Just like every other quarterback (and to a greater extent, every professional athlete), Sam Bradford can’t control the professional expectations hovering over his head every second of every day.
He can’t control his team’s decision to stick by his side while Robert Griffin III patiently waited behind Door #1. He can’t control that the six-year, $78 million contract he signed was the largest ever for an NFL rookie; that when he was drafted the league’s salary structure allowed rookies to sign insanely lucrative deals, and that thanks to a change in the rookie pay scale the following season, his deal will likely stay atop that list forever. (Cam Newton’s rookie deal the following year was for a milder $22 million over four years).
Most importantly, Bradford can’t control that when his name is uttered in an East Missouri bar or fantasy draft chat room, that the first thing 95% of people involved will think of is his injury-plagued sophomore season.
Up to this point, that year has come to define Bradford’s three-year career. Not winning Rookie of the Year. Not winning the Heisman Trophy. Not throwing just 13 interceptions in 2012, or throwing three touchdowns on the Washington Redskins (and RGIII) in a 31-28 Week 2 victory, or completing 66.6% of 39 attempts in a 16-13 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Bradford’s career is badly bruised by that porous 2011 campaign, and to a certain degree it’s maddening.
Last year, Bradford and the Rams offense squirmed to a 7-8-1 record, facing the toughest schedule in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Exactly half of their games were played against eventual playoff teams, not including a Week 3 matchup against the Chicago Bears, who might have been football’s best team through 2012’s first half.
This isn’t an excuse, just a fact. Looking back at that third year, Bradford’s 16-game experience was more treacherous than anybody else’s. Overall, he did a sufficient job considering the lack of weaponry (more on that later); also from FO, Bradford’s offense ranked 10th in variance, a stat measuring how consistent a given team is from one week to the next.
The effortlessness in which Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, and RGIII dominated football last season was unprecedented. How does that hurt Bradford? All those four did was shine a light on where he’s supposed to be right now—after becoming just the fourth top overall pick rookie to be named Rookie of the Year (Cam Newton would become the fifth the following year).
Those four quarterbacks are supplemented by playmakers on both sides of the ball, but Bradford has yet to see any level of competent support.
According to Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA metrics, Bradford was the 16th best quarterback in the league last season. (Reigning Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco came in at 17 in both categories.) He led his team on four fourth-quarter comeback wins, which was the third highest number in the league.
Can you guess who has caught the highest number of Bradford passes for a touchdown? The answer is as depressing as it is telling. If your first guess was Brandon Gibson, congratulations! He accounts for eight of those 45 touchdowns. Next on the list is Danny Amendola, with five touchdowns (my guess for the top spot), followed by Austin Pettis, Lance Kendricks, and Michael Hoomanawanui, who currently sits third at tight end on New England’s depth chart.
Next season he’ll have capable playmakers all over the field. Former Titans tight end Jared Cook is a huge, nimble target in the red zone and has been called the biggest surprise of the preseason. Cook and Chris Givens can take the top off the defense, while newcomer Tavon Austin slices up soft underneath zones. The latter has yet to play a single snap, but was the first wide receiver selected in the 2013 draft, and projects to be an explosive mix of DeSean Jackson and Percy Harvin.
Protecting Bradford’s blind side this year will be Jake Long, a four-time Pro-Bowler who is three years removed from being First-Team All-Pro at the position (the last time he played 16 games).
These additions will make Sam Bradford’s life easier, but they’ll also significantly expand his expectations. At this point, that’s something he can’t control; it’s doubtful he even cares.
Photo via Nathan Kearns.