By Nick Wagoner
Of all the lessons Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford took from his first five professional football practices last weekend, perhaps the most important thing he learned is that he now knows what he doesn’t know.
“I realize this is kind of the beginning of the work process for me, and I think one of the great things about this weekend is I saw just exactly how far I have to go,” Bradford said as the Rams wrapped up camp on Sunday. “We just put in a slight portion of the playbook. I felt like I handled it, but there’s so much more to come. I really need to make sure that I’m prepared by the time I come back here in a couple weeks.”
Indeed, the Rams’ rookie minicamp resembled more of an introduction, a Rams Football 101, if you will, than anything like what a NFL Sunday will be.
For Bradford and the rest of the team’s rookie class, adjusting to the pro game is a long and arduous process. But there’s little doubt that a quarterback has the steepest and most mentally demanding of all tasks.
In the week leading up to the minicamp, Bradford spent plenty of time on the phone with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and quarterbacks coach Richard Curl. Those sessions were meant to prepare Bradford for all that goes into being a NFL signal caller.
Things like knowing the verbiage, spitting out the plays quickly and making sure everyone is doing his job on a given play. Taking command of the huddle was another issue the Rams coaching staff wanted to see right away.
“I think Sam did a terrific job,” Shurmur said. “This is the first time he’s hearing things and all the reasons for drafting him were obvious. He’s very smart, got a great command of the huddle. He’s got great attention to detail. By the end of the week, he was repeating things like he got them in the installations and he’s very talented. So you take the talent and the work hard and I think he progressed well in five practices.”
Shurmur said the Rams even went so far as to try to find ways to throw Bradford off by adding installations with different plays with different protections, route combinations and progressions.
In other words, pretty much everything a quarterback has to go through mentally in a game and find a way to execute, the Rams asked Bradford to do.
“There are always things to work through and that’s why you repeat things, but I think he handled the workload well,” Shurmur said. “Really, we tried to mentally stress him a little bit to see how he’d handle things. He handled that well and he was able to bring the stuff from the meeting to the practice field. That’s the most important thing.”
One area that put no stress on Bradford was something that some might not have expected him to do so well.
Some believe that Bradford comes from a strictly shotgun-formation oriented spread offense at Oklahoma where he rarely took snaps under center.
Of course, Bradford actually took about half the snaps under center for the Sooners and looked plenty comfortable doing it for the Rams on a weekend where he literally spent no time in the shotgun.
“He’s a natural quarterback, so the focus in this camp was to do pretty much everything under center so we could work on the one, the three, the five and seven-step drop,” Shurmur said. “As time goes on, what naturally happens is they get smoother and smoother and smoother. Your eyes kind of take you where your feet go and your feet take your eyes where to go. I think he did a pretty fine job.”
One other thing that Bradford did not get to experience was putting on the pads and taking a hit. Neither did any of the other players in attendance as league rules forbid teams from having pads on during these types of camps.
Still, Bradford says he is looking forward to taking that first hit to prove that his shoulder is going to hold up just fine after his surgery.
“I think it will be cool, and hopefully it will kind of calm everyone down, because I think everyone is freaking out about it,” Bradford said, laughing. “Like, ‘If his shoulder gets touched, is he just going to like, die?’ It’s going to be okay. I’m going to be able to take a hit. But it’s been a long time since I got to play football, a long time since I got to take a hit. Sometimes it’s fun to take one. You know, as soon as you take a hit, you’re ready to go. It gets you going.”
While Bradford remains unconcerned with his ability to take a hit, he openly acknowledges that he is going to have to adjust to the speed of the game.
In Sunday’s final practice, Bradford sat back and dissected the defense in 7 on 7 drills. But coach Steve Spagnuolo stepped in and reminded Bradford that he isn’t going to have that kind of time in the NFL and he needs to get the ball out quicker.
“I just need to quicken things up,” Bradford said. “That’s one of the things right now that I’m learning is that I’m still thinking a lot when I get under center whereas back at Oklahoma after playing in a system for three years, you’re comfortable with everything, so it’s just second nature. I think that’s just a matter of watching tape, studying my playbook and getting reps. I think as that happens, I’ll become quicker and play more to the speed that they want me to play.”
After Spagnuolo’s reminder, Bradford and the Rams moved to the other end of the field for some red zone work. If ever there’s a time to speed up reads and release, it’s inside the opponent’s 20.
“I was really anxious to see the way he would react in the red zone,” Spagnuolo said. “I reminded him that down here you can’t hold on to the football. Everything happens a little bit faster. When we went to team, I thought he did that and I thought he got it out pretty quick. He had one nice throw down here in the corner, so those are the things that kind of stick out.”
Over the next few months, there figure to be plenty of things that stick out about Bradford. His teammates and coaches raved about his pinpoint accuracy, his leadership in the huddle and his ability to throw accurately and with velocity while on the run, among other impressive traits.
Bradford and the rest of the rookies can’t return to St. Louis until May 17 but in the meantime, he will get plenty more time on the phone with Shurmur and Curl. All of those chat sessions are designed to help Bradford speed things up so when the veterans arrive and the pads come on, there is no hesitation.
“When you step on the field and you look at it, it looks really easy on paper and you’re like, “I should be able to go out and run this,’” Bradford said. “Then everything starts moving and things change, routes don’t exactly get run the way you draw it up on paper, and you have to adjust. I think that’s the thing that I need to really improve on. It’s just going to take time and take hard work.”