On the clock: Rookie QB Sam Bradford adjusting well to NFL ..
By Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY
ST. LOUIS — Sam Bradford can deal with the long hours, complex defenses and challenge to help revive one of the NFL's most depressed franchises.
That dreaded beeper his head coach uses at practice?
Drives him crazy.
Steve Spagnuolo realizes this and loves it. Spagnuolo, the former New York Giants defensive coordinator in his second season as St. Louis Rams coach, has been emphasizing the importance of getting rid of the ball quickly to his rookie quarterback. During seven-on-seven drills, he uses a timer that beeps if Bradford doesn't throw within 2.7 seconds. To raise the stakes, they have an ongoing wager.
If Bradford doesn't fire the football within the allotted time, he pays $15 to a charity fund. If he beats the clock, Spagnuolo pays $5.
Bradford on the clock. This was Spagnuolo's idea.
"Besides the fact that all the money goes to charity, it's probably one of the worst parts of our practice," Bradford, 23, said this week at Rams Park. "It's not my favorite thing, and he knows it. I think that's why he continues to do it."
Bradford contends there are circumstances, such as a primary receiver on a play being covered, that dictate a quarterback wait a bit longer.
"I can throw a route totally on rhythm in our progression, and according to the clock it's late," he says. "Which doesn't make a lot of sense. But he's a defensive guy."
Even so, Bradford is winning the season-long wager with his coach. Sort of.
"I tell him," Spagnuolo says, " 'Sam, you realize that I can't lose. When you're doing well, I win. And when you're doing bad, you have to pay. So I can't lose. And I don't mind giving money to charity.' He doesn't like that. He wants to have a clear winner."
This is one way to connect with Bradford, a fierce competitor and perfectionist who won the Heisman Trophy two years ago while starring at Oklahoma and was drafted No. 1 overall in April.
It hasn't hurt. The Rams (6-6) have won as many games this season as they did in the previous three seasons combined and are in first place in the NFC West. After back-to-back road victories, they head to New Orleans for the next big challenge of trying to upset the defending Super Bowl champion Saints (9-3), who have a five-game winning streak.
"They're in playoff mode," Spagnuolo says of the Saints. "I'm sure we'll get their best punch."
That the Rams are in the playoff hunt themselves is nothing short of remarkable. They were 1-15 last season and are in a rebuilding mode. Their chances of making the postseason are boosted by being in the NFL's weakest division.
Although Spagnuolo won't even publicly mention the playoffs, there is no denying the buzz circulating throughout the complex for a team having something to play for in December.
"I was afraid at one point that whenever it turned around I wouldn't be around or I would not have a significant role," says running back Steven Jackson, the longest-tenured Ram in his seventh season. He's fourth in the NFC with 985 rushing yards.
Bradford, who set an NFL rookie record by throwing 169 passes without an interception, is hardly surprised by the Rams' resurgence. That might reflect the unbridled enthusiasm of a rookie who signed a record six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed, but Bradford sees it as a matter of high expectations.
"If you go into a season thinking, 'OK, we won one game last year, and if we win three this year it will be a success,' you're totally wrong," Bradford says. "You have to go into every season thinking that you want to win the Super Bowl. If you don't, then what are you playing for?"
Such an outlook is one reason the Rams were so drawn to select Bradford as the franchise's cornerstone. Physical traits — including a strong, accurate arm that checked out after shoulder surgery wiped out much of his senior season — matter only so much when projecting whether a quarterback will succeed in the NFL.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, a former NFL quarterback, hardly saw this coming. Dilfer always thought highly of the physical skills but thought Bradford was destined to be a slow developer.
"I'm blown away by his progression and the improvement he's made since coming into the league," Dilfer says. "He looks nothing like a typical rookie. It almost looked too easy (at Oklahoma)."
When the Rams were evaluating Bradford, they might have been more focused on how well he worked with teammates.
Bradford is accepted as a leader by teammates, who laud his work ethic. Shortly after Bradford was drafted, Jackson called him with a bit of advice: be yourself.
Jackson, the team's most accomplished player, wanted to ease any concerns about how the leadership needed to flow within the team's chemistry.
"I just wanted him to know that he didn't have to worry about that," Jackson said. "I told him, 'If you're not a yeller, don't yell. Don't feel like you have to do anything out of yourself to capture leadership.' "
Says Bradford: "I knew I wasn't going to come in telling people what to do from Day One. … I just focused on working hard, and I think the guys have seen that and respected that."
With time, Rams GM Billy Devaney also has gained a sense of what makes Bradford tick. In the third preseason game at the New England Patriots, Bradford's first start, Devaney recalls an exchange on the team bus. He congratulated Bradford for handling himself well against the Patriots starters, an effort that began with a touchdown drive on his first series. He was taken aback by Bradford's matter-of-fact response.
"He said, 'Oh, my God. Can you believe I missed Laurent (Robinson) in the back of the end zone?' " Devaney said. "Those were the first words out of his mouth. That's what makes him."
During Sunday's 19-6 victory at the Arizona Cardinals, Bradford came to the sideline bemoaning a completion to wide receiver Brandon Gibson. He intended to throw the pass to the tight end and told Spagnuolo he had gotten lucky on the play.
"I love him on game day, especially when he comes to the sideline all (mad) about something," Spagnuolo says. "I look at him and think, 'That's beautiful.' I mean, he doesn't like it when he throws a completion and it was on the (receiver's) right shoulder instead of the left shoulder."
Preparing for pressure
St. Louis has been careful not to overload Bradford. He had his first 300-yard game two Sundays ago at the Denver Broncos, and Jackson is second in the NFL with 260 carries. In an offense that lost starting receivers Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery to season-ending injuries, the Rams have used a short, controlled passing game.
Still, they seem to be expanding packages by the week, evidenced by the use of a no-huddle attack early in Sunday's game.
"Last week it seemed like the game was moving 10 times slower than it was in Week 1," Bradford says. "In Week 1 it seemed like there were just bodies moving 100 miles an hour in all directions, and you're trying to sort them out as quickly as possible. This time I had a good feel for what they were trying to do."
Even so, each week has been about discovery, with defenses bent to disguise and confuse. The coverage that surprised him most Sunday came on a play in which the nose tackle floated to the flat to cover the halfback.
"I've seen teams dropping ends," he says, "but I've never heard of anybody doing what they did with the nose guard."
He expects to get a big NFL welcome at the Louisiana Superdome on Sunday, as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams traditionally calls more blitzes than any other coach in the league.
"With me being a young quarterback, you'd expect to see a lot of pressures, especially early in the game," says Bradford, who has an 81.0 passer rating and 17-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 2,653 yards. "They are going to test us, see if our protections can hold up. Hopefully we can make some plays to get them out of some of those looks."
As with any rookie quarterback, the speed and complexity of the NFL game have required Bradford to adjust. Each Tuesday, typically the players' day off, he puts in a full day, beginning with a weightlifting session and ending with meetings with Spagnuolo, coordinator Pat Shurmur and quarterbacks coach Dick Curl, who gives him the game plan.
"The toughest thing about this job is the amount of time that you have to put in," Bradford says. "It didn't catch me off guard, but until I went through a game week I didn't think I really understood how much of a commitment it is. In college you put in a lot of time, but it's nothing compared to this."
Jackson checked on Bradford recently to gauge how he was holding up to the rigors of a longer NFL season. He was pleased that the quarterback dismissed any possibility of running into the so-called "rookie wall."
"The fact that we're in a playoff race takes care of that," Bradford says. "I've got to give my team a chance to win. There's no time for me to hit a wall."
This much he knows, even without the help of his coach's beeper.
Re: On the clock: Rookie QB Sam Bradford adjusting well to NFL ..
For you oldtimers out there, this made me think of the "Kung Fu" tv series: "Ah, grasshoppah. When you can throw the ball before the beeper goes off, you are ready for neffel..."
Re: On the clock: Rookie QB Sam Bradford adjusting well to NFL ..
Thats an awesome wager Spag and Sam got goin on.And this is clearly evident in Sams play,he is very quick to find the hot read or checkdown.He has a great internal clock for getting rid of the ball.Now if we can only get him a couple real play makers to throw the ball to.......then we see what Sam can really do.