We can talk about roster battles all day, but the St. Louis Rams' 2012 season does not hinge on who will be playing outside linebacker. Quarterback Sam Bradford is the only question that matters when it comes to the Ram's 2012 season and the team's future.
So what is a reasonable expectation from Bradford? At this point, even an educated guess is difficult. A new offensive coordinator, questions about receivers, Bradford's injured ankle all put a cloud over attempts at prediction. Nevertheless, the brain trust at Football Outsiders took at a stab at it using their statistical wizardry, an informed way to looking at the season ahead in their 2012 Almanac.
So what can we expect from Bradford? First, it requires us to understand a little more about his last two seasons in the league.
I have been as guilty as the next person about putting Bradford's award-winning season into the wrong context. Yes, he had a solid debut, displaying the kind of accuracy he did during his Heisman career at Oklahoma. However, putting his first season into the larger context of all quarterback performances it was merely so-so, at best. The 3,500+ passing yards and completion rate hold up well to what we normally expect from a rookie passer, and when you factor in his lack of passing options beyond Danny Amendola, the numbers are more acceptable.
Bradford had a -15.6 percent DVOA in 2010, followed by a -24.2 percent in 2011, when he struggled with injuries to himself and the players around him. On the surface, it looks like things were much worse in 2011, and they were in the bigger picture. FO pulls out the splits, using DVOA, and suddenly Bradford's second season does not look all that different from his first.
Under pressure, Bradford actually had a better DVOA last year than he did as a rookie. Check it out:
His numbers out of the shotgun were better too, by about three percent, though still sub-par.
His first and second down splits is where Bradford really took a hit statistically in his second season. His DVOA dropped about 10 percentage points in both categories.
It's enough to blow a wide hole in a popular theory about Bradford's first two years in the league. From FO:
Another popular fallacy about Bradford says that his "sophomore slump" was caused by the team's move away from Pat Shurmur's conservative offense, as well as going the entire 2011 season without a quarterbacks coach to help him learn Josh McDaniels' scheme in a shortened offseason. Therefore, as the theory goes, hiring conservative-to-a-fault offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti will restore order to the Bradford universe. The problem, of course, is that if he wasn't actually that good in 2010, then re-establishing 2010 conditions means nothing.
FO predicts a modest, very modest, step forward for Bradford in 2012. Here's their line on him:
350 completions in 560 attempts, 62.5 percent completion rate, 3,649 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, -9.2% DVOA
That would be the highest completion rate of his career and roughly the same TD/INT ratio he had as a rookie, when he threw 18 TD and 15 INT. He had a rookie record of 590 attempts in 2010.
Out of all those numbers, the most disappointing one is the 19 touchdowns. That alludes to an offense that is still struggling to score points. In looking at the other predictions from FO, the Rams aren't getting a big bump in the running game either.
The problem, more of an unknown really, are the receivers. Right now, FO predicts Danny Amendola and Lance Kendricks to lead the team in receptions and yards, each with fewer than 700. We'll get into that later.
Don't despair. Bradford can easily beat those numbers if receivers live up to expectations, even part of the expectations. More importantly, it does not mean that Bradford is a lost cause. As they point out, sometimes it just takes time for players to develop.
The problem is, the Rams don't have much time.