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Bradford Looks to Raise the Bar
With a variety of options for his next coaching destination, Jeff Fisher looked closely at the organizations he was considering.
As the Rams and Dolphins hotly pursued Fisher in hopes he would become the next to steer their franchises in a winning direction, Fisher took out his microscope and evaluated the important facets already in place and determined what would be needed to be successful.
While Fisher earned a reputation in Tennessee for having physically dominant teams with an offensive preference for running the ball, nobody keeps up with the game’s trends better.
So when Fisher decided St. Louis would be his second NFL head coaching destination, there were two things in place the Rams had that none of his other suitors could offer. One was a committed owner in Stan Kroenke who would allow Fisher to put his system in place.
“The other was a quarterback,” Fisher said.
Namely, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, a player Fisher watched closely in his year away from the game and a player Fisher is willing to wager is still due for big things in his career.
“(Last) year was difficult,” Fisher said. “I think you have to look back at his success and his production in his first year. Difficult for a lot of reasons, the lockout and lack of time together in the offense, but I think he has the chance to be a top quarterback in the National Football League very, very soon.”
VOTE OF CONFIDENCE
Bradford indeed was coming off a rough 2011 season in which a high ankle sprain limited him to 10 games and kept him at less than full strength in a handful of others. The injury also limited Bradford’s production.
Coming off a Rookie of the Year performance in 2010, Bradford finished with 2,164 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions completing just 53.5 percent of his passes on his way to a rating of 70.5.
Despite glimpses of the player he’d been in 2010, nobody was more disappointed with his sophomore campaign than Bradford himself.
“I think last year there were times I was inconsistent and that was frustrating because there were times I felt I did play well,” Bradford said.
Entering the offseason with a new regime coming in and arms with the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, a draft in which two potential franchise quarterbacks were available, it wasn’t out of the question that Bradford’s status could be up in the air.
But Fisher and later, new general manager Les Snead, wasted no time in putting any Bradford rumors to rest. Not only did Fisher and Snead not entertain the option of drafting a quarterback, they moved quickly to trade the draft pick for a boatload of future picks despite interest from other teams in trading for Bradford.
The vote of confidence without so much as a tick of hesitation earned Fisher and Snead Bradford’s immediate trust.
“That means a lot,” Bradford said. “Anytime you hear a guy like that say something about you, it immediately gives you confidence in what you are doing and what you’ve done. It would have been tough for me to have a new coach come in here who doubted me and didn’t believe in me. But from day one, he has believed in me and that has made it an easy transition for me and it’s given me confidence to go out there and play the way I know I can.”
LEARNING TO LEAD
Running back Steven Jackson remains the unquestioned locker room leader for the Rams, the heart and soul of the organization who commands respect any time he walks into the room.
Slowly but sure over the past two years, though, Jackson has seen Bradford begin to develop the leadership skills that have to be there when you play quarterback in the NFL.
Never was that more evident to Jackson than this offseason as he noticed Bradford regularly taking teammates out to dinner and spending time with them on and off the field.
“Each and every year he’s been here he has grown more and more as a leader and that will continue to happen throughout his career,” Jackson said. “He’s done a good job – even in the offseason getting the guys together in Oklahoma, working with them in training camp, getting the team together for something as small as dinner and working on camaraderie or staying after practice and working on some timing with the receivers.”
When Bradford first arrived in St. Louis, the task of learning his first NFL playbook and acclimating himself to the many tasks that go with his high-pressure gig kept Bradford from taking the reigns of the team.
Even going into the 2011 season, Bradford wasn’t quite ready to make his voice heard. As he enters his third year, though, it’s a role Bradford is embracing and taking serious.
“I think it’s just me being more comfortable in that position,” Bradford said. “I feel like I have a pretty good handle on things. I am just more comfortable speaking out and talking to the guys whereas my first year I was still trying to learn everything so it was hard for me to go out of my way to say things because I was still trying to learn and I wasn’t really sure if what I was seeing or what I was thinking was right so I was hesitant to go say things and it was almost the same last year where it was still pretty new to me so I was more hesitant to say things and jump people.
“This year, I understand that part of my job as the quarterback is to make sure that we are all on the same page and whether it’s grabbing guys after practice, after meetings, whatever, that’s going to contribute to us having success on Sundays.”
Bradford’s leadership manifested itself in a number of areas, even during the offseason. When he hosted a camp for kids back home in Oklahoma, he invited a bunch of his teammates to come out and participate and to do some work to stay refreshed on what they’d learned during the minicamps and Organized Team Activities. He even picked up the tab to get his teammates to join him.
In addition, Bradford is quick to invite his offensive linemen or his receivers or running backs or any of his teammates to join him for dinner. It’s a philosophy he developed a long time ago. The idea is that if you are more invested in the person, you’ll be more invested in the player come games.
“The more you can do things together, the better camaraderie you can build,” Bradford said. “It carries over to the field. I have seen it before on teams I have been on where we were extremely close. Everyone hung out off the field and it carried over to game days because everyone knew they were playing for someone or for something. I knew that the 10 other guys on the field with me were going to do their job and they were going to bust it during the week to make sure they were giving everything for me on game days.”
Bradford’s leadership role has gone beyond football camps and nice dinners. On the field and in the meeting rooms, he’s taken it upon himself to have a stronger voice that isn’t afraid to speak up.
Likewise, Bradford remains insistent that his teammates go above and beyond in their preparation whether it’s staying after to work on timing with receivers or staying late in meeting rooms to watch extra film.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer knew he was getting a talented right arm in Bradford but is impressed with how Bradford has taken control of his offense at such a young age (24).
“I think I’m really learning about him even today,” Schottenheimer said. “I mean, you watch him during a real game week and he’s still out there throwing routes. The fire he has, the organization he has in meetings, the way he organizes little skill group meetings and quarterback-center meetings and from a young player you don’t expect to see that. So that’s been a very pleasant surprise.”
Add it all up and Bradford was chosen by his teammates to fill one of four captain spots for the first time in his young career.
3 YEARS, 3 SYSTEMS
Continuity can be an extremely valuable commodity in the NFL, particularly for a quarterback. Unfortunately for Bradford, it’s not something he has had much of in his first three seasons.
Be it changing faces on the offensive line or at wide receiver, there have been few constants in Bradford’s short career with the Rams. But perhaps nothing has been a more difficult adjustment than the regular changes that have come at the offensive coordinator position.
As a rookie, Bradford flashed great potential under coordinator Pat Shurmur, who promptly departed to become head coach in Cleveland. Last year, it was Josh McDaniels bringing a much different scheme from Shurmur’s West Coast approach before he departed to take the reins in New England once more.
Now, it’s Schottenheimer’s turn.
“Ideally, I’d be going into year three of the same offense, but that’s not the case,” Bradford said. “It’s my job to adjust this year. When they brought in Schotty, I was extremely excited. It’s been great to work with him. I’ve really enjoyed learning his offense, learning to speak his language. I think it’s going to be really good for this offense. I think everyone in our offensive meeting room has bought into Schotty’s system. He’s a great leader and I’m looking forward to hitting the regular season with him.”
Along with Schottenheimer, Bradford is also back to having a quarterbacks coach, a role McDaniels absorbed into his coordinator duties last year. While Bradford enjoyed playing for McDaniels, he is happy to have Frank Cignetti around to help with the details, details that might have gone overlooked in his second season.
‘It’s been great having ‘Cig’ around,” Bradford said. “Just the little things that he reminds me of, whether it’s in the middle of practice, in warm-ups, he’s always hammering me on, ‘Run-game footwork, pass-game footwork. Hey, you were a little wide on that last track, make sure you get the back A-gap or we might need to push that a little more.’ It’s just those small things you start out and at the beginning of the year, you’re so conscious of those.”
In learning his third offense in as many years, Bradford at least comes with one major advantage over what he had when trying to grasp his second one last season. With no labor issues looming, the Rams and Bradford got a full offseason to take in the new offense.
The minicamps and OTAs allowed for Bradford and his teammates to get plenty of repetitions in the new offense. That meant snap after snap in the new scheme as far back as May. By the time the offseason program was over, the entire offense was already installed and Bradford had seen it all.
Last year’s lockout was a far cry as Bradford and his offensive teammates entered the regular season with only vague familiarity with most of the new scheme.
“Route concepts, protections, you name it,” Bradford said. “I think the biggest thing is this year going into this week’s game plan for the most part we have done everything. We have a few wrinkles but they are wrinkles from our foundation, things we have put in, things we understand. It just makes it a lot easier, not only on myself but on everyone else too. I think our guys are confident where they’re at in understanding this offense whereas last year, we were busting them out in a practice a couple days before which is never a great sign.”
While Schottenheimer’s offense is more similar to Shurmur’s than McDaniels’, it is also by no means the same scheme. There are West Coast principles at the foundation of Schottenheimer’s offense but it also allows for a lot more motions, shifts and movements that can complicate matters if they aren’t done with great attention to detail in practice.
Bradford has plenty of control at the line of scrimmage in the new system in terms of making checks at the line and handling line calls. While center Scott Wells will make the line calls, Bradford still has to affirm them when he gets to the line.
After playing in a scheme with plenty of five and seven-step drops in 2011, Bradford is back to an offense that emphasizes getting the ball out faster. Gone is the timing buzzer he wore during practices in previous years.
The buzzer has been replaced by Schottenheimer himself, who regularly emphasizes to Bradford of making sure he gets rid of the ball quick and how important that is to his success.
“That’s something that Schotty is on me about all the time is time clock,” Bradford said. “He’s really big on getting the ball out of your hand. You have got a hitch and a rest on a five step, if it’s not there you better be going forward or throwing it somewhere. You just can’t sit back there and pat the ball, that’s not the way it works in this league. You have got to be able to get the ball out of your hand quickly, make quick decisions and I think that’s something that has been great for me to hear. There are days I’m at practice and I’ll have three or four completions in a row and coach is killing me on time clock. He’ll say, ‘I don’t know if that’s realistic. You have got to get it out quicker, quicker, quicker.’”
As a former No. 1 draft pick and Rookie of the Year, there will always be an inherent amount of expectations heaped on Bradford. And entering his third season, most outside observers won’t care that he’s had three coordinators in three years or that he’s had instability at wide receiver and on the offensive line.
Even with a growing group of doubters that want to view Bradford’s second season struggles in a vacuum, his coaches and teammates remain steadfast in their support and belief that he can be amongst the league’s best quarterbacks.
“I think that’s the first thing that jumps at out you, is the accuracy,” Schottenheimer said. “The thing I like about him is he’s hard on himself. What we might deem a pretty good throw, he’s tough on himself, ‘Hey, I need to get that on the other number. I need to get that on the second level,’ things like that. It’s no surprise when you watch him do those things. We knew we were getting a very accurate passer.”
For as much as is expected of him, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who sets the bar higher than Bradford himself. Preferring to keep his individual goals to himself, Bradford is willing to make it crystal clear what type of strides he wants to make in year three.
“I can tell you they are pretty high,” Bradford said. “But I do just want to play consistently at a very high level. I think if I do that, we’ll have a really good chance to win every Sunday. I think the biggest thing for me this year is I want to be the same player every week. I want to play at a high level and I want the guys in the huddle to know I am going to play at a high level.”
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