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More 'Deep Thoughts' on Sam Bradford

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A healthy, productive Sam Bradford may be the key to double-digit wins - and a playoff spot - for the Rams in 2014. Bradford's surrounding cast should be the best he's had since becoming a St. Louis Ram. The stage has now been set for the offense to soar.

Sam Greenwood

When you author a weekly links column about the Rams, reading 30-50 articles a week is the norm. Sometimes I read an article about the Rams that just rubs me the wrong way, which is inevitable when you read as many as I do. Although I enjoy his feature articles, Grantland's Bill Barnwell managed to rub me the wrong way this past week, in a piece on Sam Bradford, "Deep Thoughts" [link].

Barnwell's mantra in this article is quite evident, both from the title, and numerous references he makes:

"The problem lies with Bradford’s biggest weakness as a professional passer: the absence of his deep ball."

"The Rams don’t get downfield enough, and that it limits Bradford’s value as a passer."

"Bradford simply doesn’t throw deep."

"Could it be a mental block? That seems more likely. "

"Bradford just seems to have a hang-up about going deep."

Barnwell uses a number of statistical measures in his analysis of Sam Bradford. In addition, he takes a look at Bradford's injury history, the Rams' offensive line and wide receiver corps, offensive coordinators, and Bradford's psychological make-up.

Among the conclusions Barnwell draws from his analysis:

  1. Sam Bradford has an aversion to throwing the deep ball, likely because of a mental block. This in turn precludes Bradford from realizing his full potential as an NFL QB, and is the single biggest reason why his career production and proficiency are below-average.
  2. The Rams' wide receivers, offensive line, offensive coordinators/coaches, and injuries play little to no role in Bradford's lack of success - and the absence of a deep ball - at the NFL level.

The "Sam Bradford Debate" revolves around one key question: Sam Bradford has not produced the kind of results expected of a No. 1 overall draft selection. Are these perceived lack of results the product of circumstances surrounding him throughout his career, his inadequacies as a quarterback, or a combination of both?

The answer to this question is quite complex. Many Rams fans have taken a stab at answering the question, with valid, well thought-out arguments to back up their opinions. Perhaps the question doesn't need a definitive answer. Maybe it all boils down to revising expectations, as noted by Bernie Miklasz [St. Louis Post-Dispatch] last week (link).

Bill Barnwell attempts to answer the question in his article. I respect him for his efforts, and his unique perspective. Why does the article rub me the wrong way? Although he does make a number of valid points, some of the ways he tries to connect the dots don't sit well with me.

Barnwell, on his use of "Approximate Value", a metric developed by Pro Football Reference:

"Pro-Football-Reference.com has developed a stat known as Approximate Value, which estimates a player’s contributions to his team; it’s hardly perfect, but it’s useful for comparing large clumps of players over given periods of time."

I look at all of these new-fangled NFL stats - particularly the ones involving a fair amount of subjectivity - with a degree of skepticism. Statistics can tell you everything...and nothing. This is especially true for statistics related to NFL football. Individual statistics are invariably interconnected - with many moving parts - making it difficult to assess talent and performance levels. From Joe Strauss, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in an article published last week [link]:

"The NFL doesn’t lend itself to advanced metrics as much as Major League Baseball. Divining blocking and coverage assignments from tape can be a challenge. There is no convenient Wins Above Replacement shorthand. Football is what Rams general manager Les Snead habitually calls "the ultimate team sport".

The following comment summarizes Barnwell's look at the offensive coordinators and wide receiver additions during Sam Bradford's career with the Rams:

"If three coaches and nearly a dozen receivers aren’t making things better in St. Louis, at what point is it the quarterback’s fault?"

How exactly did Sam Bradford - or the offense for that matter - benefit from having three different offensive coordinators - and at least three different offensive schemes - in four seasons? They haven't. How did Bradford benefit from having a QB coach for only half of his career? He hasn't. Why the massive turnover in wide receivers? Because Jeff Fisher inherited one of the worst cast of receivers in the NFL.

The Rams had five wide receivers on the roster for most of 2013: Austin Pettis, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Chris Givens, and Brian Quick. Heading into the 2013 season, they combined for only 4 years of NFL experience. WR is perhaps the most difficult position for a player, to make the adjustment from college to the pros. It's even more difficult for a player like Brian Quick, who was drafted out of Appalachian State, and entered the NFL as a totally raw project.

Jeff Gordon - St. Louis Post-Dispatch - weighed in with his thoughts regarding Barnwell's article, the wide receiver corps, and Sam Bradford (link):

"Bradford helped receivers who were just spare guys elsewhere — Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson — put up numbers in St. Louis and get big money elsewhere as free agents."

One of the key statistical measures Barnwell uses in his analysis: Yards Per Attempt:

"Bradford gets less out of each throw he makes than just about anybody in football; the only quarterback with 1,000 pass attempts with a worse yards-per-attempt index over the past four years is Christian Ponder. Only six players have been worse in that category since 1990, and the best player of the bunch is probably Kyle Boller. Bradford has averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt over his four-year career; the difference between his figure and the league average over that time frame during a typical full season (of 550 passes) is roughly about 522.5 yards, or 15 percent of Bradford’s output."

Yards Per Attempt is one of the more effective statistics for gauging a team's overall passing ability. However, it's not necessarily a reliable statistic for gauging a quarterbacks proficiency, deep throwing ability, or productivity. This statistic has many "moving parts", only a few of which belong to the quarterback, and what he does on the field. Some of the other moving parts include: Pass protection, separation created by the WR's/route-running, drops, effectiveness of the running game in opening up the passing game, Yards After Catch, and offensive schemes. Each of the moving parts has a direct impact on Yards Per Attempt.

New England's Tom Brady had the 3rd lowest YPA - 6.9 - of his career in 2013, ranking 18th in the league. Could these results have anything to do with the fact he had an entirely new set of WR's/TE's last season?

Can Sam Bradford throw the deep ball? From Bernie Miklasz - St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"I’ve seen analysts trash Bradford’s ability to throw the deep pass. That’s fine, but we saw him go there in 2012 in hooking up with then-rookie wideout Chris Givens. According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford ranked just outside the top 10 among NFL quarterbacks in accuracy on passes that travelled 20-plus yards that year. The arm strength is there."

Do the Rams' play designs/offensive schemes affect YPA? From Aaron Schatz [Editor-in-Chief, Football Outsiders]:

"Brian Schottenheimer seems to think you can stretch the field in two ways: horizontally and also horizontally."

Barnwell waits until near the end of his article to comment on the Rams' offensive line:

"If Robinson is effective as a rookie and incumbent left tackle Jake Long recovers from a torn ACL of his own, the Rams could feature the best offensive line that Bradford’s seen since his Oklahoma days. After years of disappointment, though, I’m not sure he will be able to benefit all that much from the improved protection."

Is there ANY QB in the NFL that WOULDN'T benefit from improved protection? The urgency in re-signing Rodger Saffold, the selection of Greg Robinson at No. 2 overall in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Rams' attempt to trade up for OL Zack Martin in the same draft, speaks volumes about the teams' offseason concerns regarding the quality of the offensive line. Curiously, Mr. Barnwell doesn't mention - or analyse the effect of - the inept, injury-riddled, Swiss cheese-like, revolving-door offensive lines Sam Bradford has had to line up behind, at various points in his career.

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Nothing polarizes the Rams' fan base more than the ongoing "Sam Bradford Debate". I'm not a Sam Bradford apologist. I can appreciate the arguments made by both sides in the debate. However, some things just make more sense to me than other things do, just as some things will always rub me the wrong way.