EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Sam Bradford will never be fully healthy this season. That's an established reality for the potential superstar quarterback. His ankle is not 100 percent, he is still battling soreness from the ligaments being stretched, and managing him through this condition will remain a daily chore for the Rams and their training staff.
That's not to say it will doom his season, or be a constant bother. But there will be good days and bad days -- it's the nature of the injury -- and when the season ends there is a definite possibility that a corrective procedure will be prescribed, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
Naturally at this point, just a few weeks into training camp, no one here is thinking that far forward. And depending on how the ankle withstands the rigors of the regular season, prolonged offseason rest could be prescribed rather than surgery.
While it's hardly the ideal backdrop to the season -- with Bradford already limited to 10 games in 2011 due to a high ankle sprain -- the good news is, ankle aside, there is every reason to believe he will return to his Rookie of the Year form from 2010, if not vastly exceed it.
The Rams remain in the early stages of their rebuild under new head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead, but Bradford's promise was one of the primary allures for both to their respective jobs in St. Louis. Bradford is the present and the future and possesses a $50-million arm and strapping build, and despite a dearth of proven weapons, seems primed to join that pantheon of emerging young quarterbacks including Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan ... health permitting, of course.
"Obviously to me it's very frustrating because I thought that by this point this year it would be a non-factor," Bradford said. "But I think the greatest thing is it hasn't caused me to miss any reps. They haven't cut back anything. I'm able to get through everything in practice. We just have to figure out the best way to manage it during the year, and I'm sure it will be different once we start playing games." There were injury concerns about Bradford at Oklahoma as well, but rightly it served as no deterrent to the Rams doing what the football world expected, and making him the first overall pick in 2010 (and the last of the bonus babies, getting $50-million guaranteed contract before ever throwing an NFL pass). And if Bradford continues to develop as expected, it is only a matter of time before his $13.5 million/year average salary begins to look like a bargain given the ever surging price tags for quality passers.
Let us also put injuries aside for a moment, and recall that Bradford has already looked special at times at this level. He nearly led a raw team to a division title as a rookie, and that last year, with an already shallow roster obliterated by injuries to the receivers and along the offensive line, no quarterback would have thrived. There is a reason the Rams have the worst record in football over the past five years, and I can assure you Sam Bradford has very little to do with it.
If anything he is the primary reason hope abounds here. The coaches and front office know the turnaround won't happen overnight, that they aren't one player or one offseason or one historically awesome trade (the haul they received to drop back six slots in the 2012 draft cannot be overstated) away from being a contending team. But it is worth noting the NFC West has had a new division winner each of the past three seasons and this is a league where teams often jump out of the abyss to make some noise.
"I don't think I've ever been around a quarterback as physically talented as him, in fact I know I haven't," said Snead, who was with the Falcons when they took Ryan third overall in 2008. "And then to see how hard he studies and the pride he takes in that, and how he runs his life. He keeps things simple and focuses on football. He's what you think a homegrown Oklahoma kid would be. He's got everything you want in a quarterback and more. Now it's our job to go make sure we build around him and protect him and provide him with weapons and schemes to win."
For as much work as there is to be done here, righting this franchise on both sides of the ball, all are in lockstep that keeping Bradford upright, and finding him some decent alternatives to throw to, is far and away job No. 1. Fisher and Snead knew that Bradford could use his spirits lifted after last season, and that it would only be natural for him to be comparing himself to other recently drafted quarterbacks already enjoying some postseason success.
But instead of pep talks, and telling him how highly they thought of him, they opted to show him by working hard to deal the second overall pick -- which teams were coveting to move up and select Robert Griffin III -- well before the draft, and then utilize those assets to properly incubate Bradford. They managed to pry three first-round picks, a second-round pick and more from the Redskins just to drop down four spots, all for a player they would never have drafted anyway.
It was a monumental move for a rookie GM so early in his new tenure.
It was a total steal for the Rams (for what it's worth, a Harvard Sports Analysis study determined that in order for the Redskins to get equivalent value in the deal, Griffin would have to produce as much as Tom Brady in his career). Snead's trade prowess extended throughout draft weekend, and should the Rams hit on even some of the additional picks they've scooped up, their improvement will be rapid indeed.
"You can tell him how highly you think of him," Snead said, "but when you go, 'Hey we're going to take our No. 2 pick and trade it so we can build a village around you,' I don't know if you need to call him into your office and talk to him at that point. He can read the newspapers and internet and say, 'Hey, I know they believe in me.' Actions speak louder than words."
Those actions also manifested in the construction of this staff. No better way to salvage a young quarterback than by establishing a relentless willingness to run the football -- even if this era of the spread formations and pass-happy attacks -- and the Rams are perfectly content to win ugly as Bradford develops.
Fisher always prized the ground game in Tennessee. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau was with Snead in Atlanta, where they ran the ball a ton as they brought Ryan along. Tight ends coach Rob Boras came from Jacksonville, a team that traditionally ran the ball between the tackles more than anyone in the league. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was behind the Jets "Ground and Pound" offense that relied on ball control to the Nth degree as Mark Sanchez tried to find his way under center.
"It starts with a commitment to the run," Fisher said. "You want to get to a point where people know what you're doing, but they can't stop it. That takes a while, but we will be committed to the run and be diverse in the run game."
Bradford said: "I've come to accept that. It's been made pretty clear to everyone in our offensive meeting room that running the football is going to be something that we're good at, and that's going to be our mentality."
The only downside for Bradford to this new approach is that he has a new offensive sensei for the third straight year. Pat Shurmur left after his rookie season to become Browns head coach, Josh McDaniels left after last season to return to the Patriots and Schottenheimer is now in charge. Despite the revolving coordinators, Bradford believes this offense is vastly ahead of last year's, given how much time was lost to the lockout in 2011.
"It wasn't until I came to camp this year did I realize truly how much I missed the offseason last year, and how much everyone in our offense missed the offseason," Bradford said. "Last year we were trying to correct mistakes we were making on Day One that never should be made in a training camp. This year we had already repped everything and we were past that, and it allows you to move on to more details of the offense."
Fisher could detect early on that Bradford was grasping the new offense, and developing a bond with Schottenheimer. Bradford is somewhat reserved by nature, but an emerging leader no less.
"He's a quiet competitor, but that's clearly his huddle," Fisher said. "That's clearly his huddle."
Bradford is comforted by the sight of adroit slot receiver Danny Ammendola back to full health -- he will see a lot of balls come his way -- and the Rams expect rookie receivers Brian Quick (a big body taken in the second round) and Chris Givens (a speedster taken in fourth round) to make gains as the season goes along, but both are still just starting to figure things out. But in general this team still needs to make big strides at receiver and along the offensive line to reach its goals and aid Bradford's cause.
Still, there is a sense at this camp that the worst is behind them. They can't possibly suffer through all of the injuries like a year ago, losing their first six games, winning only two contests all season.
"Hopefully, knock on wood, I think we've seen things about as off-kilter as they can be," Bradford said, "and I think in the end it will make us better."
Fisher's presence has rubbed off on this bunch. After a series of dalliances with first-time head coaches, Fisher comes in having been the longest tenured coach in the league before departing Tennessee. He is established and doesn't have to worry about longevity or immediate success.
"He has a really natural sense of confidence about him," Bradford said. "He's obviously a guy who has done it a long time, he's had a lot of success in the league, and he knows what he's doing. Everyone in our locker room trusts what he's doing."
The fact that Fisher was so coveted, and chose St. Louis over the more sexy locales of Miami, galvanized the fan base. The vibe in the offices here is palpably different from the past. And, with Bradford at the helm, soon enough, the results will follow. Likely not right away, but soon enough.