Allow Bradford to Make His Mark Now

It’s the time of year when people like to rank the NFL’s quarterbacks. CBSSports.com did a ranking, Football Outsiders had one recently and, of course, ESPN.com and the Mother Ship have theirs on the way. I’m not at all dismayed or bothered by the lower-teens ranking of the Rams’ Sam Bradford, because his numbers don’t reflect elite status yet.

Yes, his statistics over three years scream mediocre. What dismays me, however, is the number of St. Louisans who ostensibly should be the people that see Bradford the most, who insist that he’s a lower-tier player that has no chance to get better. Last season, he was the 18th-rated passer in the NFL. The wide receivers he was throwing to were rookie Chris Givens, Brandon Gibson, Steve Smith, Austin Pettis and, for about half the season, Danny Amendola.

The Rams’ starting offensive line on opening day in Detroit was, left to right, Rodger Saffold, Rokevious Watkins, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl and Barry Richardson. That group was together for less than a half. In Week 2, the Rams had taken Quinn Ojinnaka off the scrap heap to play left guard in place of Watkins, and Robert Turner started for Wells at center. Then Safford got hurt, and in game three the Rams started their third line combination in three games. Watkins was out for the year, but the Rams finally got Saffold and Wells back on the field together for Week 12 against Arizona, and went 4-2 from there.

As every serious football fan knows, offensive success starts on the offensive line and ends in the hands of receivers. Unfortunately for the Rams and Bradford, the Rams didn’t get much started in the first half of last season. In the first 10 games, they averaged 17 points a game. In the last six, they averaged 21 per game. In the first 10 games, he was sacked an average of 2.5 times a game. In the last six, it was 1.5.

Not only are those numbers part of a bigger picture, but so are the receivers who emerged during the season. Givens didn’t play early and got better as the season went along. Tight end Lance Kendricks got better, and Pettis made 16 of his 30 catches and had his three best games among his last five.

So, to summarize, Bradford was throwing to a young, emerging receiving corps and was working behind a tattered offensive line. Once the line got together and developed some chemistry, it protected the quarterback better. The receivers matured, and the quarterback’s numbers improved. He averaged 224 yards in the first 10 games, 243 in the last six. He averaged 1.2 touchdowns in the first 10, 1.5 in the last six. And Bradford doesn’t lose games, throwing just 13 interceptions.

When the chips were down, Bradford came through. Four of the Rams’ seven wins were comebacks led by Bradford, as was their tie in San Francisco.

Yet we still get texts like this one: “Ok if Bradford has an average year, do the rams look at a QB high in the draft next year?” Should that be the goal? After spending three years providing Bradford a revolving door at offensive coordinator and quarterback coach, and finally adding some players around him, do you want to start over?

Here’s another one: “If Bradford keeps taking baby steps, we’ll have an Alex Smith situation in STL. Time to win or #HitTheBricks.” Certainly the Rams want to win, but to suggest they should replace him if he has another year like last year’s Super Bowl champion quarterback is a bit drastic (Bradford and Joe Flacco of Baltimore had virtually identical passing seasons). The potential free agents after next season are Jay Cutler, Rex Grossman, Chad Henne, Shaun Hill, Josh and Luke McCown, Seneca Wallace and Charlie Whitehurst. Do you see an upgrade over Bradford there? Do you want Mark Sanchez? He might be available. Perhaps there will be talented rookies, but let’s not get too sold on the idea of drafting another Russell Wilson. The Rams will not have a top-two pick in the draft, so getting an Andrew Luck or RGIII is not probable.

Another text to The Fast Lane: “I am a Bradford fan but if the rams don’t finish the year with a winning percentage we might be seeing Aaron Murray in a Rams jersey next year.” So, you’re going to judge a quarterback solely on the team’s winning percentage? If the Panthers have a second straight losing season, should they replace Cam Newton? If Pittsburgh doesn’t have a winning season for a second year in a row, should it cut Ben Roethlisberger? What if the defense doesn’t live up to the hype? What about injuries? I just can’t fathom my team acting in such an outrageous, egregious, preposterous manner.

I understand that the haters are a vocal minority. But as a longtime observer, I believe they need to be careful what they wish for. The alternative might not be that attractive.