Burwell: Bradford can't do it alone, not yet
BY BRYAN BURWELL, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist • Posted: Monday, December 20, 2010 10:30 am

One of these days, perhaps very soon, the Rams will be able to put a big game completely on Sam Bradford's young and gifted shoulders and just get out of the way and watch the magic occur. They will do with him what the Colts have always done with Peyton Manning, what the Saints are now doing with Drew Brees and the Broncos and Niners and Cowboys used to do with John Elway, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman.

They will hand it all over to him, and it won't matter what tools he has to work with, how impossible the mission, how deep the hole, how imposing the defense, how hot the glare of the moment might be.

And when that day does arrive — ETA next fall? — young Bradford will be good to go. We have already seen enough evidence to know that day will be here soon. But until that bright and sunshiny day does arrive, it sure would be nice to make the task of being the Rams' starting quarterback just a wee bit easier for him, don't you think?

For the second week in a row, the Rams' exceptional rookie passer was stuck in a competition that ultimately seemed impossible to win. By the end of this 27-13 loss to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, the only thing Bradford could do was rear back and chuck it and hope for a miracle. With Chiefs defenders flying at him from every direction, and with a football game that started off so promising, but now had disintegrated into a sad and disappointing mess, the only options left at Bradford's disposal were a quarterback's most desperate measures.

Chucking and ducking and flinging hopeless Hail Marys.

The stat sheet will tell you that Bradford had a rough day at the office. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes (21 of 43 for 181 yards and no TDs), was sacked three times, harassed two dozen more times, picked off twice and finished with his worst passer-efficiency rating of the season (a gawdawful 40.9).

But he didn't get much help from the folks he needed most. His offensive line let him down because they failed to protect him against the clever heat that KC defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was concocting. It was bad enough that they couldn't play stout enough to handle the pressure that was coming early and often up the middle and off the edges. But they further compounded it by being jittery and self-destructive with five false-start penalties that wrecked legitimate scoring opportunities.

His receivers let him down because they couldn't get open downfield when that heat was coming. Only tight end Daniel Fells averaged more than 10 yards a catch. Bradford went the entire first half without completing a single pass to a tight end or wide receiver for more than 8 yards.

The coach, Steve Spagnuolo, summed it up pretty well when he said: "I think when there is pressure on the quarterback, somebody defensively is winning up front, somebody on the back end is covering pretty good. So from an offensive standpoint, we have to find a way to (get open) quicker because I know the quarterback we have will get rid of the ball quick enough."

So here the Rams are, staggering about at 6-8 with two games to go, beaten up and humbled for the second week in a row by a team it surely could have beaten if a lot of things went right. Instead, the Rams were exposed for exactly what they are, a greatly flawed team with few offensive weapons to speak of. This is fine when you are playing around with the rest of the lightweights in the NFC West. But when you're messing around with NFL heavyweights who not only can outscore you in the blink of an eye (see: Atlanta, New Orleans and the Chiefs), but also have diabolical defensive coordinators who can expose those glaring offensive weaknesses with stunning precision (see: Gregg Williams of New Orleans and Crennel of KC), you get this sort of ugly and frustrating result.

The Rams are not a bad team anymore. But they're still not a good one just yet. A few weeks ago, we were wondering if they were at the lower end of being a good team or the upper end of being a bad team.

Right now, I think they're playing like they're in that annoying purgatory that lingers somewhere in between.

Good teams know how to take advantage of the kind of situations they were presented in the first half against the Chiefs. Good teams do not take a third-and-1 on the Chiefs' 9-yard line and turn it into a fourth-and-11 because of two consecutive false start penalities (tight end Billy Bajema and right tackle Jason Smith). Good teams don't settle for a field goal at that moment when they are fighting desperately to secure their first winning record in seven years. Good teams don't take two more prime first-half opportunities when the Chiefs gave them a short field (first down on the KC 36 and 37) and come away with only three points.

The Rams could have and should have been looking at no worse than a 17-0 lead barely a minute or so into the second quarter but blew it royally. All they got out of three really good early offensive possessions were two lousy field goals. Mistake after mistake after mistake kept coming, and I swear I kept looking around to see if Alex Barron had returned for the game.

You can't put that kind of extra pressure on your rookie QB, no matter how gifted he is, and expect him to pull a miracle out of his hat.

The good news is, the Rams don't have to be great to win this sorry division. They don't even have to be good.

All they need now is just to be good enough.

A winning season is out the door, but this season is a long way from being over. But the Rams have allowed supremacy of this division to slip out of their grasp. It could have been a stroll to the NFC West if they had been ready to play Sunday. It could have been another week where they separated themselves from one more team in the division (the *****). But instead, they have made the final two weeks just a bit more complicated than need be.

Next Sunday at home against 5-9 San Francisco is now a critical game that could allow the Niners to make this an anxious three-team race going into the final weekend. "We put ourselves in this spot to fight (for the division title)," said an obviously frustrated Jackson. "But now we have allowed for another team to come into the race."

The Rams still have more than enough talent to beat the likes of San Francisco here in the Dome, and they ought to have more than enough to go out to Seattle in two weeks and clinch things against the staggering Seahawks, who have lost six of their last eight by an average of 22 points a game. And considering where they came from last year with only one victory, that would be a monumental achievement.

But for that to happen, sooner or later a lot of people other than the rookie QB — particularly that well-compensated offensive line — need to remember what they are being paid to do.