After spending his rookie season trying to learn one offense, the St. Louis Rams quarterback is going through the pratfalls of grasping another one. And he's doing so at an incredibly accelerated pace.
This is not how St. Louis had it drawn up when they selected Bradford as the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 NFL draft and watched him put together a strong rookie season with 18 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a 76.5 quarterback rating. By comparison, Peyton Manning(notes) tossed 26 touchdown passes, 28 interceptions and posted a 71.2 rating as a rookie. Manning improved those numbers to 26, 15 and 90.7, respectively, in his sophomore season, but he also had a nice advantage. In fact, Manning had a really nice advantage for the first 13 years of his career.
Manning had the same offensive coordinator until Tom Moore left the Indianapolis Colts this year, and engineered the same offense. Even with Moore gone, the offense still hasn't changed. Throw in some star offensive guys around him and Manning has had as comfortable a life as any NFL quarterback could imagine. Likewise, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady(notes) has essentially played in the same offense (a version of what Bradford is learning) for his entire career.
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This year, Bradford is switching from Pat Shurmur, who left to become the Cleveland Browns' head coach, to Josh McDaniels, who was pushed out by the Denver Broncos after less than two years as head coach. While McDaniels' first move was to study what the Rams did last season and steal as much as he could to incorporate it into his offense, that hardly makes this process easy after an offseason lost to the lockout.
Fortunately, the 23-year-old Bradford is the rare young man who looks at the learning process with eyes wide open and ego pushed aside. With the encouragement of McDaniels, Bradford is yelling out the new signals and calls without fear of mistakes, without fear that he might momentarily look bad to his teammates.
"To me, mistakes are the best learning opportunity," Bradford said. "I learn better from on-the-field mistakes than from sitting there and watching something on tape, like watching Brady do something right or watching Brady make a mistake and seeing him try to correct it."
In a business of sometimes oversized egos and hyper-confident people, Bradford has a refreshing approach. It's pure, simple and so far effective.
"You have to realize that you're not bigger than the team," Bradford said. "When you put yourself out there, you're doing it for the betterment of the team because when you do make that mistake, we can all learn from it. We can all see it, correct it and move on from it."
Bradford took his learning a step further this offseason. Unable to work with McDaniels because of the lockout, he enlisted the help of University of Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who preceded McDaniels as the offensive coordinator with New England. Bradford spent three days in Gainesville, Fla., and even donned UF workout clothes ("I didn't really like that," said Bradford, who lost to Florida in the 2009 BCS title game).
That happened after Bradford got the playbook from McDaniels in April during the brief interruption in the lockout prior to the draft. Bradford spent the next few weeks looking at the diagrams and terminology, saying the calls out loud without really understanding what they meant. During four team sessions this offseason, Bradford drew up cards for his teammates to look at, again calling plays without really understanding what he was saying.
"Just being able to say it out loud was a help," he said. "When I met with Charlie, even though his offense is slightly different now, the foundation of it is pretty much the same. That allowed me to understand it a little better."
Now, however, the process is equivalent to a language-immersion program, where students are forced to speak a new language without trying to translate it. Likewise, McDaniels took that approach in keeping some of the language from the old system. This is like the football equivalent of the United Nations holding a conference without the aid of translators.
"With the line calls, it was easier for me to learn their terminology rather than the other way around," McDaniels said. "You're talking about one person learning something rather than an entire group."
McDaniels also took a cue from St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo. When Spagnuolo went from the Philadelphia Eagles to become the defensive coordinator with the New York Giants (helping the Giants to the Super Bowl title in the 2007 season), he said the first thing he did was spend two weeks reviewing what the Giants did the previous season, learning as much about what the team did and why.
"I didn't even run the projector, I just watched and listened to the other coaches explain the thinking behind what they did, how they used different players in different situations," said Spagnuolo, now in his third year with the Rams. "The key to coaching is being able to understand what people do and then incorporate that in the ideas and system you have – so that's why I suggested that Josh do that after he got here because really only two coaches on that side changed."
McDaniels, who had a strong résumé developed in New England from his work with Brady and the one season he had to work with Matt Cassel(notes), said that time to sit back and watch was a useful tool for all the reasons Spagnuolo pointed out.
"You really need to look at people and understand what they're comfortable with, what works for them," said McDaniels, whose engaging style runs counter to the excessively controlling style he projected during his time in Denver.
Truth be told, McDaniels is taking a wise step backward after his first chance to be a head coach. Now, if he can take Bradford's strong mental and physical skills and transform them into something great, another head coaching job may be there.
For now, however, just learning to talk to each other is the challenge.
"I told Sam I want him to yell everything out no matter what the situation, that way, even if it's wrong, we all hear it," McDaniels said. "Now, let me say, he gets a lot more right than wrong. A lot. Sam is a guy who takes things in very quickly and he's really good about saying right away when he needs something explained a little more. He's very easy to work with.
"But if he's there at the line and yells out that 54 is the [middle] linebacker and it's not, I can hear that and say, 'No, 55 is the [middle] linebacker.' "
Say it loud and say it proud, even if it's wrong.
"You have to do that," Bradford said. "You have to play with confidence at quarterback in this league. If I don't have confidence in the huddle, then the 10 other guys out there sure aren't going to have confidence. We're going to make mistakes, that's natural. But we're going to play with confidence.
"If you're playing with confidence, you're bound to get something right."