An outstanding, record-setting first season featured honor after honor, including NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and Rams Rookie of the Year. NFL records were established for most consecutive passes without an interception by a rookie (169), most attempts by a rookie (590) and most completions by a rookie (354). Simply put, the sky was the limit heading into Sam Bradford’s second season.
Working to avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx, the “Big Easy” was excited to build on his rookie year. But his second offseason in the NFL was derailed by the owners of the league. Players were “locked out” and unable to train at club facilities. The battle between the NFLPA and NFL owners over future revenue – and much more – wiped out all OTAs (organized team activities), mini-camps and threatened to cancel not only training camp, but the entire 2011 football season.
Complicating matters, Bradford’s offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, was hired as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and quarterbacks coach Dick Curl retired after not having his contract renewed. Once a new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) was agreed upon and signed, free agency started rather quickly. Neither offseason workouts nor the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game (in which the Rams were scheduled to participate) materialized, and training camp turned into an atmosphere of controlled chaos. A sense of panic filled the air when it came to the installation of offense, defense and special teams, for all 32 teams.
During the lockout, the Rams hired a new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels. Bradford and the rest of the players could not have any contact with coaches, however, setting the Rams’ offense even further behind. The “Big Easy” spent time organizing workouts with his teammates around the country and met with a former NFL coach, who had extensive knowledge of the McDaniels offense and taught Bradford the basic concepts and terminology.
When the season started, though, the wrong kind of hits just kept on coming. A massive number of injuries hit the Rams, starting with Steven Jackson on a 47-yard touchdown run – the first play from scrimmage in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Multiple defenders, offensive linemen and wide receivers soon hit the shelf, as well.
Bradford himself was not immune from injury, either, suffering a high ankle sprain that plagued him throughout the 2011 campaign. On top of that, he didn’t play well; production was down, and chatter from fans and media members alike concentrated on Bradford being a bust.
Entering 2012, however, the general landscape looks a lot brighter. New head coach Jeff Fisher settled on St. Louis rather than Miami largely because of Sam Bradford. The signal-caller was also introduced to his third offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer several months ago and, according to Fisher, Bradford has learned about 70 percent of the new offense to this point in the OTAs.
“It’s getting better every day,” Bradford said about his current comfort level in the new system. “I’ve gone through this process a couple times now. I kind of know how to handle it. We come out, we put in a bunch of new stuff today. It seems like we do that every day. Just try to get better with it. When we come back to review it, hopefully we’ve had a couple looks at it by then and we’re able to handle all the looks that a defense could show us.
“It’s just nice to have an offseason to be able to come out here and make mistakes. You learn from your mistakes. Coaches have been great about that. They’re not pressing. They’re not screaming. As long as we learn from it, I think we’re doing the right thing. It’s just good to be out here going through those things.”
The Schottenheimer offense emphasizes a quick release and short to intermediate passing attack – an extended handoff, as the legendary Bill Walsh referred to the offense. When I watched Jets film the last two seasons, I see an explosive offense when run effectively by the quarterback, with a strong running attack. In many ways, it mirrors the offense that Bradford excelled in as a rookie.
“A little bit, yeah,” he confirmed. “It’s definitely not the same, but this offense does have some West Coast roots, so I think at the base level, some of the things that this offense does, they are similar to what we did two years ago with Pat’s offense.”
The hiring of quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti is only part of the equation. An equally important aspect is keeping Bradford upright and protecting him at all costs, which is where offensive line coach Paul T. Boudreau Sr. comes in. Boudreau must get the most out of his linemen, because in football everything starts up front with the big boys on both sides of the ball. The drafting of wide receivers Brian Quick and Chris Givens, along with the acquisition of Steve Smith through free agency and Danny Amendola’s return from injured reserve, also gives the “Big Easy” weapons outside the numbers. In the backfield, Steven Jackson and rookie Isaiah Pead will allow the Rams a thunder-and-lightning running game.
The NFC is not waiting for the Rams to get back to their winning ways. This conference has stockpiled quarterbacks who are producing at a high level. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, the New York Giants’ Eli Manning and Carolina’s Cam Newton, the 2011 NFL Rookie of the Year, are just a few who initially spring to mind.
Nonetheless, the NFC West’s top quarterback could reside in the Show-Me State. Still, Bradford has to continue to push himself to get better both mentally and physically, and continue to develop as a professional football player. He must stay healthy and increase his overall leadership and production, while decreasing mental errors in his game. Such improvements will put that sophomore season in the rear-view mirror for good and open the door to loftier heights – for team and self – moving forward.