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Sam Bradford's rookie season: Overrated, but so what

Was Sam Bradford's rookie performance overrated? Probably. And, so what?
Was Sam Bradford's rookie performance overrated? Probably. And, so what?

If you read Turf Show Times regularly, then you should be familiar with our feelings about St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford. We like him. Very much. Of course, anyone anointed the savior of a moribund franchise who does nothing to disprove that in his rookie year, generally tends to get some love from fans. Call us crazy, point to our low standards, but we like watching a QB do something beside get pounded into the ground and throw INTs....oh, the shame. 

That said, I don't think anyone here would put Sam Bradford's Rookie of the Year season on par with the greatest seasons in NFL history, even for rookie quarterbacks. Today at Pro Football Reference there's an article dealing with Sam Bradford's rookie season, putting it into context with other QB performances. "Sam Bradford's rookie season has been incredibly overrated" focuses on Bradford's statistical output, contending that he threw a lot, hence the yardage and record for completions, but the overall impact of Bradford on the Rams' final record was overstated and his statistical performance was more a function of quantity over quality.

In his eagerness to pee on fan enthusiasm, the author of this post misses something, several things really, even while the overall thesis of his argument isn't far off the mark. Let's discuss.

The Rams offense scored a meager 18.1 points per game. That's a full touchdown better than the season before, but still among the six lowest totals in the league. Throw in the Rams walkthrough schedule and it looks even worse. No rational person would point the Rams offense last year and then claim they were a functioning unit. 

I also think you'd be hard pressed to find a Rams fan who enjoyed the check down offense. It made for dull football and an offense that could only move in fits and starts rather than the with rhythm of truly effective offenses. The author at PFR uses that dink and dunk as a key point in declaring Bradford overrated. 

But Bradford's completions record is misleading in a different way: it hides the fact that he was Captain Dink and Dunk. Bradford and Jimmy Claussen were the only two quarterbacks last season to average fewer than 10 yards per completion. We shouldn't care about Bradford's completions or completion percentage if he's making lots of easy throws.

What about yards per attempt? Bradford ranked 55th of 70 quarterbacks since the merger in Yards per Attempt adjusted for era; without adjusting for era, he was still only 50th in plain old yards per attempt.

That should come as no surprise to anyone, those poor YPA numbers. Why, oh why, did the Rams dink and dunk like that so often last year? Two main reasons, one of which the PFR author touches on, 1) the coaching decisions, and 2) talent. 

Many fans blame offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur for the glorified handoffs, but the reality is that head coach Steve Spagnuolo wanted it that way and conspired with his OC to make it happen. Spagnuolo, a defensive guy, had a much improved defense that took advantage of a weak schedule. It was also a more experienced unit, led by a core of players familiar with it. Spags never made it a secret that he preferred to let his defense hold a lead, no matter how small that lead was and regardless of the holes in the defense. 

Maturation also factored into the coaches' handling of Bradford. A rather significant investment, Bradford was obviously their best option to quarterback the Rams offense. Since he was also training on the job and missed the bulk of his college season the year before, the Rams were even more cautious with Bradford. 

Before we get to the obvious point about receivers, let's talk about the offensive line and the running game. Unlike Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Bradford didn't have a great running game to pair with him. He had a good running back in Steven Jackson, but an offensive line that was not good at opening running lanes, not at all. The Rams prioritized pass blocking over run blocking, evident in the decision to start Adam Goldberg at RG. That allowed for more protection for Bradford, but a difficult working environment for Jackson. 

On the edges, Bradford was protected by a rookie and a quasi-rookie. His offensive tackles have talent and played well last year, but still didn't consistently allow Bradford the kind of time in the pocket necessary to complete long passes to slow receivers. 

And speaking of those receivers, they were terrible. Mr. Consistency was Danny Amendola, who became Bradford's favorite target because he could be counted on to catch those quick short passes, unlike other receivers who struggled with routes and separating themselves in coverage. The PFR post gets to this point, very tacitly.

Let's be fair: we've left one part out of the analysis so far, and that's Bradford's supporting cast. Let's just assume for the sake of argument that St. Louis had the worst supporting cast in the league. (Of course, rookie Colt McCoy averaged 5.9 NY/A with a similarly ugly cast in Cleveland). But even if Bradford had the worst collection of receivers and tight ends that any quarterback was forced to play with, Bradford's Rams also faced the easiest schedule of any team in the league. So Bradford's stats reflect him playing with garbage teammates against garbage opponents. In that light, it's hard for me to say he was much better than his stats.

By that logic, Bradford's receivers were no excuse because they played against poor competition. (Also worth noting is that Peyton Hillis was a more effective RB than SJ last year, thanks in part to a better OL). This is where defense-adjusted stats come in handy. Let's go to a piece from Football Outsiders' Mike Tanier, one he wrote on Bradford last December just before the Rams' week 17 loss. 

In the piece Tanier points out just how bad the Rams receivers were last year. Nobody on the roster at the start of the season had ever produced a 1,000-yard receiving season or even had more than 50 receptions in the NFL, with the exception of Mark Clayton

Beyond the lack of experience, Tanier points out the Rams' weakness at receiver last year using defense-adjust stats, numbers that do account for the schedule the Rams played last year. 

There is no good way to adjust for the weakness of the Rams' receiving corps, but we can make some quick-and-dirty guesses. Hines Ward's DYAR [defense-adjusted yards above replacement] in 2004 was 325, meaning that he gained 325 yards that a journeyman receiver wouldn't gain in the same situation. Replace Ward with Brandon Gibson, and Roethlisberger's DYAR dips to 605. Replace Roddy White with Amendola in 2008, and Ryan's DYAR falls to 768. Take away Derrick Mason, and Flacco's DYAR falls to 134. Take away Bradford's best receiver and nothing happens, because Bradford's best receivers grade out as league-minimum starters.

It wasn't just a coincidence that stat folks and pundits alike clamored for the Rams to find a No. 1 receiver this year. It's a legitimate need, that the Rams elected to fill instead with TE Lance Kendricks, free agent WR Mike Sims-Walker and upgrades elsewhere around the roster. This year's plans aside, it's pretty tough, especially after watching game tape from last year, to argue that the Rams receivers didn't significantly change the scope of the Rams offense last year.

What's funny about this is that the PFR post links to Tanier's article, ignoring the context about the talent at WR and TE that Bradford had to work with last year. That's a big oversight when making a claim such as this one. 

I'm almost at 1,300 words, down the rabbit hole to say the least. I need to cut bait while I'm still coherent. Bradford's rookie season did generate more than its fair share of hyperbole, and I love that the PFR piece cites none other than Peter King, an excellent writer, but also pro football's largest hyperbole pusher.

I certainly won't tell you that Sam Bradford's stats alone represent an amazing season for the record books. In fact, had the official NFL ROY awards not differentiated between offense and defense, Ndamukong Suh would have completely swept the rookie awards. None of that takes away from the fact that Bradford is a very good QB, albeit one who has much left to prove. 

Judging football players and performances requires context as much as anything. The PFR piece skirted some necessary context in judging Bradford's rookie season, even if his overall idea wasn't far off the mark. Let the pundits get carried away. I try to provide context, but at the end of day, I'm a Rams fan too. And as a Rams' fan, it was pretty hard not to get excited about what Sam Bradford did last season, even if it wasn't particularly impressive statistically, because of what it means for the future of a team so desperate to start winning again. Overrated? Sure, but so what. If we didn't inflate meaning at least a little there wouldn't be much need for fandom.