Rams have something special in Bradford

Jason Cole

The telling sign of where the St. Louis Rams have gotten to this season was displayed two Sundays ago in Tampa, more apparent in defeat than in their recent victory against Carolina.

In the aftermath of an 18-17 defeat in Week 7, the bowed heads and dejected looks were an indication of one thing: The Rams have expectations.

This is what a great quarterback – or at least the early indications of greatness – can do for a team. While beating the Panthers kept St. Louis (4-4) within a half-game of the NFC West lead, it wasn’t surprising to the Rams. What was shocking was the week before, when they dropped a fourth-quarter lead to the Bucs.

As the locker room doors opened, barely any of the players looked up as reporters walked in.

Sam Bradford is living up to his hefty $78 million contract.
(Kim Klement/US Presswire)

Rookie passing records

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is on pace to challenge many of the NFL's rookie passing records.

Passing yards by a rookie
3,739 Peyton Manning Colts 1998
3,440 Matt Ryan Falcons 2008
3,348 Sam Bradford (on pace) Rams 2010
2,971 Joe Flacco Ravens 2008
Touchdown passes by a rookie
26 Peyton Manning Colts 1998
22 Charlie Conerly Giants 1948
22 Sam Bradford (on pace) Rams 2010
20 Dan Marino Dolphins 1983
Passing attempts by a rookie
584 Sam Bradford (on pace) Rams 2010
575 Peyton Manning Colts 1998
540 Chris Weinke Panthers 2001
486 Rick Mirer Seahawks 1993
Passing completions by a rookie
342 Sam Bradford (on pace) Rams 2010
326 Peyton Manning Colts 1998
293 Chris Weinke Panthers 2001
274 Rick Mirer Seahawks 1993

Bradford game-by-game

There was only the feeling of dashed hope.

There was no feeling that, even after going 6-42 the previous three seasons, the team had accomplished something significant. The Rams are ahead of the pace they set over the past three years, but mere signs of competitiveness are not enough.

Sam Bradford's(notes) presence and preternatural skills have instilled a different mindset in St. Louis.

While Bradford, who guided the Rams to a win over Carolina last Sunday with a great show of patience against a bend-but-don’t break defense, and St. Louis aren’t close to greatness by a long shot, the gravel seems to be on the road. The Rams' roster is bereft of proven talent – particularly at wide receiver and tight end – but the Rams are also a long way from the stumbling, bumbling mess that went 1-15 last season.

Even when Bradford stumbles.

His performance in the Tampa loss was a perfect example. Up 10-3 and facing a third-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 2-yard line, Bradford peeled out of the pocket on a roll right after a play-action fake. He tripped, his lanky 6-foot-4, 228-pound frame momentarily looking something like a giraffe gone goofy.

No panic. Bradford caught himself, regained his composure and found rookie tight end Michael Hoomanawanui(notes) for the score, a tight spiral in the perfect spot to the moving target.

“Great play for a guy that young,” said St. Louis fullback Mike Karney(notes), who spent three years playing with Drew Brees(notes) in New Orleans before coming to St. Louis last season. “It’s not just that, it’s everything he does. His arm, his leadership, his athletic ability. Whatever that ‘it’ factor is, he has it.”

Overall, that was one of a half-dozen times that Bradford rolled right to set up a throw in that game. That may not seem astounding, but one of the main criticisms of Bradford before he was taken No. 1 overall in April's draft was that he had never operated from under center, instead playing in shotgun his whole career at Oklahoma in a spread-formation attack.

So much for that concern. In less than half a season, Bradford looks comfortable setting up and moving around in the pocket.

Bradford has impressed the Rams coaching staff so early and thoroughly that they went against conventional thinking by naming him the starting quarterback from the beginning of the season. Many around the NFL had expected Bradford to sit most of his rookie season, especially considering the limited cast of skill-position players around him.

“He had pretty good control of what we were doing,” said St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo, who also heaped praise on the rookie throughout the offseason about Bradford's command of practices, particularly when veterans weren’t around.

“The team kind of rallies around him.

“I don’t think that anybody in this situation, coming in as a rookie quarterback, is ready for everything. I’m sure that these defensive coordinators will fire things at him that we haven’t seen yet. I totally anticipate that. He anticipates it.”

Spagnuolo was so confident in Bradford’s ability to handle difficult situations that he let Bradford throw on third-and-20 against Washington at the end of the game, a play the Rams converted to ice the game.

Said Spagnuolo: “What I really felt about Sam was, if it wasn’t there, I think he’s a smart enough football player to realize that you just take what you can get until the clock runs, they burn a timeout or whatever. I just trusted that he would make the right decision and obviously he did because he’s a gutsy guy, he believes in his abilities and he believes in the players that he’s playing with. I just love when he comes over to the sideline and you guys have no idea the competitive look in the man’s eyes. That’s encouraging."

Bradford looks so comfortable that Bucs general manager Mark Dominik paid Bradford an extraordinary compliment before the game started. When asked about the many comparisons that have been made between Bradford and Indianapolis star Peyton Manning(notes) (who also started from Day 1 and set many rookie quarterback records), Dominik took it a step further.

“Really, with his body movement and the type of athlete he is, he looks more like a young Joe Montana.”

Now that’s a conversation stopper.

Soft-pedal approach

Bradford is remarkable in other ways that go beyond his extraordinary accuracy. He has a stunning ability to listen and communicate without pretense. He may already be the center of St. Louis’ future, but he prefers not to be the center of the team’s universe.

He controls his frustration. Roughly 30 minutes after the loss to Tampa Bay, Bradford stopped to talk. When asked simply, “How are you doing?” Bradford whispered his dejection rather than make a show of it.

“Pretty [expletive].”

Bradford learned composure long ago from his father Kent, a former Oklahoma offensive lineman in the 1970s. Kent coached his son in every sport as a youngster, from football to basketball to baseball. One day when Bradford was pitching in a Little League game around age 11, an opposing batter popped up to third.

The third baseman dropped the ball and Bradford showed some frustration. No rant or rave, just a pained look and a swipe of the glove.

“The next batter, I strike him out and I’m thinking, ‘OK, we got out of this one,’” Bradford said. “During that at-bat, I had thrown two balls and I came over to the dugout and my dad pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to come after people for dropping pop flies, you stop throwing balls.’ I was thinking, ‘I just struck the guy out.’ But that was his way of saying, everybody sees you and how you react. If things don’t go your way, put it behind you and go on.”

Bradford puts a lot behind him right now, remaining extraordinarily supportive of his sometimes limited teammates. On at least five occasions, Bradford not only picked out the right receiver against Tampa Bay’s coverage schemes, he put the throw in spots where only his guy could get it. Even though all five passes fell incomplete, Bradford displayed incredible accuracy.

Moreover, Bradford kept his passes in the middle of the field in low spots, keeping his receivers from tipping passes for possible interceptions. He had only one throw (a short touch pass off a roll out) that could qualify as awful.

“Sam puts throws in perfect spots,” Rams wide receiver Brandon Gibson(notes) said.

Unfortunately, Gibson is an example of the young, unproven receivers who Bradford is working with right now. Gibson was a sixth-round pick by Philadelphia in 2009. The Rams got him via trade last year in which they were dumping linebacker Will Witherspoon(notes).

The rest of the receiving corps is similar. Danny Amendola(notes) was undrafted. Hoomanawanui is a fifth-round rookie. Recently promoted rookie wide receiver Danario Alexander(notes) was undrafted. Sure, these guys might end up being stars someday, but the four entered this season with 77 career catches, 674 yards, two touchdown catches and two full years of NFL experience combined.

In contrast, when Manning was a rookie in 1998, at least he had wide receiver Marvin Harrison(notes). Prior to playing with Manning, Harrison, a first-round pick in 1996, had played two seasons and compiled 137 receptions for 1,702 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Or as Tampa Bay veteran cornerback Ronde Barber(notes) put it early last week before the Bucs started prepping for the Rams: “I don’t know who any of those [Rams receivers] are. I don’t watch college football, so I don’t know them. Then I asked some of our young guys and they didn’t know any of them, either.”

This is why St. Louis was so interested in trading for San Diego wide receiver Vincent Jackson(notes) before the trade deadline this season. While it seemed counterintuitive for a rebuilding team to give up a high draft pick or two for a guy who will be available as a free agent next offseason, the Rams realize that getting a great receiver to go with Bradford now could make them a serious contender in the weak NFC West.

Record pace

Even without a proven receiver (Bradford does have star running back Steven Jackson behind him to take some pressure off), Bradford is on pace for some impressive rookie records. At current rate, Bradford’s 171 completions on 292 attempts for 1,674 yards, 11 TDs and eight interceptions extrapolate to 342 completions, 584 attempts, 3,348 yards, 22 TDs and 16 interceptions. That’s a respectable year for a veteran and an outstanding one for a rookie.

The completions would break Manning’s rookie mark. The yards would rank third, behind Matt Ryan(notes) and Manning. The TDs would be second behind Manning’s 26 and former New York Giants star Charlie Conerly, who had 22 in 1948 when he was a 27-year-old, post-war rookie.

While the numbers are nice, you get the feeling that none of that matters in the grand scheme. Bradford has a strong sense of himself, a confidence that belies youth, a patience that demonstrates maturity and greater understanding of how the whole situation works.

One Rams executive recently talked about how Bradford reacted when they asked him to participate with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden in a group with fellow quarterbacks Colt McCoy(notes) and Jimmy Clausen(notes). One of the reactions that the Rams got from Gruden was that he was concerned with how quiet Bradford was in the sessions.

When the Rams asked Bradford about it, his reaction was heady.

“He said it was interesting to hear what Gruden had to say, but [Bradford] realized pretty quickly this was a TV event and it wasn’t really his type of environment,” the executive said. “He listened, but he wasn’t going to put on a show.”

Bradford is much the same way with teammates. Just as his father taught him, he doesn’t react demonstratively on the field. Teammates, coaches and front-office people have noticed him quietly pull receivers aside to talk with them.

“I just think you get a whole lot more out of it if you pull someone aside and talk to him directly,” said Bradford, who is likewise a careful listener. “If you just start yelling the first time, they’re going to look at you like, ‘Who is this guy?’ Now, if it’s the third time the guy has done it not the way you expected, maybe you do it differently.”

Those are sage words for a 22-year-old, the kind of stuff most parents don’t realize until too late. Throw in a lot of athletic talent and you have the makings of a special player.

“This guy carries himself like he has been here for 10 years,” said backup quarterback A.J. Feeley(notes), who has played behind quarterbacks like Philip Rivers(notes) and Donovan McNabb(notes). “He’s so even-keeled … he has everything. He gets it. There’s no one story about him. It’s everything about how he has come in here and he’s never acted like something was handed to him.

"Everybody knows what goes on with first-round picks, especially No. 1 picks. But he never gave that feeling."

“He came in and acted like, ‘Hey, I haven’t done anything yet.’ I think everybody appreciates that.”

More importantly, it makes them expect plenty of themselves.