Let me start off by reminding the readers that I'm completely Pro-Bradford. My track record has demonstrated unwavering support for Sam Bradford as the St. Louis Rams' quarterback in 2012, as well as a genuine belief that he's truly a franchise passer.
But the thing is, there's a small minority of fans who have allowed their imaginations to slip away from reality in order to indulge in the alluring scenarios involving Peyton Manning, as well as Baylor's Heisman-winning phenom, Robert Griffin III.
But make no mistake, there's not an actual debate in existence. Bradford will be the starting quarterback in 2012.
That's not speculation or theory; it's fact. Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have been reiterated numerous times, leaving no room for interpretation.
I had two factors... one was a good owner, the other was a quarterback and I'm excited about the opportunity.
That's a direct quote made by Fisher during his initial press conference after being hired by the Rams. Moments later, he added the following statement:
I think he has a chance to be a top quarterback in the national football league very, very soon.
On February 24th, USA Today released an article with the following response from Fisher when asked about the possibility of trading Bradford instead of the No. 2 overall pick:
That wouldn't be an option. He's an outstanding person, (and) he's very, very talented athletically.
But Fisher is not the only high-ranking member of the Rams to stress that point.
Snead was on Rich Eisen's March 6th podcast for an interview when the subject came up once again. Eisen asked Snead the following:
So (the option of trading Bradford) has been removed from the table? Of all the things that are certain, Sam Bradford is going to be the Rams quarterback and you are not going to use the second choice on a quarterback?
Snead confidentially replied, "That's true."
Some may shrug these comments off as pure "coach speak," or merely a politically correct cover up of their true intentions.
The context of these quotes, however, combined with their willingness to speak frankly on the matter without being provoked, suggests that the decision has been solidified and there's no desire whatsoever to entertain alternative options.
But with that said, the coaches need to clearly define their expectations for Bradford this season and establish clear goals for him.
Regardless of Bradford's status as a No. 1 overall prospect with limitless potential, the NFL is a business that's only satisfied with stone cold results, and nothing else.
If Bradford can't hit the ground running next season, or if he falls well short of the goals and expectations established by the coaching staff, then there will certainly be enough pressure from the fans to force the team to explore other options.
But how long should we wait? What's an acceptable level of production next season?
To help formulate an answer, here are some other quarterbacks who have been in situations similar to Bradford's.
David Carr was a No. 1 overall pick in 2002. During his first two seasons, he was sacked a combined 91 times while having little talent at his disposal.
During his third year as a starter in 2004, he threw for 3,541 yards and 16 touchdowns (both remain career highs for him). It bought him two more seasons as a starter until the team eventually cut their losses following the 2006 season.
Drew Brees threw 28 touchdowns and 31 interceptions during his first two years as a starter in San Diego.
Unlike Bradford, Brees was put under pressure during his third year as a starter after the team picked up Philip Rivers as his replacement in 2004, but Brees had a breakout year with 3,159 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Rivers was kept on the bench until Brees left for New Orleans via free agency in 2006.
Tim Couch was Cleveland's top draft pick in 1999. He started 14 games as a rookie and finished with a promising 2,447 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Like Bradford, Couch struggled with an injury during his second NFL season and played in only seven games.
In his third year, he threw for 3,040 yards, 17 touchdowns and 21 interceptions (all career highs). It bought him two more seasons before he was finally out of the NFL following the 2003 season.
Matthew Stafford and Bradford were both thought of as blue-chip prospects during their first two NFL seasons, but both generated doubt and uncertainty leading up to their third season.
For Stafford, it was a question of health. He missed 19 total games in his first two seasons.
If Stafford had been sidelined again in 2011, then it's very likely that Detroit would be looking for some competition as we speak. Instead, Stafford threw for 41 touchdowns and over 5,000 yards.
Among the four mentioned quarterbacks, one common quality is that they all seemingly solidified their identities during their third season.
Carr and Couch never recovered. The third year was the best season for both of them, but it still left a lot to be desired. Every following season was either equal or much worse.
Stafford and Brees, on the other hand, broke out of their shells in the third year and their abilities havn't been questioned since (although Stafford hasn't had the opportunity for a decline).
With that being the case, can we trust that Bradford's third season is the best we'll ever get out of him, for better or for worse?
At the very least, 2012 will likely be Bradford's last competition-free shot.
There won't likely be a full-blown effort to replace Bradford if he struggles again in 2012, but there will certainly be legitimate competition brought in a year from now in some shape or form (if necessary).
Like Mark Sanchez in New York, Bradford won't be completely ostracized if he struggles in year three, but he certainly won't be untouchable by any means.
The third year is clearly a vital year for a young quarterback, as well as a telltale sign of what to expect in the future, which means it's time to take the training wheels off.
Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns as a rookie, which is undoubtedly a phenomenal season for a first-year passer.
Those numbers are hardly impressive, however, when stacked alongside those of the best quarterbacks in the business.
If Bradford wants acceptance from the fans and trust from the coaching staff, then his 2012 season needs to be respectable by anyone and everyone's standards. The learning curve is over.
Stats aren't always the most important sign of a player's success, as there are multiple factors that come into play. Eli Manning wasn't close to being the best statistical quarterback in 2011, but he's the one who earned a ring.
Having said that, the best players generally produce gaudy stats, while mediocre players do not. It's that simple.
With that in mind, a season that exceeds 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns and with 15 or less interceptions is probably what it will take for Rams Nation to move forward with complete faith in Bradford.
Even though the 2011 season was not thought of as a successful year, there were still some positives.
In 10 games, Bradford threw only six interceptions, which is simply remarkable considering that lack of talent surrounding him.
Combine that with his Rookie of the Year performance in 2010, and he's well ahead of some of the past quarterbacks who were ultimately busts (Carr, Couch, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington).
It's clear that Bradford has a special "X-Factor" that quarterbacks like Carr and Couch didn't have. It hasn't surfaced completely and the results are not yet tangible, but it's there nonetheless.
While it's unlikely that Bradford will ever be a monumental bust, there's certainly no guarantee that he'll ever achieve greatness, or even consistent production for that matter.
Bradford still has plenty of time, but there must be results in order to warrant an extension. That's how it works in the NFL.
Either way, don't be surprised if Bradford steps up and makes this all a moot point by next Fall.