BY BERNIE MIKLASZ | Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010 12:10 pm

As he begins his career Sunday afternoon at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Sam Bradford already has performed a minor miracle by creating a rush for tickets and filling the empty seats in the NFL's lost colony.

And now Bradford will be asked, along with 13 other rookies and earnest young teammates, to lift the extreme football depression caused by a 6-42 record over the last three seasons. It is a difficult mission, one fraught with peril. As Bradford adjusts to the NFL game, he will do so without experienced offensive tackles, big-play receivers, a proven coaching staff, or a safety net.

There will be some good times, yes. But Bradford will likely endure a club fighter's share of hits and knockdowns. He didn't lose much at Oklahoma, but the Rams figure to make him familiar with the concept.

This is like something out of a National Geographic documentary. A vulnerable lion cub will grow into a large, intimidating presence as long as he can survive the early years in the wild by avoiding jackals, leopards, snakes, eagles and other bloodthirsty predators. Only about 20 percent of the lion cubs make it. (Think: Joey Harrington, David Carr, etc.)

Rams fans can offer Bradford plenty of support — but no shelter.

St. Louis hasn't been this excited about the Rams since the "Greatest Show" days. Finally, there's a new show in town. No, I'm not comparing Bradford to, say, Kurt Warner. But the dome is Kurt's house, right? One day a QB will come forward and restore the Rams' winning tradition. The convention hall in downtown St. Louis has been reserved for Mr. Sam Bradford.

Bradford competed against Texas, and he played for the national championship, so he knows pressure. But this pressure comes in a different dimension. The Rams have been a futile franchise for five years, and a looming stadium problem hangs over everything. There's a new Rams owner, Stan Kroenke, but there are no guarantees. Bradford only is carrying the future of St. Louis NFL football in the palm of his right hand. That statement, while hyperbolic, contains some truth.

Sunday is the first day of a new era. And those who care about the Rams are pulsating with a mixture of high hopes and high anxiety.

After watching Bradford perform so brilliantly in the preseason, a lot of folks want to become members of Sam's Club.

The stars of the St. Louis football past have stepped up to testify.

"If you need 10 things to be an elite quarterback," Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf said, "then Sam appears to have all 10."

A proud member from the "Air Coryell" days has spoken. Now, what about a representative from the Greatest Show times?

"From what we've seen, Sam has what it takes to be special," said Marshall Faulk, the future Hall of Fame running back. "He can't do it alone, but the Rams can't get something going unless they have the quarterback in place."

Dierdorf, the ferocious offensive tackle, made it to the hallowed hall in Canton by safeguarding St. Louis Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart. A concerned Dierdorf sounds as if he'd consider coming out of retirement to block for Bradford.

"Everybody agrees he is the real deal," Dierdorf said. "With his work ethic. With his being a quality human being. With the tremendous quarterbacking skills. This is a jewel. This is an asset that must be nurtured, must be protected."

And that explains the anxiety.

Dierdorf suggests that the Rams play it safe this season even if it means losing some winnable games. He believes — firmly — that Bradford's preservation should be the No. 1 objective for the season. Not that Dierdorf wants Bradford to stand on the sidelines, sealed in bubble wrap. But he's begging: be careful. Don't knowingly put him in defenseless positions.

"I think the Rams have to give the ball to Steven Jackson over and over and over again, even if it's not successful," Dierdorf said during a guest segment on my WXOS (101.1 FM) radio show. "Because if the Rams fall behind, and they think that Sam Bradford, on a weekly basis, is going to be able to pass them back into it, with the talent they have on the offensive line, and in the receiving corps, then Sam Bradford is going to get hurt."

Gulp.

Dan, you are scaring the people.

Dierdorf poses a legitimate question: "As a head coach, does Steve Spagnuolo make long-term concessions by maybe not playing strategy the way you would if you were in the moment, trying to win a game? Or is the goal here to come out of 2010 with Sam Bradford surviving the experience and taking giant steps forward in becoming a top NFL quarterback?"

The Rams have invested $50 million guaranteed in Bradford, so they'll play it smart. They're going to do everything they can to put Bradford in place to unload the ball quickly and safely. But Slingin' Sam has to play and mix it up. And the bad boys will be attacking in an attempt to ruin that $50 million investment.

That's why Dierdorf obsesses — like a nervous parent — over Bradford's physical health. But Faulk is more concerned about the rookie's mental health. Faulk has meaningful insight, because he went through the critical breaking-in phase with Indianapolis Colts rookie quarterback Peyton Manning in 1998.

Manning passed for more than 3,700 yards and 26 touchdowns in his rookie season. But he also threw 28 interceptions. Inside the Indianapolis huddle, Faulk was more impressed by Manning's interceptions than his touchdowns.

Let him explain.

"To be successful, young quarterbacks have to learn how to fail," Faulk said. "That sounds like a contradiction, but it's true. If you can't deal with failure then you won't develop. It's a position where you're going to make mistakes and lots of them. There will be doubt. And you have to shake off the doubt or the game will eat you up.

"What I saw right away in Peyton was how he'd throw two or three interceptions and it never registered with him. It was as if those interceptions never happened. He was oblivious. That's hard to do."

And Bradford will have to do it.

Come Sunday morning, it will feel like a new day in St. Louis, a happy day. Finally, there's something to look forward to: a promising young quarterback who can turn defeatists into dreamers. By Sunday evening, will everything feel the same way?

High hopes.

High anxiety ..