BRYAN BURWELL

Sometimes, the real trick in defining a gifted athlete’s progress can be wrapped up in one simple word. So when it comes right down to it, there really isn’t much separating my opinion on Sam Bradford’s professional progress from that of my tag-team partner, Joe Strauss.

What he sees when he looks at the Rams quarterback is what could be. So he insists this must be Bradford’s breakthrough year.

I say it will be Bradford’s breakthrough year.

Put me in the pack of those who have been waiting for Bradford to have everything properly in place to make his ascent to the NFL’s special quarterback class. This wasn’t a simple act or an instant process. It was filled with setbacks and hard knocks, shifting playbooks, fired coaches, differing management styles and dramatic ownership philosophies.

Look around him and what do you see that wasn’t in place just two years ago? A proven head coach. A consistent offensive coordinator. A playbook he knows and an offensive lineup full of potential stars and foundation players. Perhaps the final pieces to that puzzle came this winter with the addition of Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long, rising star tight end Jared Cook and the explosive rookie receiver Tavon Austin. Add them to the mix of second-year players Daryl Richardson, Chris Givens and Brian Quick and during the preseason you could see the potential for all of this coming together.

“I think it was great watching some of those young guys making plays,” Bradford said after the final preseason game. “We all know what they’re capable of, but it’s nice to see it affirmed on the field.”

So now we get to sit back and watch something fascinating come together. This is what Bradford has been craving since he arrived here as the No.1 pick four years ago. He doesn’t talk much about such things in public. But he knows what’s expected of someone proclaimed as the face of the franchise. He knows they expect him to lead this organization to great places. But he also knows a lot of folks in the NFL have moved on to newer flavors of the month like Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

But what you need to know is no matter what others are saying about him, how many have forgotten about him, his expectations are so much higher. He doesn’t talk about it often, but trust me, he believes he’s capable of a level of play that would make your hopes shrink in comparison.

So now it’s time for it to happen. Now is the time for it to all come together. Now is the time for Bradford’s Rams to stop teasing us with their potential and deliver on that promise.

“I think obviously we are much improved at the skill position group,” he said last week. “Just in the sense we have a lot more speed. But there are some things we need to clean up. ... We’ve done a lot of good things in the preseason. But there are a lot of things we need to clean up moving into the regular season. (It’s) mental mistakes, route depths, clean up some of the cuts, hot reads. We still have a lot of little things we need to get right. If we want to be the team we think we can be ... we can’t use youth as (an excuse). I don’t care how young you are, you can’t make those kinds of mistakes.”

This is the new Bradford talking, the guy who has firmly taken on a leadership role. This is the next step in his growth as the quarterback a lot of people think he should be and I believe he has already become.

This is his team, his offense, his playbook. He isn’t learning the intricacies of this offense. He’s refining them. You see him now in practice or on the sidelines during games, and he’s corralling his receivers by the shoulder and telling them all the subtle nuances of how to make offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s X’s and O’s come to life.

I like how my pal Strauss digs into the NFL history books for comparisons of Bradford’s growth, and he rightly points out Hall of Famer Troy Aikman’s career as the perfect match. But Strauss probably narrowed in on the wrong year for the Bradford-Aikman comparison. He chose Aikman’s fourth NFL season (1992) when the Dallas QB led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl and his passing yardage and TD-INT ratio improved dramatically.

Right idea. Wrong year.

I prefer to look at Aikman’s third season in the league, 1991, to draw a more accurate comparison to what we can expect from Bradford this season. Aikman’s third season wasn’t his so-called breakthrough year, but it was the critical next step in the process. While the numbers weren’t gaudy (2,754 yards and only an 11-10 TD-INT ratio), they did come in only 10 regular season games. Besides, the real number that mattered most was in the NFL standings when the Cowboys went from a 7-9 team that just missed the playoffs to an 11-5 wild-card team that reached the NFC divisional playoffs.

So the 1992 season was the year when the final critical pieces of the offensive championship puzzle were added to the Cowboys lineup — deep-threat rookie wide receiver Alvin Harper and monstrous Pro Bowl offensive tackle Erik Williams. Now, the Cowboys had everything Aikman needed to lead Dallas to the Super Bowl. Explosive receivers (Michael Irvin, Harper), Pro Bowl running back (Emmitt Smith), reliable Pro Bowl tight end (Jay Novacek). Dominant offensive line (Williams, Nate Newton, Kevin Gogan, Mark Tuinea, Mark Stepnowski) and a young quarterback who simply meshed perfectly with his gifted offensive coordinator (Norv Turner).

So that was the “next step” season for Aikman, and I believe we’ll be able to say the same thing about Bradford by the end of this season, too.