Continuity. More than any secret plans or special draft pick, continuity was supposed to be the thing that made the St. Louis Rams offense and quarterback Sam Bradford finally start to see some progress. But what if continuity is bad thing? What if having the same faces in the same places for more than a season actually ends up creating more problems?
All Mike Tanier at Sports on Earth wanted to do was to explore the question of whether or not the Rams should draft a quarterback next week. To do that, he started by taking a closer look at Sam Bradford. And that forced a longer look at Brian Schottenheimer's offense. What he found was ugly and mostly hopeless.
Let's start with something we're all too familiar with, is the quarterback or the people around him that's the problem? The answer is all of the above. Bradford's been hamstrung by the talent, or lack thereof, around him. That's led to bad habits becoming second nature. Then you factor in Schottenheimer's playbook which actually sets players up to fail. It's a recipe for disaster ... a disaster on the scale of Mark Sanchez and the Jets, a good comparison because that also happened to be Schottenheimer's last job. He had just been fired there when the Rams so kindly helped him land on his feet. The NFL is truly a meritocracy.
To say that the Rams' short passing game is a problem overlooks the lack of structural integrity in the whole operation. The offensive coordinator has built a house without supports under the floor and faulty wiring laced throughout the walls. The problems include:
Predictability - Bradford threw six deep passes in seven first quarters. Defenses know what's coming.
Traffic jams - Targets scramble through bastardized crossing routes two to three yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Not only do the receivers have to watch out for linebackers and defensive backs, their teammates are making it worse. For inexperienced receivers, it also leads to even more dropped passes.
Complexity - A short passing game should at least be easy, right? Wrong. Guards pull, tackles chase rushers and Daryl Richardson blocks NaVorro Bowman twice in a row. More moving parts than a Swiss watch just to get the ball to a target three yards down the field.
Statistics aren't adequate to convey the futility of the Rams' approach, though it was more successful in goal-to-go situations, short passes and all that. And the numbers were deceiving. Sam Bradford complied 15 percent of his total statistics against prevent defenses in meaningless fourth quarter drives.
Making it all worse was soft pass protection in the middle of the line and inexperienced and overrated receiving options. The results?
If they faced a bad offense like the Jaguars, Texans or early-season Cardinals, their defense could keep them in the game, and their short-passing attack provided a trickle of productivity that could spur a victory. Against a good offensive opponent with a terrible defense (Falcons, Cowboys), they would fall behind then throw a million passes playing catchup. Against a decent offensive opponent with a great defense (49ers, Panthers), they would hang around the rearview mirror for the whole game. There was a little script-flipping when Clemens took over, but not that much: the Colts win was mostly Colts weirdness, the Saints victory was a mix of the Rams front four in tiger shark mode and the Saints having a road sputter, the Bears victory was when the Bears run defense became an HOV freeway lane. Kellen Clemens had efficient games against the Saints, Colts and Bucs, just as Bradford was efficient against the Texans and Cardinals. But there is zero evidence that the Rams passing game had the capability of leading the way toward a victory.
So where does Bradford factor into all of this, a symptom or a cause?
His mechanics are all over the place, and it compromises his accuracy. Sure, drops have been a problem, but his career completion rate of 58.6 percent is pretty telling. His passes get tipped at the line. He's often off target. Making matters worse, he's not seeing the field and plays develop very well.
And remember when Bradford was touted for his deep accuracy coming into the league? There's nothing resembling that anymore. His deep throws are off target, poorly timed and delivered at inexplicable moments. Worse, he's not good at anticipating the routes his receivers are running, something a fourth year quarterback and one with the heralded benefit of continuity should be able to do.
I don't just want to regurgitate all of this because Tanier's done outstanding and thorough work here. The Bradford breakdown is very revealing. And honest.
The problem with Bradford is that he's not making progress, not growing as a player. He's entering his fifth season, and he's gotten worse on downfield throws and even playing with any consistency on high-percentage short throws since having the comfort of continuity in the offense.
And he's suddenly supposed to breakout in his fifth year?
The message boards are already struggling with the different ways they can accuse the author or bias. What about the switch to a run-first offense? That doesn't change it, because the Rams are still relying on the same passing game. Bradford and the offense had the same problems. In the two wins against Jacksonville and Houston, where the defense helped considerable, the problematic dink and dunk passing game was still there, and the quarterback was still struggling with it.
The fact of the matter is, teams still have to be able to pass the ball successfully. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick don't have to throw the ball 35 times a game. They just have to make plays when the offense needs it. And they've been able to do that consistently. The Rams haven't.
In the end, this isn't about Sam Bradford or Brian Schottenheimer or poor blocking and bad receivers on their own. It's a story about a system in collapse. The leadership hasn't kept up with the changes taking place in the game. Trying to win in the NFC West, or the NFL in general, takes more than a grind-it-out defense and ball control. Those days are gone.
The real story here is what happens next. A solution isn't just drafting another quarterback or finding the one receiver who can open up the offense (the Rams have tried that several times already). The first step is coming to the realization that something's not working, and then moving to fix it. Are Les Snead and Jeff Fisher ready to do that?