COMMENTARY | Early on, it looked like the career of Sam Bradford was closely following the script that had been written for him.
After being drafted first overall by the St. Louis Rams in the 2010 draft, Bradford transitioned almost seamlessly into the starter's role and played really well.
In that rookie season, he completed 60% of his passes and threw for over 3,500 yards with 18 touchdowns. Considering that the only real offensive weapon he had at his disposal was Steven Jackson, those numbers look even better.
Best of all, the Rams appeared to be trending upward. They finished that season a surprising 7-9 and if they had beaten Seattle in Week 17, they would have made the playoffs.
Given how well the 2010 season had gone, it would have been excusable if you had assumed the sky was the limit for Bradford and the Rams.
But then the other shoe dropped.
The team fell to 2-14 and while it was certainly not all on Bradford, it didn't go well for him. He completed just 53.5% of his passes and threw six touchdowns. Most notably, he also started just ten games thanks to a high ankle sprain that lingered all season. He also never seemed to feel completely comfortable with the offense put in place by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who had come on board in the offseason.
The 2012 season did show marked improvement, as he completed just a shade under 60% of his passes and he had a career-best 21/13 touchdown to interception ratio. The Rams also finished 7-8-1, their best record since going 8-8 in 2006.
If the Rams are going to take the next step as a franchise, though, they will need Bradford to equal, and likely better, those numbers moving forward.
That will make the 2013 season huge for Sam.
To his credit, he hasn't used any, but now all of Bradford's possible excuses are gone.
After having three separate offensive coordinators in his first three seasons in the league, he will finally have the same coordinator two years in a row in Brian Schottenheimer. This offseason was the first of his career that has been spent doing something other than learning a new playbook.
You can't even really point to the talent around him as an issue anymore, either. Is it a roster filled with elite offensive weapons? No, but there are nice pieces. They brought on dynamic receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey from West Virginia and the reports from offseason OTAs are that Brian Quick has taken a huge step in his development.
Steven Jackson is no longer around, but Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson have looked more than capable when they have had chances to shine. The arrivals of Jake Long and Barrett Jones should bolster the offensive line as well.
Certainly, if Bradford is able to progress and fulfill all of that endless potential, this team can, and will, win big.
The flip side of that, though, is that things could turn sour quickly if his development stalls.
If Sam reverts back to his pre-2012 form or finds himself injured for a significant portion of the season again, the Rams will have to start asking some very difficult questions about their future at the quarterback position.
By the time this season is over, Bradford will be 26 years old and he will have played four full seasons. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect a quarterback with his potential to have fully established himself as a star by that point.
I'm not saying that the Rams should immediately go out and start looking for his replacement if 2013 doesn't go well, but at the very least, they may want to start looking into quarterbacks in the 2014 draft or looking at which backups around the league are ready to make the jump to a starting role if need be.
The fact is that it's just very, very tough to win in the NFL without a star quarterback. It's not just a cliche when people say it's a quarterback-driven league.
I mentioned earlier that the Rams can win with the talent they have around Bradford, but if they only get mediocre play out of Bradford, or any other quarterback for that matter, they are only going to be mediocre.
I'm bullish on the future of the Rams as a franchise with this current regime in place. I'm even more bullish on the future of Sam Bradford, but I can't fully express how big 2013 will be for him.
It very well could be the difference between Bradford's development stagnating and Bradford and the Rams ascending to the top of the league.
Joseph Healy lives in the St. Louis area. His work has been featured at BleacherReport.com, TheFanManifesto.com and Scout.com.
You can follow Joseph on Twitter @Joe_On_Sports.
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