Bernie Bytes: Monday Morning Backup QB

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good morning. Just returned home from San Francisco. Those red-eye flights make me even more loopy than I am, so I apologize in advance for any typos, tantrums or teases.

Let's get started on the Rams, the morning after: I did a lot of my growling in Monday's column, so I'm going to try and avoid repeating a lot of what I said in there. But we will get back ito some of it.

But I begin with a positive ...

* The Rams lost to the *****, but Sam Bradford took another step forward by running a cool-headed two-minute offense to set up the tying field goal and send the game into OT. The rookie completed 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards. He picked up four first downs along the way. He escaped a sack, fighting out of the grasp of a 49er, somehow regaining his balance and running for 6 yards and a first down. On a 2nd and 15 play, Bradford threw a high (perfectly placed) strike to Steven Jackson for a 25-yard gain. I was hoping to see Bradford take them in for a TD and a win. He may have had Daniel Fells held onto a pass on a 2nd and 7 play from the SanFran 15. I don't know if Bradford had a chance to take a shot into the end zone, but that never happened.

Still: Bradford didn't have to run many of these emergency drives to save a game at Oklahoma. And only nine games into his NFL career, Bradford hasn't had many opportunities to bring his team back and pull them into position to tie or win a game. So this was impressive. And that's especially true considered the way the Rams' offense had stalled out over four consecutive drives after taking a 17-10 lead. Bradford rallied his guys, cleared his mind of the previous misfires, and had tremendous presence while delivering with the game on the line.

Bradford was upset by the loss. But I asked him, even in his disappointment, if he could benefit from the experience of successfully operating his first real two-minute drill in an NFL game.

"You can always take value out of things," he said. "I'm really proud of the way we hung in there and fought. We had struggled in the fourth quarter. It would have been really easy for us as an offense to come out and take another three and out, but that's not what we did. We had confidence in ourselves. We knew that once we got the ball back, we were going to march it down the field and score. And that's what we did. You would have liked to have gotten a touchdown there to end it in regulation, but to get a field goal and send it to overtime, you can always look at that as a positive."

* The ***** took note. When asked to offer his impressions of Bradford after competing against him for the first time, San Francisco linebacker Takeo Spikes said: "He's a good football player. What makes him so good is he rarely turns the ball over and he's efficient whenever he throws it. He showed a lot of heart, a lot of heart."

* Waiting for the press box elevator, I ran into an old friend: Ray Brown the longtime offensive lineman who began his incredibly long career (1986 through 2005) with the old St. Louis Cardinals. He's now a ***** assistant. I asked Brown about Bradford. "People say he has a chance to be special," Brown said. "I think he's already pretty special. I don't think anyone looks forward to playing against him for the next 10, 12 years."

* I don't understand why the Rams don't use some no-huddle offense during "regular" portions of the game, when they aren't forced to do so while in a two-minute mode. Bradford said the Rams work on it a lot in practice. He clearly enjoys running it. It would represent a nice change of pace, especially when the Rams are bogging down offensively and need a lift. The Rams' coaches have a chance to expand their offense (and horizons) but won't do it. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

* I think one of the disappointing episodes of the Rams' season came on the first possession of overtime. They had just moved down the field to tie the score. It was 20-20. The ***** defense had just been out on the field, chasing the Rams during an 11-play drive. They were on the ropes when the Rams won the toss and got the ball to start the OT. Bradford tossed a 3-yard pass to Jackson; clearly the goal there was to get Jackson to the perimeter and hope that the ***** would miss a tackle and give SJ39 a chance to pop it for some yards.

Didn't happen. Patrick Willis wrestled Jackson down -- just as he did on the third-down play near the end of regulation, right before Josh Brown's tying FG. On 2nd down, Jackson ran up the middle for 2 yards. It was a dull, unimaginative running play. And Bradford was sacked on third down. That's all. Ballgame. You just knew the ***** would score.

"I felt great about our chances," Bradford told me. "We had put the pressure on their defense. They were probably a little tired after that two-minute drill. I thought we had a great chance to come out and gash them right off the bat. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the first down. It's tough."

* I wish the Rams had been a little more ambitious in their approach on that opening possession. They played it too safe. Up until that point, I disagreed with the in-game criticism of offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur; fans were saying he was being too conservative. Not true. He had some creative things going. He put together a nice package of running the ball out of nickel-offense formations. He went with 3 or 4 wideouts for much of the game. The Rams were able to get the ***** off balance. But that first shot in OT? In a word: dull.

* Bradford in the last four games: 86 of 131 (65.6 percent), 6 touchdowns, no interceptions, a passer rating of 96.4. That passer rating ranks 8th among starting NFL quarterbacks since Oct. 17.

* Some of the pieces of this loss belong on the desk of Rams GM Billy Devaney. Now, before I explain, let me say this: Devaney made a helluva trade for Mark Clayton the week before the season-opening game. It was a great pickup. Clayton isn't a true No. 1 receiver, but he was plenty good, and clearly in tune with Bradford. It isn't Devaney's fault that Clayton suffered a season-ending knee injury. That said, the Rams clearly have to upgrade and give Bradford more playmakers. It wasn't a fair fight in some respects Sunday. San Francisco quarterback Troy Smith was throwing to Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Delanie Walker. These are talented receivers who can break free, or break off a game-changing play at any time. And ***** RB Frank Gore is an exceptional receiver coming out of the backfield; yesterday was no fluke in that regard. Gore has been doing that for many years. To move the ball down the field through the air, Bradford has to peck away at it, because the Rams don't have much range in their passing game. They are limited. Smith completed 17 passes but racked up 356 yards; he was distributing the ball to guys who had the big-play skill. Bradford completed 13 more passes than Smith in the game, but threw for 105 fewer yards.

* Along those lines: I wish the Rams would make tight end Michael Hoomanawanui a more frequent target. He's clearly their most gifted receiver among the tight ends. He's fast enough to get down the seam, he has outstanding feet and balance and can make tacklers miss. I think this rookie could be a real asset in the passing game. But the Rams have to make it a priority. Big Mike was targeted four times yesterday; he pulled in two catches for 20 yards. But one went for 16 yards and his receiving skills were apparent. The tight end has evolved into a significant weapon of choice for NFL teams. Terrific receiving tight ends are on display all over the league. New England coach Bill Belichick was so convinced that TEs were the way to go that he drafted two of them this season, and Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have combined for 8 TD receptions so far. The Rams need to get with it and join the TE movement.

* I'm still trying to understand why head coach Steve Spagnuolo replaced Bradley Fletcher in the starting lineup, going with Kevin Dockery at right CB. The move backfired in a profound, damaging way. But here's the deal: Dockery hasn't been a good cover guy for a long time. This season (before yesterday) he had been targeted 10 times and given up 6 completions. Last season, in his final one with the NY Giants, Dockery was targeted 17 times and gave up 14 completions -- a staggering "burn" rate of 82.4 percent according to STATS LLC. And three of those 17 completions went for TDs. Fletcher is still developing; he's only in his 2nd season and also had to rehab a serious knee injury coming into 2010. But he's played well, limiting opposing QBs to a 49 percent completion rate. This was a strange move by Spags. And the ***** got an easy 7 points because of it. Is there something going on here that we don't know about?

* The Rams special teams had a good day. That should not be overlooked. They hemmed in Ted Ginn and the *****' return game. They blocked a punt. Donnie Jones had an exceptional performance with his punting. Josh Brown did push a kickoff out of bounds; that was bad. But he was money on the field goals including the pressure kick to tie the game at the end of the 4th Q. The Rams' kickoff return game doesn't have a lot of juice, but that's the norm.

That's all for now; I'll be adding some thoughts (randomly) as I think of them over the next few hours. So check back if you'd like.