Quick, apart from the position they play(ed), what do Tim Tebow, Jimmy Claussen, Colt McCoy, Mike Kafka, John Skelton, and Rusty Smith have in common with Sam Bradford?
If you said that they were the next 6 quarterbacks drafted following Bradford in the 2010 NFL draft, you would be correct. More on this later.
Any time a quarterback is taken with the first overall pick in the draft, the standard of Face of the Franchise is, either fairly or unfairly, bestowed upon that man. Sam Bradford was no different. From the moment his name was the first one read in 2010, he was going to change the fortunes of one of the most moribund franchises in all of professional sports. Apart from a three year period at the turn of the millennium, the Rams…well, they were awful.
Plagued by brutally inept leadership that consistently assembled rosters permeated by sub-professional level “talent,” failure was unavoidable. Bradford was the turning point, however. His on-field excellence was matched only by his spotless character. And with his Abercrombie model looks, the whole face of the franchise thing could literally be taken…well, literally.
If there were concerns about Bradford, they were about a shoulder injury that ended his junior and final season at Oklahoma, and kept him from participating at the combine. To date since then, it has never been an issue.
Being the first overall pick in any sport’s draft is both a blessing and a curse. Ultimately, you end up being a smashing success or a dismal failure, a “bust” if you will. There isn’t any middle ground. When I make this argument to people, for some reason they always point to Eli Manning as the example of why I’m wrong – the “other” Manning is the perfect example of the middle ground for a first overall pick. I argue back that two Super Bowl rings means smashing success unequivocally. Eli is hardly the most skilled quarterback of the last 20 years – his predecessor as top pick was the more talented and two Super Bowls lighter Carson Palmer, for example – but his status as big game leader is beyond reproach.
The Rams brought in respected veteran AJ Feeley to both challenge Bradford for the starting gig as a rookie, but more to help the young quarterback become accustomed to life as an NFL player. Bradford played well enough to earn the starting job and it appeared a star was born. Key word, “appeared.”
Those of us who have been Rams fans for the last few decades (guilty!) have a complex. An old work buddy of mine who was a huge Rams fan from the pre-Kurt Warner days used to truly (I think) believe that God had it in for the Rams. For the purposes of this article, and also for the purpose that it was actually his name and I’m too lazy to come up with a pseudonym for him, we’ll call him Chris. Chris once speculated to me that someone would have to sell their soul to reverse the cosmic law that forever and for always, the Rams would suck. Then, something strange happened. The heaven-ordered moratorium on competent personnel decisions was briefly lifted. They traded for the awesome multi-purpose back Marshall Faulk, signed Trent Green, a quality free agent quarterback from Washington, drafted promising receiver Torrey Holt, and things were looking up. Then, a single cheap shot by Rodney Harrison in preseason game number three changed everything. Shortly thereafter, the news became public: Trent Green’s season was over due to a knee injury.
That was the email I got from Chris, except that the little stars weren’t little stars. They were, in fact, letters of the alphabet. I don’t think I need to explain which ones.
The rest of that season of course was historic. Who knew that Kurt Warner would come in and play Hall of Fame level football?
Bradford won the offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, and a franchise devoid of any hope for the better part of a decade had some. The Rams even had a chance to back into the playoffs with a final week win in Seattle. Now, these Seahawks weren’t anywhere near the juggernaut that today’s squad is, but still a beast of an opponent at home.
The Seahawks ended up beating the Rams that day, 16-6, but three pivotal plays shaped the game. Two beautifully thrown bombs by Bradford, one down the middle and another down the left sideline, to rookie Danario Alexander, and a late key third down strike to tight end Daniel Fells. The normally sure-handed Alexander let both passes go right through his hands, and Fells allowed the ball to carom from right between the numbers on the front of his jersey harmlessly to the ground. Both plays to Alexander could have gone for 50 or more yards, and the play to Fells would have kept a critical late drive alive. And to be clear, all three of these passes were throws that an NFL receiver should catch 90% or more of the time.
As frustrating as the loss was, there was a curious lack of foreboding among Rams fans. We had a young stud quarterback, we nearly made the playoffs, and things could only get better. Chris and I had long since lost touch, but I imagined that even he remained cautiously optimistic. Little did any of us know that the Seahawks game was only the beginning of, with a nod to Lemony Snickett, a lengthy series of unfortunate events for Bradford.
We’re not even talking about the injuries yet. Regular season, 2011, Game 1 against the Eagles. On the Rams’ first series, Steven Jackson thundered through the entire Philly defense for a long touchdown run. It was also his last contribution to the game as he pulled quad muscle on the run. Jackson frequently pulled muscles in the early part of seasons, leading one to believe he bit his thumb at the time-honored practice of stretching, but that’s neither here nor there. On the subsequent possession, Bradford threw a long strike to a wide open Lance Kendricks who could have waltzed into the end zone with all the urgency of molasses in January, had he only remembered the minor detail of actually catching the perfectly thrown ball.
Week 2 against the Giants, the teams were close until the game turned on a third down play deep in Giants territory where Bradford threw a lateral pass to a wide open Cadillac Williams. Williams dropped the well-thrown ball, and then inexplicably didn’t make any attempt to recover it, allowing the Giants to return it for a touchdown. Game, set, match.
The play of Bradford and his surrounding cast only deteriorated from there, culminating in a catastrophic high ankle sprain in week 7 against the Cowboys. This injury not only ruined the rest of 2011 for Bradford, it never quite healed right and cost him valuable mobility for all of 2012 – essentially making him a sitting duck for opposing defenses which penetrated the Rams’ putrid offensive line with minimal effort and remarkable ease. It’s worth noting, however, that Bradford managed to lead the Rams to seven wins in spite of terrible pass protection, and the fact that he now was working under his third offensive coordinator in three years, the appallingly incompetent Brian Schottenheimer.
2013 looked to be the first season since his rookie campaign that offered a glimpse of what a healthy Bradford may be capable of, though any real chances of a prosperous year were scuttled by a comically cataclysmic attempt at installing something resembling a spread passing attack, which ultimately spread only despair. After a particularly horrifying display at home against the 49rs, where a shell-shocked and panicky Bradford was desperately and aimlessly heaving passes in the face of a relentless San Francisco pass rush, coach Jeff Fisher came to his senses and went to an uninventive but not calamitous power run approach behind bruising rookie Zac Stacy. Bradford’s play and that of the team improved, but giving the other teams in the stacked NFC West a four week head start is too much to overcome. Oh, and there was that whole ACL tear thing against Carolina in week 8 too.
The Bradford story for 2014 is a short one. It ended in the preseason with another ACL tear.
What is my point, you may be thinking? Well, with the trade earlier this week of Bradford to the Eagles for fellow quarterback Nick Foles, an era came to an end. It’s weird to call something that lasted just five short years an era, but it was. Bradford’s time with the Rams was a saga of unfulfilled potential and abysmal luck. It also leaves unanswered questions. Now that Bradford has been freed from any curse there might be over the Rams, as well as the lofty expectations that come along with being an obscenely overpaid quarterback before you ever even take a single NFL snap (he’s still obscenely overpaid if accomplishment is used as a barometer for what salary should be, but it’s in a new city), will he finally become the superstar that people thought he would? Or, is it just him? Remember those six guys I mentioned at the beginning? Maybe Bradford only seemed to be as good as he was in college because of who his contemporaries were. I’m among the dwindling crowd that still thinks Tim Tebow deserves to be employed as a quarterback, though probably not a starter, somewhere in the NFL. He has a playoff win to his credit (he threw for three hundred yards that game!!!!) ((though much of it came on the final play…)) (((shut up, voice in my head!!!))) and his career win-loss numbers are far from terrible. But apart from him, nobody in that crowd has accomplished anything of note in the NFL.
What do I think? Well, I think the good Lord has too many other important things to do to waste His time ensuring the continuing futility of an NFL franchise, though I haven’t entirely discounted the possibility that more sinister forces may be at work. That’s the kind of answer you’ll get from a self-aware conspiracy theorist and unapologetic pessimist. But I think Bradford is good. I think his struggles are far more a result of unfortunate circumstances and buzzard luck than they are of not being any good. Is he Andrew Luck good, to reference another number one overall pick at quarterback? No, very few people are Andrew Luck good. Is he Cam Newton good, also a first overall pick? Yeah. They’re not the same player but they’re close in terms of goodness. And you’ll see that in 2015. Or…you won’t if he gets hurt again.
Now, about Nick Foles. How good will he be? I don’t know, to be honest. The Rams offense should improve exponentially by the departure of Schottenheimer alone, but it will all be academic anyway if the Rams indeed are cursed, and Foles suffers some kind of horrible injury in preseason.
I sure hope curses aren’t real.