Is 2014 Finally The Breakout Year For Sam Bradford?
By Nate Shaw
On paper, the St. Louis Rams should be an improved team.
They are coming off a 7-9 season that included wins over the Saints, Colts and Cardinals -- the former two each won a playoff game last year while Arizona just barely missed out on a postseason berth at 10-6. The run game has drastically improved since the revelation of Zac Stacy, WR Tavon Austin has recovered from the ankle injury that cut his rookie season short just as he was starting to flash his potential, and the offensive line should be improved after drafting Alabama’s Greg Robinson, courtesy of Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. With their own first-round pick, the Rams added DT Aaron Donald to what was probably the best pass rush in the league last season.
They still have some secondary issues to address, notably another corner to play opposite Janoris Jenkins, but Robert Quinn & Co. can make even a bad secondary look pretty good. Furthermore, the Rams showed how complete the rest of the team is in those wins against the Colts and Saints, and really for the entire portion of the season in which they were trotting out Kellen Clemens at quarterback. If you prorate his statistics over a full season, the Rams would have attempted the third-fewest passes in the NFL, ahead of only the Seahawks and 49ers. They were able to win four of their last nine games while attempting to mask Clemens’ deficiencies.
The biggest question for St. Louis coming into 2014 concerns the man Clemens had to replace. It’s a familiar one to Rams fans, who’ve been hearing it for three straight years.
Is this finally the year Sam Bradford makes the jump from solid to superstar?
Bradford is going into the fifth year of a six-year megadeal, a byproduct of the old collective bargaining agreement before the rookie wage scale was put in place. Bradford, the last No. 1 overall pick before the new CBA went into effect, has a cap hit of $17.61 million this season. That’s good for the seventh-largest cap hit in the NFL, fifth among quarterbacks. Obviously, Bradford hasn’t played like a Top 5 quarterback in any of his four seasons. The Rams have given him nearly $2.5 million per win to date, so it’s safe to say he has been one of the biggest busts in the NFL.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that Bradford was having his best statistical year in 2013 before an ACL tear in Week 7 sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Averaged out over 16 games, his stat line looks pretty decent: 363-for-599 (60.7 percent), 3,856 yards, 32 TDs, nine INTs and a 91 passer rating. Those numbers are above-average for an NFL starting QB, similar to what Tony Romo produced for the Cowboys last season. Granted, Dallas only produced an 8-8 record in 2013, but the Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in all of football -- they finished 30th in defensive DVOA according to Football Outsiders while St. Louis ranked 11th. In a vacuum, the Rams could be a playoff team with that kind of play. Sure, Bradford’s stats are slightly worse than Romo’s, but the enormous gap in defensive prowess should be more than enough for at least two or three wins.
However, there are two problems with this line of thinking. First, the Rams play in what is arguably the best division in the NFL. While Dallas got to beat up the Giants and Redskins twice, the Rams were on the wrong side of two beatings each by Seattle and San Francisco. On top of that, the Rams were the only team in the West to not make it to 10 wins, whereas only Philadelphia reached that mark in the East.
The division will likely be the toughest in the league once again, but the Rams have the personnel to compete. The larger issue is that the Rams opted to bring back offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer for a third season, without any evidence that he is a competent NFL playcaller. According to Pro Football Reference, in Schottenheimer’s eight seasons as an offensive coordinator, only three times have his offenses beat the league average in total points. Those same offenses have been above-average in total yards twice, and his teams have only two playoff berths to show for it.
Speaking anecdotally, the offense was a mess before the emergence of Stacy. Schottenheimer would call bubble screen after bubble screen to Austin -- unsuccessfully -- and his scheme has not seemed to help the development of WRs Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey, Austin Pettis or Chris Givens.
The Rams will go as far as Bradford’s arm can take them. He has all the necessary weapons to make this his breakout season, but with the division he’s stuck in and the coordinator he’s saddled with, it probably won’t happen. What’s more likely is that Bradford will improve somewhat, but the Rams will finish 8-8. This isn’t the end of the line for Bradford’s tenure in St. Louis -- the Rams can’t allow themselves to enter 2015 with Shaun Hill as the starter -- but they may choose to select a quarterback early in next year’s draft.