Bradford Leads Rams into Cleveland

For many teams in the National Football League, it’s a 20-week season consisting of a four-game preseason and 16-game regular season. All of the teams that have taken those giant steps to improve themselves greatly through free agency and the yearly draft look forward to the 20-week stretch and, with some luck, health, good coaching and outstanding football performance, there is a chance they have positioned themselves for a good run. Those teams that are disqualified switch their focus to scouting both pro and college talent and the continuation of building a championship foundation, preparing for the next season and nurturing the mindset of chasing the ultimate goal every year: the Lombardi Trophy.

The St. Louis Rams have answered a lot of questions in OTAs and thus far in training camp. They look considerably better on paper. But the first test of the 20-week stretch starts tonight against the Cleveland Browns in FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

One thing is for certain: the Rams have a quality quarterback in Sam Bradford. It is a proven fact that if a team doesn’t have a good quarterback, its chances of winning the division are not very good. As for making it to the playoffs, these clubs have two chances: slim and none.

Yet Bradford continues to get hammered by national media pundits, local media and frustrated fans and on if he can guide the Jeff Fisher ship through rough waters. Bradford is 25. When you look back at his full body of work, while short, you see production, injury history and flashes of a franchise quarterback. The organization did very little to surround him with talent until Fisher and general manager Les Snead arrived. With help from COO Kevin Demoff, the future is very bright for No. 8 and the youngest team in the NFL as a whole.

Is there pressure on Bradford? Yes, but no more than he puts on himself to be successful. In his second year in the Brian Schottenheimer offense, Bradford feels comfortable in his own skin. With the weapons that now surround him in Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Jared Cook, Chris Givens, Brain Quick and Jake Long (along with the rest of an offensive line that should fare well once it finds continuity), it’s time to test the waters against the Browns. Outside pressure will arrive in the form of the media, his peers within the division (San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and Seattle’s Russell Wilson) and talented young QBs around the league like Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis. The latter two, of course, stormed onto the scene as rookies last year and took their respective teams to the playoffs, making it look relatively easy with production both through the air and on the ground. This has increased the pressure on fellow quarterbacks like Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman and Bradford. The Rams’ signal-caller, though, has improved on his positional attributes and skill set since his rookie season, during which he set records for most consecutive passes thrown without an interception by a rookie quarterback (169) and most completions by a first-year QB (354).

As I dug into the archives of Pro Football Reference and researched his overall production, I worked to find stats that point toward an elite quarterback in the making. Despite playing with a Pro Bowl running Back in Steven Jackson, Bradford was always surrounded by adequate receivers. He has started a total of 42 games, missing six contests in 2011 due to a high ankle sprain. During his relatively short tenure, however, his 9,378 yards, 45 touchdowns and 34 interceptions compare favorably to some big-name quarterbacks’ identical 42-game windows:

Tom Brady, New England Patriots – 9,448 yards, 61 touchdowns, 38 interceptions

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints – 8,551 yards, 45 touchdowns, 38 interceptions

Eli Manning, New York Giants – 8,738 yards, 60 touchdowns, 48 interceptions

All three of these standouts at the position have at least one, if not multiple, Super Bowl rings. Just some food for thought.

Tonight will be a good test for Bradford, not to mention the rest of his teammates, against a much-improved Browns team. Cleveland features a new coaching staff, front-office executives and fresh cornerstone editions like outside linebacker Paul Kruger, nose tackle Phil Taylor, defensive end Desmond Bryant and wide receiver Davone Bess. Quarterback Brandon Weeden also aims to continue to progress under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, with the two already sharing a good rapport. Hard-nosed running back Trent Richardson will likely miss tonight’s contest, though, nursing a lower leg bruise.

In order to know where you’re going, you must first take a look at the past. When I did, it was surprising to discover that if Bradford can stay healthy, he has a great chance to deliver not only a divisional championship in the near future, but also much more.

It starts today against the Browns.