On Sam Bradford, “worst quarterback in the NFL”

Football Outsiders’ Vince Verhei, writing for ESPN, rates Sam Bradford as “the worst starting quarterback in the NFL.”

We love lists, and when ESPN’s John Clayton emerges from his hobbity shire to rank the NFL’s quarterbacks from Aaron Rodgers to Blaine Gabbert, we scramble through the listings to find out where our guy lands. This year, it’s 17th, with the arrow pointing up. It’s positive, generous even, and predictably it has prompted a backlash from the naysaying community of statistical analysts.

A year ago at this time, I wrote on the folly of evaluating Sam Bradford on a purely statistical basis, how there was much more to the Rams’ quarterback than met the stat sheet. By any advanced quarterback metric, Bradford did not have a very good rookie season, what with all the Shurmurball and Spagnuolo’s insistence of taking the ball from his QB’s hands in the fourth quarter of every game. 

Bradford was being coddled. We all knew it, and we all knew he was capable of much more. At the time, I was fully expecting Josh McDaniels to awaken the beast within Bradford’s game by unveiling complex combination routes, doubling or trebling his average depth of target, and showing the world what this thoroughbred was capable of.

All that happened was that McDaniels exposed how little Billy Devaney’s expensively cobbled offensive line was capable of. Any route in the tree that took longer than two seconds to develop had to be ignored by the Rams’ quarterback, who was thrown to the turf 48 times in fewer than 400 dropbacks. No other quarterback took as much punishment on a per-play basis. He had to focus more on self-preservation than on stressing the secondary.

The result after two years is a collection of unsightly statistics that allows writers such as Football Outsiders’ Vince Verhei to write things like this:

You could make a strong case that Bradford is the worst starting quarterback in the league. Of the 30 quarterbacks with at least 500 passes in the past two seasons, Bradford ranks last in yards per completion, yards per pass attempt, yards per pass play (including sacks), touchdowns per pass and NFL passer rating.

This bucket of haterade which Verhei dumps on Bradford may be mean-spirited and short-sighted, but it isn’t factually incorrect. However, it does miss the point. These statistics do not paint a picture of Sam Bradford, quarterback. They paint a picture of a pair of broken, failed offensive systems. Two systems that have almost nothing in common except for their ineptitude. 

But statistics are no magic mirror – they can only show what has been, not what will be. These stats reflect a quarterback in distress, not a quarterback whose skills have evaporated or were never there to begin with.

So far this preseason, we are seeing Sam return to a more comfortable offense, an evolutionary advance on Shurmur’s system with more emphasis on stressing the intermediate level of the defense. We are also seeing a few young players — notably Brian Quick, Lance Kendricks and Austin Pettis — begin to step up as reliable targets.

We are seeing an offensive line that is paving holes in the run game, and keeping Bradford’s jersey clean. And as a result, we are seeing a glimpse of the Bradford that we have been waiting for since the Rams drafted him first overall three drafts ago.

However, as far as predictors go, preseason football is a pretty lousy magic mirror in its own right. We learned that all too painfully last year.

That said, Sam will get a tougher test this weekend, facing the Dallas Cowboys and Rob Ryan’s revamped secondary. So far, opponents’ starting quarterbacks (Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers) have gone 16-21, 142 yards, with 3 INTs and zero scoring drives. Rookie corner Morris Claiborne is a rapidly rising star, their corrolary to our own Janoris Jenkins. And the third preseason game is traditionally the most like a real game in terms of starters’ time on the field.

However, the real test doesn’t come until the regular season starts. Like it or not, Bradford is going to be compared to every quarterback that he plays against, and this season’s schedule starts against Matthew Stafford, Robert Griffin III, and Jay Cutler. He’ll go head to head with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady (in London, no less) midseason. And he will continue to battle against the glass ceiling of his own untapped potential.

His surrounding cast will have a lot to say about whether he breaks through that ceiling, or just gets broken. His line has to continue to play clean football. His young receivers have to continue to make the tough catches over the middle that this offense is predicated on. And Bradford will have to get up from the big hits that are inevitable in this game and deliver bigger ones himself.

If that happens, the stats will come, the wins will come, and these storylines will have to find another struggling young quarterback to leech onto.