With butterflies in his stomach well before Saturday night’s exhibition opener against Minnesota, rookie quarterback Sam Bradford couldn’t wait to step between the white lines and play a live action football game for the first time in a long time.
By this point, it’s pretty universally acknowledged that Bradford is a competitor of the highest order, the type of guy who is looking to (and capable of) taking on all comers at everything from football to basketball to hockey to charades.
So as the first preseason contest approached, Bradford was both anxious and eager for his first chance to play in a game since he suffered a season ending shoulder injury on Oct. 17 of last year.
The Rams’ plan was to get Bradford in right away, thus killing off the butterflies early and allowing Bradford to settle in. Problem was the game just wouldn’t cooperate.
“(I was) very anxious,” Bradford said. “The second time we got the ball, coach told me if we got a first down I was going in there. We go three-and-out, I’m over there waiting. We run the kick back, and then we have the fumble, so I was very anxious to get in the game but once I got in there it felt great.”
In an ideal world, the Rams offense would have moved down the field with a nice, long drive on the first possession with A.J. Feeley starting at quarterback. The veteran Feeley was expected to get somewhere between eight and 14 snaps before giving way to Bradford.
After five snaps on the first possession, the Rams coaching staff let Bradford know he’d go in for Feeley on the second possession should the offense pick up a first down on a third down play with 7:26 to go in the first half.
But the Rams couldn’t convert and had to punt. Still, Bradford was due to come in on the next series, regardless. But again, the football gods kept him waiting.
The Vikings pieced together a long drive but lost a lot of ground on penalties and ended up having the ball for close to six minutes before punting. Of course, Danny Amendola proceeded to return that punt 93 yards for a touchdown.
Minnesota’s offense came back on the field for its next possession and picked up a first down before punting. This time, Amendola fumbled it and the Vikings recovered. The Vikings scored two minutes and 33 seconds later.
Finally, the Rams were able to get the offense on the field about 10 minutes of game time and about 30 minutes of real time later. And with 12:09 to go in the first half, Bradford finally stepped onto the Edward Jones Dome field to a thunderous applause.
“That always feels good,” Bradford said. “That’s always encouraging, especially being a little bit nervous knowing the crowd’s behind you before you take your first snap. It was definitely helpful.”
Bradford took his first snap and handed off to running back Chris Ogbonnaya for a gain of 5 yards. It was a small benchmark in a football career that so far has featured plenty of highlight reel worthy moments.
But it was a moment that certainly helped Bradford begin to settle in.
“As soon as you get out there and get that first one under your belt and realize that it’s just football, it’s something I’ve done for a long time,” Bradford said. “I think the nerves went away and it felt good.”
After throwing an incompletion on second down, Bradford was instantly facing his first third down situation. On third-and-5, Bradford stood tall and fired a dart to Laurent Robinson coming clear on a crossing pattern for a gain of 18 yards.
“(It) felt great,” Bradford said. “The first one, the first completion, to get in there and do that, move the ball and get a first down and just get the offense rolling. It was fun.”
With his first completion out of the way, Bradford seemed to find a rhythm, completing his next three attempts and getting the Rams to Minnesota’s 36.
On one of those attempts, a 9-yard dump off to Ogbonnaya, Bradford also answered one of the questions that has been thrown at him the most since arriving in St. Louis.
As Bradford released the ball, he was hit hard from the side and driven to the ground. He bounced right back up, much like he did on the other hits he took, including a trio of sacks.
“The hits tonight were fine,” Bradford said. “The body feels good right now, didn’t take anything major. As far as a hit-to-hit, they’re pretty similar so far. I think the guys up here are a little bit bigger, a little bit faster.”
Facing a second-and-1, the Rams were unable to convert on the following three snaps, killing the drive and the momentum gained early in the drive.
“The biggest disappointment of the game was the third and 1 and fourth and 1 we didn’t convert there,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “We talked a lot about it the night before. It was kind of a challenge put forth to the team…and we didn’t meet that.”
The ensuing Bradford-led drives after that were abbreviated as the offensive line had some protection breakdowns and he was sacked twice in a row.
Since those drives were so short, Spagnuolo made the decision to bring Bradford back out to start the third quarter. And it was Bradford’s first throw of the second half, a rollout to Keenan Burton for a gain of 9, which might have been the play that stuck out most to Spagnuolo when he watched the film Saturday afternoon.
All told, Bradford played 21 snaps and was six-of-13 for 57 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns. In his final evaluation of the performance, Spagnuolo saw many of the ups and downs you’d expect from a rookie signal caller in his first game.
“He made quick decisions,” Spagnuolo said. “To me, that was one of the most positive things he did. He made some really quick decisions. There were some center/quarterback exchange issues he had to deal with and he’ll work on that. I did like how quick he was with his decision making in throwing the ball.”
As for his own evaluation of his first dress rehearsal, Bradford expressed his excitement just to be back on a football field and playing but also took the long view in pointing out how far he still has to go.
Spagnuolo said Sunday there is plenty of time for things to sort themselves out and that the coaching staff would consider all angles in ultimately naming a season opening starter, including the shape of the offensive line.
For his part, Bradford remains focused on continuing to find ways to improve every day.
“I’m getting there,” Bradford said. “Compared to where I was at the beginning of camp to now, it’s night and day. I feel very comfortable with what we’ve put in so far, and I think it’s just a matter of getting more snaps in a game-like atmosphere. The more that happens, the more comfortable I’ll become, just like I’ve become more comfortable in practice.”