Ok, so it's maybe not a "make or break" year, but 2013 is a big one for the St. Louis Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford. Entering his fourth season in the league, everyone is still waiting for him to reach the potential that made him a sure fire first overall pick in 2010. Greg Rosenthal of NFL.com has a very thorough, rational assessment of Bradford's career so far and what's next. I want to go back to the beginning, the season it all started.
On the surface, Bradford's first season in the league was a success. He won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. Quarterbacks have a natural advantage among voters there, but they don't just hand it out to any Tom, Dick or Harry who completes a few passes.
He also had some solid numbers to go with the award-winning campaign. Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes - still a career high - and threw for 3,500+ yards, 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
But the numbers have been challenged before, most famously and most soundly in this piece from August 2011. (The best part might be Peter King's effusive praise of Rick Mirer). There are several factors at play here, including an improved Rams defense and a weaker schedule in 2010. Bradford's numbers suffer largely, the argument goes, from a high number of pass attempts and Pat Shurmur's dink and dunk passing game. Together, those combined to inflate the rookie's stats for completions and accuracy.
My intention here isn't to quibble with Bradford's numbers. Reading Rosenthal's piece this morning and thinking about Bradford struggles to look like a first overall pick planted an inescapable bug in my ear:
Maybe Pat Shurmur's approach with Bradford in 2010 did more harm than good for the kid's development.
That goes against conventional wisdom. In the past, I've said, as have many others, that Shurmur's conservative approach was ideal for easing the rookie into the NFL. I'm not so sure.
The Rams offense of 2010 was really not particularly effective. They averaged just 18.1 points per game, going 1-5 against playoff teams that year. For Bradford, it was a dramatically different system than the spread offense he ran at Oklahoma.
Obviously, the spread offenses weren't a possibility for the Rams. Shurmur had little to work with at receiver and offensive line wasn't very good. That put a severe limitation on what the Rams could do. Hmm, we've heard that before, no?
Regardless, Shurmur's system wasn't a natural fit for Bradford (btw, I think it hurt Weeden in Cleveland last year too). But it was a fairly easy fit because it didn't ask him to do a whole lot. Unfortunately, that took away some of his main assets, including his downfield accuracy.
Last year's rookie quarterbacks, and Cam Newton the year before, were wildly successful. Obviously those guys possess world class talent, but they also had coaches who adapted their offensive systems to the rookie signal caller's strengths. Hell, even Mike Shanahan was willing to Xerox plays right out of the Baylor playbook for RGIII. And it worked.
The Rams under Spagnuolo had a big problem with adaptation. Their faith in the system was dogmatic, just ask Mike Karney. Adhering to dogma is a great for life in a monastery, but it's a terrible way to win football games.
And what about the learning process? Here's his introduction to the NFL, a round hole for a square peg. Check out something else Rosenthal said in his piece:
Perhaps Bradford's biggest issue is the toughest to evaluate for an outsider. Greg Cosell of NFL Films would call it "seeing the field clearly." On plays Bradford got the right protection and what he wanted out of the coverage, he often hesitated. This led to dump-off passes when the play design called for more.
Is that some sort of weird cognitive scar put there by Pat Shurmur's offense? Not that Schottenheimer didn't do a fair amount of dinking and dunking himself.
If how a quarterback sees the field is difficult to evaluate, then understanding how he learns, adapts and grows in the game is damn near impossible. Take this post for what it is: postulating out loud, a discussion starter.
The good news here is that it's history. Bradford finally has offensive continuity and the kinds of players to work with, guys that capable of stretching the hell out the field. He's confident heading into his second season under Fisher, and that's what matters most.
Still, it's hard not to wonder if his rookie year was more of a hurdle than a boost.