By Nick Wagoner/Senior Writer
Laying on an operating table back in the spring before Sam Bradford was ever officially a Ram, running back Steven Jackson put in a call to the potential No. 1 overall pick.
Jackson had been well aware of the Rams’ interest in Bradford and had heard nothing but positive things about Bradford as a player. But Jackson wanted to ensure that Bradford’s shoulder was OK and that he was going to be able to step in right away and help Jackson and the Rams in their rebuilding efforts.
That probably seems like ages ago to both Bradford and Jackson but what the rookie quarterback has accomplished in his first half of a NFL season is extremely fresh in their minds.
“It definitely has reinforced everything that I had read and heard about him,” Jackson said. “He’s a competitor. He’s a quiet competitor, but he’s a competitor that knows how to get the job done.”
What Bradford has done is help lead the charge for a team that has hit the halfway point of the 2010 season as one of the league’s most pleasant surprises.
At 4-4 and sitting squarely in the middle of the race for the NFC West Division title, the Rams have received major contributions from a variety of places, not least of which is the relentless leadership and running of Jackson and a feisty, aggressive defense that simply keeps opponents out of the end zone.
But perhaps as much as anything, it’s the change at the most important position on the field that has sparked the turnaround. In Bradford, the Rams knew they had their future at the quarterback position but they might not have known that the future is now.
“He has shown that he’s ahead of the scale of where a normal rookie would be at this particular point as a quarterback, in my opinion, just because of the way he handles himself, what he does, how he performs, the interactions with the players, those things, all the things in the huddle,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “And if he continues to do that, he’ll continue on this curve going upwards. That’s what we’re hoping.”
Rookie middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, who is often viewed as the lead building block on the defense because of his position but also his leadership qualities and passion for the game, says he sees a lot of himself in Bradford.
The two have become fast friends because of those qualities.
“I knew we were getting a terrific quarterback,” Laurinaitis said. “You could kind of sense his cool demeanor in college. I think after talking to him for a little bit through the draft process, after he got picked up and getting to know him and becoming friends, he’s a guy that I think we have very similar mentalities. He’s a perfectionist. He wants to be great for the Rams and when you have your QB doing that I think it trickles down to everybody else. We are very similar in that way. Everything you expect from a No. 1 pick, if you could pick the prototype No. 1 pick and check off all the things you would invest in; he has all those things.”
At the halfway point of the season, Bradford has exceeded even the loftiest expectations for a rookie signal caller.
Through eight games, Bradford has thrown for 1,674 yards with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a completion percentage of 58.6 and a rating of 75.9. For frame of reference, Bradford’s quarterback rating as a rookie is better than the likes of Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, John Elway and Troy Aikman through eight games.
The always humble Bradford hasn’t allowed his early success to cloud what he’s trying to accomplish and the level he hopes to reach, though.
When asked to summarize how he feels the first eight games have gone, Bradford struggles to find an answer.
“I think that’s hard to do,” Bradford said. “I think I’ve gotten better as the season has progressed, which is a definite positive. There are still a lot of things that I have to work on. I have to become a much better player than I am today, but I think the fact that I’ve made progress from Week 1 is a positive sign. If I can continue that, I think good things will happen.”
The learning curve for a rookie quarterback is probably steeper than any position in sports, let alone just in football. Bradford has made it a point to emphasize constantly learning what areas in which he needs to improve and then working to make it happen.
Most coaches and players like to view the season in four four-quarter blocks. In the past four contests, Bradford says he can see a difference from the first four.
“I think I learn different things every week,” Bradford said. “I think you have to. You can’t be satisfied with what you did, so I think there were a lot of things I learned. I think I learned I didn’t have to force as many things. I think I was a lot more patient in the last four games than probably the first four games, which I think is definitely a good thing.”
Bradford is quick to credit quarterbacks coach Dick Curl as well as his offensive line for his early performance.
Through those eight games, Bradford has been sacked 17 times for a loss of 102 yards but many of those sacks have involved Bradford simply tucking the ball and running out of bounds for a loss rather than taking a hit.
And though he’d normally be about three-quarters of the way through his season if he were still in college, Bradford says he feels great physically.
“No, my body feels great right now,” Bradford said. “I really haven’t got hit a lot. Our offensive line has done a great job of keeping me protected this year, so my body feels great right now. I would say if anything…mentally, that’s probably the tougher part right now than physically.”
That’s where Curl comes in. During games, Curl can regularly be found working with Bradford on the bench, going over calls, looking at pictures of coverages and reminding Bradford about his fundamentals.
“I talked about Dick’s experience way back when we drafted Sam,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s done that with a lot of guys in this league, developed them, and I know there’s a comfort level there between Sam and Coach Curl, so I think that’s a good thing.”
While his overall statistics are middle of the pack in terms of the league, his performance on third downs is among the best in the league. On those money downs, he’s completed 55 passes, 42 of which have gone for first downs, both totals ranking the best in the NFL.
In fact, Bradford has throws for 608 yards and six touchdowns for a rating of 101.2 in those situations, all totals that rank second in the league.
Still, Bradford maintains that he needs to continue to work to get better in every area though one area he’s been at his best is when it matters most.
“(It’s) just everything,” Bradford said. “Everything about playing the position. Defensive recognition, making protection calls, becoming quicker in my reads, the list goes on. Everything that I do as a quarterback I can become better at.”
It’s a thought that while true, is probably not too exciting for the rest of the league.