Bernie: Stakes get higher for Bradford

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Let's go to the Sam Bradford checklist:

The right shoulder: check. It's holding up. Thank you, Dr. James Andrews.

The body shop: check. He's been sacked 27 times in 13 games and absorbed some particularly violent hits in recent weeks, but he's clearly capable of taking the punishment inflicted by NFL bullies. There's nothing fragile about the big guy from Oklahoma City.

Mental toughness: check. At any point this season did you look at Bradford and think, "He's overwhelmed, he's in too deep, he needs to go sit down for a while." I didn't think so. He can handle anything. Tremendous poise.

Fatigue: possible problem. If anything, Bradford's primary challenge is the brain strain of a long and intense season. As a dedicated student of the game, Bradford can't quite bring himself to shut down the game film and head to the X Box. He's hardwired for learning. And that investment of time has been converted into some of the most intelligent, mature play we've seen from a rookie NFL quarterback. But if Bradford is wearing don in any way, it's because of the endless grind of preparing for the next game. The demands were considerably less in college football.

Leadership: check. Bradford has earned respect with his serious approach, hard work and self-contained personality. In the locker room, veterans notice the way Bradford constantly deflects praise and redirects it toward his teammates.

The ability to play at his best when the game is on the line: still getting there. A work in progress. Bradford has had his moments, including the two-minute drill to tie the game at San Francisco at the end of the fourth quarter. He's made other money throws to put opponents away late in games. But if you want to go by the raw numbers, there's this. In the fourth quarter of games this season, Bradford has two touchdowns, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 59.3.

Overall, Bradford certainly has played up to the expectations established when the Rams made him the No. 1 overall choice in the draft. If anything, Bradford is ahead of schedule. There are better NFL quarterbacks in 2010, but none has been as valuable to his franchise as Bradford has been to St. Louis. And we say that for a simple but obvious reason: He's immediately transformed the franchise. How many NFL players have done that in 2010?

Even with the soft landing provided by the NFC West, it's pretty remarkable to think that this team can make the giant leap from 1-15 to the postseason in one year. And Bradford has been the No. 1 reason for the turnaround.

And he'll probably be the No. 1 determining factor in the Rams' three-game playoff push. Sunday's home contest vs. Kansas City will be the most important NFL game in St. Louis since the Rams scrambled to win the final two games of the 2004 season to clinch a playoff spot. Kansas City will be followed into The Ed by San Francisco. Two crucial tests await Bradford and the Rams, and we're curious to discover how a young team and the rookie QB will handle these football final exams.

"Yeah. I would say that this game is probably big, probably one of the bigger games we've played this year," Bradford said. "And the fact that we're still playing in big games in mid-December, I think that's really good for this team and this organization. Hopefully the games will only continue to get bigger."

Bradford is being asked carry his team into the postseason. Quarterbacks are judged by their prowess in winning the dramatic games that elevate the franchise. Bradford already has done the heaviest part of the lifting; the Rams are a surprise contender.

But the final three games pose a more specific objective: Just win, baby. The season is on the line. Show us what you've got. With quarterbacks, we look for and remember the big plays, the big wins, the big moments. Bradford seems comfortable with the responsibility.

"I think everyone on this team realizes what's at stake here and how big this game is," Bradford said. "Even though it's a big game and it's important, I don't think you can get tight or start to play cautious. I think you've got to let it loose, play the way you've been playing all year."

There have been recent signs of slippage in Bradford's play.

In the first eight games, he was one of the best third-down passers in the NFL, completing 60 percent of his throws with six touchdowns, no interceptions and a QB rating of 101.2. But in the last five games, Bradford's third-down numbers are 47 percent, one touchdown, three interceptions and a passer rating of 46.0.

Bradford has completed only six of his last 20 passing attempts in the red zone. And he hasn't exploited the blitz as effectively. According to STATS LLC, Bradford's passer rating when blitzed over the last two games is 62.0. That compares to an 88.6 rating over his first 11 games.

No question, the decline in these numbers is connected to some variables beyond his direct control. The quality of his receivers, for example. The security of his pass protection. The coaching staff's ability to quickly adjust when the defense takes something away from Bradford.

At New Orleans, the Saints blitzed Bradford more than 20 times and slammed into him repeatedly. Bradford threw two red-zone interceptions; the first was returned 96 yards for a touchdown in the game's defining moment. The protection was loose in New Orleans, and that affected Bradford's accuracy. Then again, some context is helpful here. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams specializes in making a football game miserable for rookie quarterbacks.

In his two seasons as the Saints defensive coordinator, Williams' defense has faced eight rookies, plus another (Chad Henne) who was in his first year as a starter. And the results have been gruesome for the baby QBees: a 46 percent completion rate, two touchdowns and 18 interceptions. What happened to Bradford in New Orleans wasn't surprising. It was normal stuff for Williams.

Moving forward, what can the Rams do to push Bradford's game to a higher level over the final three games? Tighter pass protection, definitely. And some of this is coaching. For reasons that baffle fans and media, deep threat Danario Alexander has been a non-factor in the last two games after emerging as a force in the road win at Denver. Why are the Rams throwing long balls to Laurent Robinson and ignoring Alexander? It makes little sense.

Some of Bradford's recent issues on third down can be explained by a change of tactics by the defense. Defensive coordinators are paid to identify a quarterback's favorite plays and take them away. For much of the season, wideout Danny Amendola had been Bradford's go-to guy on third down. But defenses are now clamping down on those underneath routes. Over the last three games, Amendola has only three third-down catches for 29 yards. It's up to the coaching staff to come up with fresher third-down strategies.

And the red zone? The Rams don't run the ball enough down there. And they lack creativity in their red-zone running attack. Obviously, the passing attack doesn't have that proven receiver who can post up and physically dominate defensive backs in tight spaces on a shortened field.

But when the Rams play the Chiefs on Sunday, Bradford will command the most attention. Fans won't be examining other, underlying factors. There isn't much subtlety when a team's fate is hanging. All eyes will be on the quarterback.

Fans in St. Louis, KC and throughout the NFL will be inspecting the rookie to see how Bradford rebounds from the difficult New Orleans experience, and if he can finish strong and play his best football when the Rams need it the most.