BY BRYAN BURWELL Sunday, August 29, 2010 12:20 am

Out of the mouth of babes, they call it. It's the perfectly innocent moment when an uncensored child speaks without the benefit of any social filter.

So here we are under the sweeping roof of the indoor practice facility at Rams Park just two days before Sam Bradford's first NFL preseason game. The National Football League's first overall draft pick is doing his normal Thursday post-practice whirl. First he meets with the media for several minutes, chatting up about the buildup to playing in his first pro football game. A few minutes later, he is escorted away from the microphones by the team's lead publicist Ted Crews, who quietly whispers in his ear a few important details about some visitors to camp who were eager to meet him.

The young quarterback is laughing. None of this appears to be drudgery to him. He works the room easily, as if he is a charming politician in a fund-raiser reception line, graciously shaking hands, posing for photographs and engaging in polite small talk, all while running the autograph gauntlet.

And there, arms draped over the four-foot-tall metal barrier, is young Max Arnone, an eager, gabby 7-year-old sporting a gold personalized football jersey. He is armed with a Sharpie pen in one hand, a Rams poster in another, and enough giddy enthusiasm to fuel a blast furnace.

"Sam ... SAM ... SAMMMMMM!!!!" the kid gushes breathlessly.

"Sam, St. Louis sure is lucky to have you... because you're famous AND good!"

Well when it comes right down to it, isn't that the essence of how Sam The Young Man's new football life will ultimately be measured?

Bradford needs to be famous AND good.

When you are a No.1 overall draft pick, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback with a face the school girls love and with an arm that the pro football wise guys gasp and swoon over, in order for this tale to have a happy ending, you will have to achieve both social celebrity and athletic greatness.

You do know there's a difference between the two, right?

Snooki, J-woww and The Situation from "Jersey Shore" are famous. Lots of people know who JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf are too.

But when you come into the NFL with a contract worth a guaranteed $50 million, when the St. Louis Rams have tied their entire future to your predicted success, when everyone in the NFL is already anticipating that you will be a face-of-the-franchise quarterback on the scale of the ultimate contemporary athletic icon Peyton Manning, don't you carry the burden to be both famous and good?

That's how much is riding on Bradford and he has to know that, even as he bristles at those "face of the franchise" references. If the Rams are wrong about Bradford and the pages of NFL history are cluttered with cautionary tales of first-round QB busts he could set this franchise back another five years. If that happens, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. If that happens, it's no exaggeration to suppose that the attendance at the Edward Jones Dome will continue to dwindle, local TV blackouts will become routine and new owner Stan Kroenke will come to the uncomfortable realization that he will be forced to seek greener economic pastures elsewhere (hello Los Angeles?).

But if general manager Billy Devaney and coach Steve Spagnuolo are correct and the walls in Canton are lined with those first-round QB success stories then Bradford's face, personality and golden arm could launch the Rams back into NFL prosperity, providing the spark that will make this moribund franchise a big money maker again.

That's not an overstatement. That's a fact. If this all goes according to plan, the Rams can ride Bradford not only all the way to another Super Bowl, but just as important, re-energize a listless fan base enough to make Kroenke's ultimate profit motive sky rocket, too.

Right now St. Louis is reticent about the idea that the Rams will need a new and improved playground to romp in by 2014.

But a Bradford-fueled renaissance changes all that.

No pressure, kid. No pressure at all.

If he didn't know that back in April when the Rams made him the No.1 overall pick, he figured it out quickly. Once the draft day hoopla subsided and serious football began last spring, the 22-year-old began seeing clearly what was being placed on his shoulders. Shortly after mini-camps and organized off-season workouts had been completed and all the veterans had departed, Bradford and his other fellow rookies spent every morning for at least a week and a half at Rams Park religiously working out. Yet no sooner than he could get out of the shower, Bradford found himself being dragged off every afternoon or evening to some meet-and-greet event with corporate sponsors or ticket holders.

"It definitely was one of the first times I realized it wasn't college any more," he said one afternoon at Rams Park. "I think that week really showed me, 'Okay, this is a business. I am now part of this business.' Obviously playing football is my main job, but I am going to be used for other things than just that."

The Main Job

Ask the young QB how he thinks he's doing in his main job and he does not hesitate to let you know in his own quietly confident way that things are going just fine. This was more than a week before he lit up the New England Patriots in the third preseason game. He prefers not to worry about all those big-picture things beyond his immediate control, instead concentrating on the baby steps he must master in his NFL apprenticeship.

Talk to him about the playbook. Ask him about how he has been able to distill the complex hieroglyphics of the West Coast offensive playbook into real-life production on the football field, and he smiles easily.

"I think it's gone well. I'm happy with it," he says. "The coaches told me from Day One they do have a plan to get me ready to become a starting quarterback. They told me that it's going to be a process, and so far I think I have progressed every day. They have thrown a little more at me each week and I have been able to handle it. They've seen that I've been able to handle what they throw at me. I don't know what their plan is for the future, but if it continues like this, I'll be where I want to be."

Where he wants to be, of course, is right behind starting center Jason Brown on September 12th in the Edward Jones Dome against the Arizona Cardinals as the Game 1 starter. From the first regular season game and beyond, he wants to prove to himself, the coaches, his teammates and the entire NFL that he is as good as advertised.

And he has taken all the necessary steps to get there, too.

"You know he's a quiet young man, but you can tell he has a confidence about him," says Steven Jackson, the Pro Bowl running back. "When you see him on the football field, he's not caught off guard. This stage is not too big for him. He's very respectful, but you can tell he knows that this is going to be his team one day, but he's not forcing the issue. He's letting it happen naturally, let it all take its course. I think that's the best way to go and he's handling it well. He knows if he came out being vocal right away, it might be a little backlash. ... He's just letting it happen through his play. And that's the best way in this league, if you play well, people will always respect you."

gaining respect

That respect is already there in the locker room, and that's a huge first step. One by one, veteran players have offered unsolicited compliments about everything from his temperament to his obvious talent.

Starting guard Adam Goldberg: "I mean the kid's a player, as if NFL Nation didn't already know. Okay the secret's out. Let me be first to say that the kid can do some things with the football. (But) Sam is super impressive at everything. He's super impressive in the huddle, super impressive in the meeting room. He's obviously super impressive with the ball in his hands, in the pocket, outside the pocket, handing the ball off, following through with his fakes after he hands off. He just does everything right. His (voice) volume is right. He's loud enough and clear enough so we can all hear him, but he's not nervous and yelling so the defense can hear him. He's calm and composed and nothing really shakes him."

Steven Jackson: "I saw it in the way he ran our two-minute drills in practice. He's aware of the play clock, he corrects some of the plays if they come into the huddle from the coaches wrong. If they send in a play and we have the wrong personnel in the huddle, he steps out and lets the coaches know, 'Hey, that's not going to work with (this group of players). And you know what that tells me? He knows his play book."

Starting safety Oshiomogho Atogwe: "He asks questions. Whenever you have a young guy who goes out of his way to ask questions, that means it's coming from his heart, that he really wants to be better. No one is telling him to do it. ... He has something inside him that says, 'I need to want more, I need to know more.' He'll ask me during practice what the defense is trying to show out there. If we're showing this look, what does that mean? If the safety does this, what does that mean? It's like he's not waiting for it to happen before he learns. ... He takes the initiative and that's a very good thing."

Part of that initiative has been to take advantage of picking the brains of the men who have already walked the road he is just beginning. Bradford has talked to both future Hall of Famer Manning and present Hall of Famer Troy Aikman about the expected trials and tribulations he's about to experience.

Much of what they talked about, Bradford politely refuses to reveal. "But I will say that both of them told me that it's a process," he says. "You're going to make mistakes. Don't expect to come in and understand everything and execute everything right away. It's just not going to happen. If you expect to (be perfect) and you aren't and then you let it affect your play, that's when you're going to have problems. They told me if you end up starting as a rookie quarterback, you're going to end up taking your lumps and you're going to have to deal with it and move on. But at the same time, you have to rebound, you have to get better. If you can get better each week, by the end of the season, you have a shot."

no prima donna

Watching him in practice every day, you can tell how seriously Bradford is taking this process. He is a maniacal student of the game, exhausting every possible resource for information. He does ask a lot of questions, but he also listens. Spagnuolo says his ability to listen just might be his greatest quality as a student of the game because you don't have to tell him something twice.

"He has a great way of letting things sink in and you know they are going in, that he is getting it," Spagnuolo says. "To me it's impressive for a guy his age and the situation he is in and I think if he continues to handle himself that way we will be okay."

A few weeks ago in the midst of that horrid heat wave, the Rams were on the field on the most grueling day of training camp. Just two days after his breakout performance at the Lindenwood scrimmage, Bradford did not look particularly sharp on this Monday on the Rams Park practice fields. The morning practice temperatures topped 100 degrees and the 95-percent humidity made things almost unbearable. By the evening practice, everyone was dragging. The tempo was so sluggish that it seemed like the players were stomping through wet sand in combat boots.

At one point during that evening workout, Bradford was called for an illegal procedure penalty. He was in shotgun formation and he lurched forward before the snap of the ball, causing the penalty. The whistle blew and Spagnuolo barked for the offense to run the play again. They got it right this time, but as soon as the play was over, Bradford darted out of the clutter of players and began jogging around the football field, running a lap as a player-imposed penance for committing the pre-snap penalty.

He ran the lap with no complaint.

That's one of the many small things that Bradford has done to make an impression around here. He's no prima donna looking for special treatment. He works as hard as the lowest man on the depth chart.

sam and his shadows

The other thing you notice is he never stops talking football. All summer long, if you saw Bradford on the football field for practice, warming up before a game, or standing on the sidelines during a game, it wouldn't take long to notice his new multiple shadows lurking close beside. The constant shadow is quarterbacks coach Dick Curl. They have become almost inseparable since the day Bradford first arrived at Rams Park. In fact, if you see Bradford on the field or in the classroom, there's a good chance that either Curl, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur or veteran QB A.J. Feeley or all of the above are going to be no farther than two steps away. It is all part of the process of total West Coast offense immersion Bradford is experiencing.

"I think the conversations have changed a lot since I first got here," Bradford says. "They've now gotten past the big concepts of how the offense works and now it's down to the little details. I think they understand now that I've been in this offense long enough to know where people are going and what we're looking for."

The carefully orchestrated teaching that is going on has been borrowed from several sources, but mostly from Shurmur's experience with Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia. But unlike the McNabb tutorial, which did not put him in the starting lineup until the middle of the season, the Bradford process seems to have accelerated.

earning the No. 1 job

On Thursday night, Bradford took full advantage of the thumb injury that sidelined Feeley and provided the rookie with his first NFL start. Completing 15 of 22 passes for 189 yards, two TDs and no interceptions while leading the Rams to a 20-14 halftime lead against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, it now seems highly unlikely that Spagnuolo can keep him under wraps much longer. He has taken on every challenge to the point where Spags just grins when asked about how soon it will be before he declares that Bradford has earned the No.1 QB job.

But if you listen to the head coach's praise, you have to know that the process is moving along at a much quicker pace than Spagnuolo imagined.

"I am real interested in watching (game film of the Patriots game)," Spagnuolo said after Thursday's performance. "(I want to see) when they did pressure (him), how did he handle it? Did he go to the right place with the ball? ... With a young quarterback, you really want to see how he handles when people come at him. ... In this league defensive coaches are going to find ways to bring people together in all different kinds of ways that (he's) never seen before and that's where a rookie quarterback has to get to and after I watch the tape I will have a better idea if he handled those situations real well."

But the coach didn't need to consult the tape for everything and neither did several NFL scouts who attended the game. Bradford made some outstanding throws against New England's defense, the sort of throws that every NFL personnel guy saw when he was standing so tall in the pocket at Oklahoma ripping up the Big 12.

Spagnuolo was practically giddy as he remembered watching one of Bradford's best throws, a particular dart that he zinged into the thick of the Patriots defense that went between three New England defenders and right into the hands of a Rams receiver. "I remember Steven Jackson was (standing) on my right at the time and I asked him if he saw the same thing I did and he nodded his head," Spagnuolo said with delight.

A few minutes later as reporters crowded around Jackson in the visitor's locker room, someone asked Jackson his version of the moment the coach described, and the big running back shrugged his shoulders and apologized for being unable to recall the moment with the same clarity as Spagnuolo.

"You know I vaguely remember what you're talking about," Jackson said, "but not really."

As he began apologizing, it almost felt like this story was about to fall flat. But then Jackson's apology took a rather eventful turn.

"I don't know the (specific) play because he had so many of those tonight," Jackson said with a big laugh. "He was putting the ball on the money when he had pressure in his face, he made smart decisions and got rid of it so he didn't take the sack. When the blitz was coming he was putting it on the hot receiver. He knows where the ball needs to go. You can tell that he really knows the offense. I'm really impressed with how far he's come in such a short time.