Bradford set for leader's role

11 hours ago • By Jim Thomas jthomas@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8197

PHOENIX, Ariz. • The Rams have no shortage of leaders on defense, in fact one at every level of the unit. End Chris Long up front, James Laurinaitis at linebacker and Cortland Finnegan in the secondary.

As for the offense, for years the alpha male has been running back Steven Jackson. It showed itself in many forms, whether it was Jackson running wind sprints with a struggling teammate to encourage him during training camp. Getting on a wide receiver because of inconsistencies in his play. Or rallying the entire offense in the huddle, or the entire team on the sideline at critical junctures of a game.

But now that Jackson is an Atlanta Falcon, who will fill the void? Especially on offense, where the skill position players as a group figure to be among the youngest in the league.

Coach Jeff Fisher has an obvious candidate in mind: quarterback Sam Bradford.

“You know we saw it was coming (last season),” Fisher said. “Sam really took things over the second half of the season. We’ve got guys who can stand up and take charge and carry the torch. I’m not concerned about that. Sam, I was very impressed with how he handled things.”

As a rookie in 2010, Bradford was careful about not overstepping his bounds. No. 1 overall pick or not, he didn’t want to walk in and act like he owned the place, as if he had a sense of entitlement because of his lofty draft status.

In the disastrous 2011 season, Bradford was preoccupied by a nasty ankle injury that wrecked his season. Then came 2012, with a new regime in place and a roster turned upside down. Bradford never will be a screamer or yeller, but there were signs that he was asserting himself.

From encouraging his teammates on the sideline, to speaking with wide receiver Chris Givens about his importance to the team after Givens’ was suspended for the Nov. 11 game in San Francisco.

The Rams were the youngest team in the NFL in 2012 and given the number of veterans departing via free agency or being released, that doesn’t figure to change in 2013.

“We’ll be younger this year than we were last year,” Fisher pointed out. Then he added with a laugh, “We may be the youngest team in history.”

In Atlanta, Jackson will enter his 10th NFL season; his current potential replacements will be second-year players. Departed wide receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, both entering their fifth NFL season, will be replaced largely by second-year players or even a rookie or two.

“They don’t know what they don’t know,” Fisher said, with a shrug. “You tell ’em to play hard, and they say OK.”

So Bradford needs to shepherd those youngsters on the field, making sure the receivers are running the right routes, the backs know what to do in pass protection and that everyone gets lined up right.

Leadership also can show itself through play, and Bradford led several late comebacks — some that resulted in victories, others that didn’t. At the NFL owners’ meetings, Fisher indicated that Bradford will be given more in-game responsibility in terms of what he sees and how he reacts to what he sees at the line of scrimmage.

The basics of the Brian Schottenheimer-run offense will remain the same, but it looks like there will be tweaks in the playbook in 2013.

“Coaches have been working hard, as they do, looking at the cutups (from 2012 game film),” Fisher said. “What’s good. What’s not good. What would you change. Give Sam maybe a little bit more to do. Turn more of the responsibility over to him from the decision-making standpoint on the line of scrimmage.”

You could see some of that taking place late last season, particularly in the season-ender in Seattle. In that game, Bradford clearly could be seen going through his progressions. He hit several check-down passes to the running backs, something that was rarely done earlier in the season.

The Rams also sprinkled in some hurry-up, up-tempo sequences throughout that game.

“He did some of that,” Fisher said. “But we go in the season potentially with the ability to do more.”

Although the result was a 20-13 loss, Bradford looked more in command of the offense than at any other time as a Ram.

And because of the revamped corps of skill position players this season, combined with what promises to be some new offensive wrinkles, Bradford won’t be kept in mothballs during the preseason.

“Sam’s going to be one of those guys that’s gonna need a few plays, needs the preseason games,” Fisher said.