By Tom Pedulla, USA TODAY
EARTH CITY, Mo. The quality that most impresses St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo about quarterback Sam Bradford, beyond the strong arm and uncanny accuracy that helped make him the top pick in the NFL draft, is his willingness to listen.

"We had three or four meetings before the draft and I grew a deep respect for his ability to sit and listen and actually let things sink in," the second-year head coach says. "Some guys will sit there and they are thinking about what they are going to say. Sam lets it sink in and then he will come back with an intelligent answer."

Bradford's ability to process information will greatly influence whether Spagnuolo believes he is ready to start the regular-season opener against the visiting Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 12. His grasp of offensive and defensive concepts will then determine how quickly he can make an impact on a club that finished 1-15 last year. The Rams averaged a league-low 10.9 points per game.

"Especially at the quarterback position, you are really starting over in terms of understanding an offense," Bradford says. "You are going back to square one."

St. Louis, desperate for a turnaround after compiling a 6-42 record the last three years, guaranteed the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma University a record $50 million in signing him to a six-year contract worth $78 million.

Bradford understands, though, that in many respects he is simply another rookie trying to find his way.

"I feel I've definitely made a lot of progress during this camp," he says. "If I continue making progress like I've been making, week by week I'll be a better football player. Hopefully, by the end of this year I will be in position to help this team win football games."

Reality check for fans with enormous expectations: Peyton Manning, four-time league MVP, went 3-13 and threw 28 interceptions as a rookie QB for the Indianapolis Colts in 1998.

Bradford showed flashes of ability after he relieved A.J. Feeley in St. Louis' preseason-opening 28-7 loss to the visiting Minnesota Vikings last Saturday night. He completed 6 of 13 passes for 57 yards. He squeezed his first completion into a tight window and later unloaded a pinpoint pass on the run, something he did often when he gunned 48 touchdown passes for the Sooners in 2008.

There were some ragged moments as well, and he was sacked four times behind an offensive line that is as much of a project as he is.

"This will not be an easy thing," says former Dallas Cowboys personnel expert Gil Brandt of the challenges Bradford faces. "They were much better the last two years with the draft, but they are devoid of older players who should be playmakers."

The Rams lack proven offensive firepower beyond Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson. "He has OK receivers," Brandt says. "I don't know if he has a No. 1 receiver."

For one night, at least, Bradford answered one of the biggest questions facing him after an injury to his right shoulder limited him to three games at Oklahoma last season. On one of the sacks versus Minnesota, he landed hard on his surgically-repaired shoulder.

Spagnuolo acknowledges that it made for an anxious moment even when he watched the television replay.

"I was saying, 'Get up!' to the TV even though it wasn't live," he says. "There is always that concern, especially at that position."

Bradford (6-4, 223) used recent months to make sure he is better equipped to absorb punishment. "At this level, you need to be big, you need to be strong and able to take hits," he says. "It's something I put a focus on, putting on weight on my upper body."

When it comes to learning the offense, Bradford points to Feeley, the 10th-year veteran he is competing against for the starting job, as one of his greatest assets.

"He's been extremely helpful as far as how to handle this offense and what to expect from defenses," he says. "It would be really easy for him not to be open with me and not to want to help me. He's been the exact opposite.

"Any time I've had a question, he does more than just get me an answer. There have been times when he's come up to me and said, 'I saw this today. You might want to watch that.' Or he'll say, 'On this play, I would look here and then maybe over there.' "

Brandt emphasizes the need for the front office to continue to work to improve the supporting cast, an effort that will involve at least another offseason and possibly longer. He says of Bradford, "This is a great start for this organization. I'd be shocked if, in 12 or 13 years, people are not marveling at the career he's had."