dropped to the turf? In the preseason’s first game, behind a patchwork offensive line, the Vikings got to him seven times. And seven times Bradford jumped back up and got back in the huddle. Afterwards, he even said it was “fun,” getting back to playing “real” football.

Preseason: Earning the starting job

Two relatively ugly preseason games, and you had to wonder when the light switch was going to come on. Could Bradford react to an NFL opponents’ gameplan? Could he dissect a defense that he hasn’t already had weeks worth of reps against? Did he deserve the starting job in Week 1? He answered all of those questions with a breakthrough game against the Patriots. Preseason game 3 is supposed to be the game that counts, and the Patriots left their defensive starters to match up against Bradford and the Rams’ first stringers.

Regular Season: Getting his first win?

Now, Bradford has reached the next plateau, and is struggling again — throwing his first interceptions, struggling to read blitzes and call out protections, and seeing the Rams’ offensive game plan get progressively less vertical, in an attempt to “protect” him. And despite all that, he has three touchdown passes and has kept the Rams in games. Given his track record so far, it’s not a question of “if” but “when” a kid as smart as this takes the next leap forward in game speed.

The Redskins’ 3-4 front offers yet another wrinkle in Bradford’s film study, and in his recognition skills. Will the next quantum leap happen this week?