Sam Bradford exceeded all expectations in his first year, starting every game and breaking Peyton Manning’s rookie record for completions as he led the Rams to seven wins. With quarterback guru Josh McDaniels and his high-octane offensive scheme on board, Bradford seemed set to build on his excellent rookie year and ascend to the ranks of the elite.
Needless to say, things did not quite go as planned. Bradford endured a miserable sophomore season as the Rams stumbled to a 2-14 record. In the 10 games he played before succumbing to injury, Bradford had a completion rate of 53.5 percent. He threw for only six touchdowns while committing 13 turnovers. As first overall picks go, that’s more like JaMarcus Russell than Peyton Manning. The Rams expected much better from Bradford when they handed him the largest rookie contract in NFL history.
Going into his third year, the pressure is on for Bradford to finally live up to expectations—and his price tag.
There are reasons to think he will do just that, despite his struggles last season. Since his appointment as head coach, Jeff Fisher has made several moves that will help get Bradford’s career back on track. The most notable of these is a change in offensive scheme.
Josh McDaniels made his name overseeing the explosive Patriots offense of 2007, and he later got impressive production out of Kyle Orton and Brandon Lloyd in Denver. However, his pass-heavy scheme is complex and incorporates frequent deep routes, which places a tremendous burden on the offensive line.
The Rams simply didn’t have the personnel to properly execute the demanding scheme. The mediocre receiving corps couldn’t create separation, and the offensive line was overwhelmed in pass protection. As a result, Rams quarterbacks absorbed 55 sacks over the year, one for every six dropbacks. With that level of physical punishment, it is no wonder Bradford only lasted for 10 games. McDaniels has returned to the familiar surroundings of New England, with his position in St. Louis being filled by Brian Schottenheimer. Bradford should be more comfortable in Schottenheimer’s system, as it shares several concepts with the Pat Shurmur offense that he thrived in as a rookie. Bradford will not be asked to throw deep as often as he did under McDaniels, and will instead focus on getting the ball out quickly to his receivers.
This philosophy makes a lot of sense for the Rams. Danny Amendola, Greg Salas and Brian Quick are all excellent after the catch, and Bradford excels at dissecting a defense with short, accurate passes. Greater emphasis will also be placed on running the ball, which will further relieve some of the pressure on the quarterback.
General manager Les Snead has also done his bit to aid Bradford’s progression, adding key pieces to the offense through free agency and the draft. Scott Wells, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, will replace the lethargic and disinterested Jason Brown at center. The gritty veteran will provide some much-needed leadership and guidance to the line, which should result in better protection for Bradford.
Steve Smith also arrived in free agency, and the former Giants receiver will provide a sure pair of hands. Brian Quick was selected at the top of the second round, and he could become the legitimate No. 1 receiver the Rams have been crying out for since Torry Holt’s decline and departure. Quick has imposing size, soft hands and excellent body control. He lacks elite speed, but otherwise has all the tools to be a dominant wideout.
The Rams doubled down on receiver in the draft by taking Chris Givens in the fourth round. St. Louis have been sorely lacking a home-run threat at receiver, which should be remedied by Givens’ arrival. With a 4.41 40-yard dash, he has the long speed to stretch a defense and open up underneath routes for his colleagues. As an added bonus, he is a slippery and elusive runner with the ball in his hands. He may not go over the middle often or win many jump balls, but Givens will be a constant threat to tear off massive chunks of yardage.
Another speedster, tailback Isaiah Pead, completes the trio of offensive weapons drafted by the Rams in 2012. Pead lacks the bulk to be a workhorse, but he is a tenacious blocker and a polished receiver out of the backfield. These attributes make him an ideal back for obvious passing situations, and his presence should help Bradford’s third-down conversion rate.
Bradford will also be able to count on the aid of promising second-year players Greg Salas and Lance Kendricks. The sophomores had up-and-down seasons as rookies, but with a year of development under their belts each can be expected to contribute on a more consistent basis.
There is no doubt that Sam Bradford is a gifted quarterback. At Oklahoma he displayed all the traits required of a dominant pocket passer. His elite accuracy and top-notch decision-making are reflected by the 68.7 percent completion rate he posted in his two full seasons as a Sooner. During his stellar 2008 season, he threw for 50 touchdowns against just eight interceptions.
His statistics in his first year as a Ram weren’t quite as gaudy, with a 60 percent completion rate and 18 touchdown passes. These numbers were, nonetheless, impressive for a rookie and proved Bradford could succeed in the NFL.
There are valid reasons for his subpar performance last year. His supporting cast was mediocre at best, the offseason lockout left little time to absorb a complex new offense, and he scarcely took a snap without having a defender in his face.
These issues will not hold him back this year. Bradford has finally gotten some offensive weapons worthy of the name, and he’ll be playing in a scheme that will showcase his strengths while protecting him from constant hits. He certainly has the talent to be a franchise quarterback, and he’s in a situation to flourish. It’s time for Bradford to prove that last season was nothing more than a speed bump on his way to stardom.