It seems by all accounts that the Rams will pick up a quarterback in this year’s draft. Whether it’s early in the first round or somewhere much later remains to be seen, but either way, opinions on incumbent starter Sam Bradford have been polarizing to say the least. For now, Bradford seems poised to start Week 1 next season, and personally I think it can be his finest season to date (barring health issues). Bradford will have emerging weapons to work with in wide receiver Tavon Austin and running back Zac Stacy, but more importantly he is finally able to play under consistent coaching for the first time in his career.
I’d like to say that it appears the Rams’ coaching staff appears set for 2014, but given last week’s unexpected sacking of defensive coordinator Tim Walton tells us that anything is possible under this regime. Still, despite his brief flirtation with Vanderbilt, it appears that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will be back for at least one more season. Love him or hate him, his continued presence provides some much-needed coaching stability that should pay dividends for Bradford going forward.
Through the first three seasons of his career, Bradford seemed headed down a similar path to that of Jason Campbell, another promising first-round quarterback who suffered from organizational instability. For those of you unfamiliar with Campbell’s sitaution, he was selected by Washington with the 25th overall pick in 2005. He had to work through five coordinator changes in his first five seasons, and it can be argued that he never reached his true potential as a result.
Additionally, many of those in the anti-Bradford party are quick to jump on the fact that he hasn’t necessarily lived up to his status as no. 1 overall pick or the $78 million contract given to him in the last year before the rookie wage scale was implemented. Both are fair critiques, and ideally a no. 1 overall pick should be among the elite at his position heading into year five of his career. That isn’t the case for Bradford. While productive, Bradford’s numbers and career wins aren’t exactly earth-shattering. What the anti-Bradford folks are quick to forget, however, is that Bradford endured coordinator changes in each of his first three seasons, similar to Campbell.
As a rookie in 2010, Bradford was brought into the NFL under then offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Shurmur brought some life to a team that had finished 1-15 the year prior and improved the offense across the board. The team finished 7-9, and Bradford himself finished the season as the AP’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. He’d thrown for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns while completing 60 percent of his passes. He also narrowly missed leading the team to the playoffs, as a Week 17 loss in Seattle gave the Seahawks the division and ended Bradford’s promising season. Things were certainly looking up for the future of th franchise, but Shurmur ended up leaving to accept the head coaching job in Cleveland.
In came Josh McDaniels to replace him, and both Bradford and the team suffered major setbacks. Bradford was thrust into a new system in his second year, and the effects were noticeable. The team would finish 2-14 when all was said and done, which resulted in the firing of head coach Steve Spagnuolo and a return to New England for McDaniels. Bradford missed a total of six games due to a lingering high ankle sprain, but when he was on the field, he still left much to be desired. He threw only six touchdown passes, compared to six interceptions, and his completion percentage dipped to 53.5.
In his third year, he was yet again tasked with learning a new system under new head coach Jeff Fisher and the new offensive coordinator, Schottenheimer. Bradford got his step back after a dismal sophomore campaign and was able to lead the team out of the 2-14 basement and back to respectability with a 7-8-1 record. He also improved his quarterback rating to 82.6 on the strength of 3,702 yards passing and 21 touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions while managing to go 4-1-1 against the increasingly difficult NFC West.
Here’s where I finally make my point. In year four of Bradford’s career, the first year in which he wasn’t forced with learning a new scheme under a new offensive coordinator, Bradford was looking poised to finally break out. There are a thousand woulda/coulda/shouldas to be said about how his season would have played out if not for his Week 7 injury at Carolina, but by all accounts Bradford was having his finest season as a passer. His completion percentage was as high as it had ever been (60.7%) and he’d already thrown 14 touchdown passes, while limiting his interceptions with just four to that point. All of this happened while the Rams’ running game was futile at best with Daryl Richardson leading the attack. His injury is obviously a concern, but Bradford was having a fine 2013 prior to his injury, part of which must be attributed to the fact that his familiarity with Schottenheimer and the offense allowed him to think less and react more. In Bradford’s absence, the team went on to establish a run-first, run-second identity that allowed them to win a handful of games that in which they probably shouldn’t have had a chance.
If we extrapolate a bit and insert Bradford – who will be in his third year in the same system by then – into that balanced offense with an efficient running game, who knows what type of player he can be?
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