The end of a typical football game looks a lot like a wrap party at the end of four-act play. The actors who were mortal enemies acting out generations-old grudges with murderous passion for the last three hours take off the helmets, hug, slap hands, and make plans to meet up later. For these professionals, the heat of gameday comes with a switch that turns off after the whistle blows.
Sam Bradford doesn’t have that switch yet. And I don’t think he wants it.
This photo captures the intensity still boiling away as the young Rams quarterback walks off the field. After a two-touchdown win. Think he’s satisfied with a 7-9 season?
“It drives me nuts that people think like that,” Bradford told Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks during training camp. “It really bugs me when people tell me, ‘Oh, man, you guys had such a great season.’ I mean, no, we didn’t. If you want to look at it like, yeah, we made improvement, we got better. But at the same time, we finished 7-9. We didn’t even have a winning record, you know? That’s not what we’re shooting for at all. We didn’t finish where we wanted to be.”
You could argue, as a Rams fan, that there was a lot to be happy about: having a home winning record for the first time since the Greatest Show era dimmed; winning more games than the previous three seasons combined; and going to Seattle in Week 17 for a “win and you’re in” game.
Which they lost. Badly. And that still burns to this day.
“A 7-9 record should never be satisfying for anyone. Because if you set your sights on 7-9, you have no shot to do anything better than 7-9. You set your sights on winning the Super Bowl. Losing that game is just motivation to finally get there [in the playoffs]. The first rule is, if you want to go the Super Bowl, you’ve got to make the playoffs, and obviously last year we came up short.”
Extreme Makeover – Terrible Team Edition
There’s no other way to put it: four years ago, the Rams stunk. Stunk like an abandoned house taken over by hobos, raccoons and mold. And the extreme makeover that was required to set it right wasn’t like they do it on TV, where you attack the place with bulldozers and designers and after a week you’ve got something shiny and new. It took years.
It took an owner dying. Her children cleaning out the front office and giving it to a first-time GM. The GM convincing these children to fire the lame duck coach, and break the bank on an extension for the star running back, instead of trading him away.
It took hiring a first-time coach, and agreeing to let him hire first-time coordinators from the assistant coaching ranks. It took a willingness to absorb the punishment that followed while the GM did the painful work of rebuilding from the inside out — spending elite draft picks on decidedly unsexy offensive and defensive linemen.
And it took an unwavering belief that this kid Bradford, an elite quarterback in waiting, could make himself whole after missing most of his Junior year with a brutal injury to his throwing shoulder. A willingness to sit on a pile of $50 million dollars and go all in on this kid and his commitment to becoming great.
Now, it’s up to Bradford, his surrounding cast of talent, his coaches, and his GM to all follow through on that commitment.
It’s easy to put on a nice suit, get your hair blowdried and your makeup applied, and tell the broken teams around the league that they need a franchise guy, that they need their own Bradford. But they’re missing the point completely. In order to get this far, the Rams had to remake themselves into a franchise worthy of having a franchise quarterback.
Taking the training wheels off
There is a subtle battle of perception going on after Bradford’s mostly successful rookie year. Rams fans are ecstatic to finally have a legitimate hope for the future under center, and are eager to let everyone in earshot know about it. And NFL programmers in constant search of “who’s next” are happy to pimp Bradford’s success and popularity.
But fantasy players and statistical analysts are enjoying running through this room of happy balloons with fistfuls of pins. Pro-Football-Reference calls Bradford’s rookie season “incredibly overrated.” And ESPN’s newly invented QBR stat says of the Rams QB: “Ho-hum. Below average.”
The thing is, both sides are right. The Rams wouldn’t trade Bradford for any other QB in the league right now. And the moves they’ve made around him show that they’re expecting a big step forward.
Under Spagnuolo’s direction, Pat Shurmur dialed down his West Coast offense to the point where it seemed the Rams’ passing tree was made up entirely of thin low branches. He broke the rookie record for pass completions, but his yards per attempt ranked 50th. Spags wanted to build the kid up, make the most of the limited receiving talent around him, and above all, avoid bad outcomes.
That will necessarily change under new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Not only the look of the offense, but Spagnuolo’s trust in the kid to run it.