October 25, 2009
Many, many Heisman winners have left school under disappointing circumstances through the years, but now that he's officially declared for the draft following season-ending shoulder surgery, as expected, it's safe to say none have gone out with quite the whimper of Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. It's a testament to his short-lived star and talent, in fact, that Bradford can miss essentially all of his final season -- he attempted 69 passes in about a game-and-a-half's worth of action between shoulder injuries -- and still be projected as a first-round pick.
The questions about Bradford from this point will be legion: He's not mobile; he rarely showed a flame-throwing deep ball a la Matt Stafford or JaMarcus Russell; he now qualifies as an injury risk after being knocked out twice in a little over a month; he comes from a "spread" system at a school that has never produced an NFL quarterback (no Oklahoma QB has
ever taken a snap at the next level since Jack Jacobs in 1949); and maybe most importantly, he didn't have a chance to prove that he was "above the system" -- Bradford was so well protected and so well-stocked with receiving talent his first two years as a starter, the graduation of four veteran offensive linemen and four of his top five receivers from the record-breaking 2008 attack was the perfect opportunity this year to prove that he wasn't just an unusually competent pawn taking advantage of a perfect storm around him. The challenge was only heightened when his best target, Jermaine Gresham, went down with a knee injury days before the opener against BYU, and Bradford's quick consignment to the same fate against the Cougars is one of the great shames of this season.
But we should leave the dissection of his future to the gurus paid to cut campus heroes down to size. As an amateur, Bradford's place in the pantheon is secure. He led the nation with absurd pass efficiency totals in consecutive seasons, and the up-tempo blitzkrieg he captained in '08 rewrote the book on relentless offensive assault from ground and air -- it may be decades before we see that team's five-game run with at least 60 points matched by anyone, much less its mark for points in a season. Ad Bradford was the loping, shaggy, slightly goofy engine that made the doomsday machine run on every significant snap. "Pawn" or not, his towering production on the stat sheet and in the win column places him easily among the greatest college quarterbacks of this decade or any other.
Another thing about Bradford, off the field: For all the hype he earned as one of the "Big Three" quarterbacks that hijacked most of the individual attention by the end of last season and coming into this one, Bradford came across as remarkably unaffected, more "whatever, dude," than poised, savvy media darling. He was impossible to dislike like because he was just a normal guy who never commanded the spotlight (cough, Tebow!, cough) and was politely bewildered when Billy Sims started repeatedly yelling "Boomer!" when Bradford stepped to the Heisman podium last year and generally seemed to be enjoying a relatively normal college existence in an average, out-of-the-way college town, which is the best explanation for his much-maligned decision in January to pass up tens of millions as the possible No. 1 pick last spring to come back to school. By most accounts, that decision went terribly wrong, but Bradford doesn't seem to think so himself, and there's a good chance no one else will remember when he's working on his second pro deal in four years.