Why 2013 Isn't a Make-or-Break Year for Sam Bradford

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Why 2013 Isn't a Make-or-Break Year for Sam Bradford
Fernando Medina-USA TODAY Sports

When the St. Louis Rams drafted Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, it signaled a changing of the guard. Marc Bulger’s better days were behind him, and the franchise was coming off a 1-15 season. 

General manager Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo knew the organization needed a young signal-caller to restore the team’s credibility. Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was in the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick, yet in today’s NFL, quarterbacks win Super Bowls not interior defensive linemen.

Prior to the draft, Devaney played it cool and let the process play out, but deep down he knew he was going to pick Bradford. It didn’t take much convincing. The Heisman Trophy winning quarterback persuaded the third-year general manager after 15 warm-up throws at his pro day.

Here’s what Devaney told Jim Corbett of the USA Today

Everybody's watching Sam warm up and I'm like, ‘This guy looks fine to me.’ Sam's getting lathered up, he probably makes about 15 throws, and I mean he's winging it. I said, ‘I'm done.’

It didn’t matter that Bradford was coming off of reconstructive shoulder surgery. Devaney was sold. And from that moment on, the Rams started to shift and shape their offense around one of the most heralded quarterbacks in collegiate football history.

During his rookie season, Bradford exceeded expectations and set a couple of records along the way. To this day, he holds the record for the most consecutive passes (169) thrown without an interception by a rookie quarterback and the most completions (354) by a rookie quarterback. 

Aside from etching his name in history, Bradford threw for 3,512 yards, completed 60 percent of his throws and tossed 18 touchdown passes. His impressive stat line helped the Rams win seven games. Before the 2010 season, St. Louis hadn’t won seven games since the 2006 season. 

Even though the Rams missed the playoffs by one game that year, Bradford accomplished a rare feat. He won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He earned 44 votes, while Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Williams received four and Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey received two.

Sam Bradford's statistics from his rookie season (via Pro Football Reference).

Unfortunately, Bradford wasn’t able to build off his rookie campaign in 2011. The NFL lockout, a new offensive coordinator and an ankle injury led to a tumultuous sophomore season for the Rams’ franchise player.

After offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur left to become the Cleveland Browns head coach, Devaney and Spagnuolo felt it would be best to hire an offensive coordinator who was well established and well respected. 

Brad Childress and Bill Musgrave were two names that were under heavy consideration, but at the end of the day, St. Louis hired Bill Belichick’s protégé, Josh McDaniels. McDaniels was hired because he had a great track record with offenses, especially quarterbacks.

The only knock was the fact he wasn’t a West Coast-offense guy. This, in turn, meant Bradford and the rest of the Rams offense would have to learn an entirely new offense during a lockout shortened offseason.

In theory, the thought was nice, but Bradford and his receiving corps were never able to get on the same page. When he wasn’t sidelined with an ankle injury, the second-year quarterback posted mediocre numbers while leading his team to one victory in 10 starts.

Sam Bradford's Pro Football Focus grade for the 2011 season.

His substandard season coupled with poor performances from defensive coordinator Ken Flajole’s defense ultimately sunk St. Louis’ ship. At the end of the 2011 season, the entire coaching staff was fired. Which meant Bradford would be going on his third offensive coordinator in three years.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke wasn’t in the market for an up-and-coming head coach to replace Spagnuolo. He wanted an accomplished head coach who could put together a sound coaching staff and attract potential free agents. 

So, what did Kroenke do? He went out and hired the biggest name on the open market. On January 13, 2012, the organization officially announced the hire of Jeff Fisher. Over the course of Fisher’s 17-year coaching career, he had amassed a winning record and six playoff appearances.

Fisher was the perfect candidate and the perfect hire.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Him and newly appointed general manager Les Snead have said all along that they are committed to Bradford and his success. 

Shortly after he was hired, Fisher confessed on Mike and Mike in the Morning that he thought Bradford could become the best quarterback in the NFL (h/t Pro Football Talk). Fisher was right. He knew the only thing holding Bradford back was the inferior talent around him. 

Fisher and Snead’s first mission was to upgrade the Rams’ talent pool at wide receiver. Instead of signing big-name free agents, they opted to enhance the position with two rookie wide receivers. Brian Quick was the team’s second-round pick, and Chris Givens was the team’s fourth-round pick. 

Quick was never able to get on the same page with Bradford in 2012, but Givens did. The 198-pound speedster out of Wake Forest led the team in receiving yards (698) and receptions over 20 yards. He hauled in 10 passes that resulted in at least a gain of 20 yards.

Bradford’s instant connection with Givens and the rest of his supporting cast helped the Rams finish with a 7-8-1 record last year. They went 4-1-1 against the NFC West and won all three of their divisional home games. 

Additionally, Bradford turned in the best year of his career, thanks in large part to offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. By the end of the 2012 season, he had compiled 3,702 yards passing, 21 touchdowns through the air and three game-winning drives. He led comeback efforts against the Redskins, 49ers and Bills

Even after a spike in production under the new regime, some feel 2013 is a make-or-break season for Bradford. It’s easy to see why people are saying this. This year will be the first year where he has a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal.

Adding Quick and Givens in 2012 wasn’t enough. Fisher and Snead felt the need to add tight end Jared Cook, wide receiver Tavon Austin and wide receiver Stedman Bailey this past offseason.

With five solid receiving options at his disposal, Bradford will definitely need to show his true colors. But it’s not a make-or-break year for him in 2013. Very few quarterbacks at the age of 25 are considered “elite.” 

Shoot, there have only been four quarterbacks in NFL history who have managed to win a Super Bowl before they turned 26 years old. Joe Namath did it in 1969, Joe Montana did it in 1982, Tom Brady did it in 2002, and Ben Roethlisberger did it in 2006.

Moreover, the youngest quarterback to ever win the MVP award was Brett Favre. He won the award in 1995 and was 26 years old at the time. Not all players experience success right out of the gate like Favre and Brady did.

In fact, two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Eli Manning and Roethlisberger, compare statistically to Bradford when you examine the first three years of their careers.

As you can see in the table below, Bradford threw for more yards than Manning and Roethlisberger—not to mention he threw fewer interceptions as well. Furthermore, his quarterback rating and completion percentage was higher than Manning’s.

This table compares Bradford's first three seasons, Manning's first three seasons and Roethlisberger's first three seasons.

However, at the end of the day, statistics are only half of the equation. The other half is wins and losses. Are the Rams winning with Bradford under center? Is Bradford’s game continuously evolving? Does he make players around him better? The answers to these types of questions will dictate his future in St. Louis.

His bloated rookie contract under the old collective bargaining agreement won’t. Sure, he carries a cap number of $17.61 million in 2014 and $16.58 million in 2015. Yet, that doesn’t mean the Rams should look to move on from him if he doesn’t meet the expectations of fans and media members alike in 2013.

The old rookie wage scale was severely broken. If St. Louis was willing to keep Bradford instead of drafting Robert Griffin III in 2012, chances are they will let him play out his rookie contract.

Good quarterbacks are hard to find in the NFL, and that’s what Bradford is. He is a good quarterback who is chasing greatness. 

With Fisher and Snead at the controls, greatness may be right around the corner.

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