By Bernie Miklasz St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — It isn’t easy to evaluate the play of Rams quarterback Sam Bradford. The general perception is that Bradford has regressed in his second NFL season.
Well, is it true? The answer defies any attempt at simplicity. There are many layers to this, and a lot of gray area.
Let’s try to break it down …
No. 1, statistically speaking, Bradford has slipped, virtually across the board. We’re talking third-down passing, red-zone passing and his performance against the blitz.
The trend actually began to take hold last season, after NFL defenses locked on to ways to take away the Rams’ favorite passing plays. I don’t want to bore you with all of the numbers. But there’s been considerable erosion in key areas.
No. 2, Bradford has experienced a challenging transition in moving from the West Coast offense to the more complex system installed by new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Bradford must adjust the pass protection. He didn’t have that responsibility as a rookie.
Last season Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur set Bradford up with shorter, quicker passes that featured fewer options. This season, with a more diverse passing attack in place, Bradford has to make more decisions; that often leaves him holding the ball for a longer time. And that places him at greater risk.
San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith has greatly benefited from a stripped-down offense arranged by new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. But Bradford has struggled in operating a significantly expanded offense. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Going back to his final season at Oklahoma, Bradford has been asked to operate three different offenses in three seasons.
No. 3, it’s certainly accurate to assign blame to the Rams’ front office, which only recently added an elite receiver, Brandon Lloyd. (And no disrespect to Lloyd, but let’s not confuse him with Larry Fitzgerald.) The Rams and Bradford still suffer from a shortage of playmakers. Moreover, injuries have greatly damaged the stability of his receiving cast.
The receivers haven’t helped the cause; they are stunting Bradford’s growth. According to the film-review analysis done by Pro Football Focus, the Rams have dropped 22 of Bradford’s passes this year. Translation: Bradford has been victimized by the highest dropped-pass percentage rate among NFL starting QBs.
No. 4, the Rams inexplicably failed to give Bradford a designated QB coach this season. When McDaniels signed on, quarterbacks coach Richard Curl was essentially asked to retire, with McDaniels taking over the role. But that’s a lot to put on one coach, especially after the offseason was wiped out by the labor dispute. It’s incomprehensible how the Rams could take Bradford into his second NFL season without assistance from a stand-alone quarterbacks coach there to polish his fundamentals.
No. 5, Bradford is more vulnerable to physical punishment in the McDaniels offense, especially behind an offensive line that often fails to put a firewall around him. Bradford has been sacked 27 times this season; that’s tied for the second-highest total among NFL quarterbacks. And he missed two games or the sack total would be higher.
Bradford has been hit 28 times and hurried 79 times in seven games. (Ugh.) According to Pro Football Focus, Bradford has been under pressure on 37 percent of his dropbacks; only five NFL quarterbacks have been under more fire. Bradford’s accuracy plunges when he’s under duress. His completion rate of 45.7 percent when pressured is the third-worst in the league.
No. 6, the Rams’ defense has been a major disappointment for much of the season, and that puts the offense at a disadvantage. The Rams’ offense must play catch-up too many times, and that leaves Bradford more exposed. And with the defense creating fewer turnovers — only 10 in nine games — field position is a problem. Last season the Rams averaged a starting-point possession at the 33-yard line at home, and the 29-yard line on the road. Both starting-point averages have decreased by 5 yards this season.
There are some positives. Pro Football Focus uses a more advanced formula in compiling passer ratings. The rating eliminates dropped passes, throwaways and spikes from the equation. It also uses “air” yards, counting the yards at the point of the catch, rather than the yards gained after the catch.
And Bradford’s 81.9 adjusted passer rating is actually better than his adjusted rating of 77.1 as a rookie. He’s increased his point-of-catch average to 6.3 yards this season, up from 4.4 yards in 2010.
Can Bradford play better? Absolutely. He’s completed only seven of 28 passes in the red zone this season, and that’s simply awful. That’s a prime reason the Rams haven’t scored more than a single offensive touchdown in any of Bradford’s seven games this season.
Bradford has also been alarmingly inaccurate on the more intermediate throws, completing only 21 of 55 passes (38.2 percent) on balls that travel between 11 and 20 yards. He hit on 52 percent of those throws last season.
That’s a disturbing aspect of Bradford’s play. He’s still being given a lot of short throws to complete. As a rookie Bradford completed 90.4 percent of the throws that traveled 10 yards or fewer. This season, that figure has plummeted to 64.5 percent.
Sure, some of that can be blamed on the offensive line and the team’s inadequate, injury-ravaged receivers. But Bradford still misses too many open targets. The really good quarterbacks are capable of rising above adverse conditions.
The Rams’ quarterback job should come with painkiller and Kevlar vests. Quarterbacks have been taking a beating around here for too long.
And that’s what is so unsettling about the way Bradford is trending: The more he’s knocked around, the less accurate he becomes. Yes, Sam must elevate his play. But more than anything, it’s up to this organization to surround Bradford with better talent to protect him, and to catch for him.
You’d hate to see this young prince of a quarterback turn into another beaten-down, battered and mentally defeated Marc Bulger.