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Sam Bradford's Imaginary Make-or-Break Year

The "make-or-break" season isn't real; it's merely a talking point.

Nick Laham

A common narrative this off-season is Sam Bradford entering a "make-or-break" year. The "story" is all over. Matt Williamson of ESPN was quoted in Mike Sando’s latest piece that he thinks "To say this is a make-or-break season is rather strong," ESPN scout Matt Williamson said, "but it is certainly a 'prove it' season or a 'no more excuses' season." Ryan Lownes of and Bleacher Report believes this is a vital year for Bradford as well. Heck, even the St. Louis Post Dispatch got in on the Bradford breakout year train when Jeff Gordon released his column stating, "no, this cannot be considered a "make-or-break" year for [Sam Bradford]."

Many reference Bradford’s contract in "make-or-break" discussion as his guaranteed money is set to run out after this season.

All of this talk of Bradford having to "breakout" this season made me wonder what "breaking out" really means. What would it take for Bradford to silence his critics? Is it a defining moment, or simply making the playoffs with decent statistics? Do you have to win a Super Bowl, or could it be some characteristic that must be detected by eye rather than stat?

Sam isn’t the only quarterback to undertake the journey to the breathtaking land where established quarterbacks go to play without people second guessing them. Unfortunately, the journey is by way of vitriolic hyperbole, and uninformed conjecture. A road quarterbacks such as Eli Manning and Joe Flacco know all to well.

Eli Manning was in the league for 4 years before he was considered solidified as the Giants starting quarterback...and then unsolidified...and then solidified again. What did it take?

Eli’s first 5 seasons were statistically average. He never threw for over 4,000 yards, nor did he break the 30 touchdown barrier. However, in his 4th season, when he threw for a modest 3,238 yards 23tds and 20ints, the Giants won the Super Bowl. Is that "breaking out?" Does playing good enough for your team to win the Super Bowl, yet accumulating marginal statistics, make you a "franchise quarterback?" John Clayton wrote a piece about this directly after the Giants won the Super Bowl:

"In his fourth season, Eli Manning achieved franchise quarterback status through his game management in three road playoff games."

"Nowadays, a franchise quarterback is the man behind center who annually gives a team the chance to not only make but also win in the playoffs."

"His numbers weren't great but they were good enough."

Keywords: Game management, playoffs, franchise quarterback, chance, good enough

Winning seemed to be the cure-all for Eli Manning.

Yet on March 3rd, 2011, Matt Williamson wrote an article titled "On the hot seat: Eli Manning." Ok, so apparently even after winning a Super Bowl, and posting back-to-back 4,000 yard season, Eli Manning was still not the solidified signal caller in New York.

Joe Flacco hasn’t been in the league as long as Manning, but his career arch looks similar. Flacco, like Manning, never threw for 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in his first four years. And like Manning, Flacco has benefitted from an above average defense. After Flacco won the Super Bowl he was deemed a top flight franchise quarterback, although he put up numbers nearly identical to Rams quarterback, Sam Bradford.

Sam Bradford 3702 59.5 21 13 82.6
Joe Flacco 3817 59.7 22 10 87.7

Seeing as the Rams didn’t make the playoffs or win the Super Bowl, Sam Bradford still inspires the "make-or-break" treatment from media and fans alike.

Eli Manning and Joe Flacco are both quarterbacks that I see as comparable players and career paths to Sam. And when looking at each of these quarterbacks and public perception, their statistics don’t seem to matter. Winning matters - and winning often.

People will continue to say "make-or-break" when discussing Sam’s upcoming season, and arbitrary numbers will be attached - 4,000 yards passing, 30 touchdowns...etc - but the only thing that will matter is winning. The same people who say Sam needs to reach these statistical milestones in order to be sharpeed in as the Rams QB, will be the same ones screaming for his head if the Rams don’t win ball games.

I don’t believe in "make-or-break" years. No amount of yards through the air, or wins proves if a quarterback is worth his salt. Bad quarterbacks have won a lot of games, and good quarterbacks have lost a lot games. If the Rams organization believes in Bradford’s talent, he will be the quarterback of the future, 4,000 yards passing or not.