Bernie: Bradford takes a big step back

2012-11-19T12:25:00Z 2013-05-22T15:47:03Z Bernie: Bradford takes a big step backBY BERNIE MIKLASZ, Post-Dispatch Sports Columnist stltoday.com

Thirty-six starts into Sam Bradford’s NFL career, the Rams still don’t know what they have. Oh, the Rams will tell you that they believe in Bradford. What else are they supposed to say?

According to the convenient narrative, Bradford’s potential was a primary reason for Jeff Fisher’s decision to accept the coaching job in St. Louis instead of Miami.

Yes, the Rams will tell you that Sam is exactly what they want in a quarterback, and it’s just a matter of time before everything clicks. Put better talent around Bradford, let him settle into the latest new offense, and his career will lift off.

Publicly, the Rams are sticking to their story: Sam is their man. Team coaches and executives offer nothing but praise, encouragement and positive reinforcement.

It’s pretty amazing, really.

When a beaten-down Kurt Warner began to lose his touch, he didn’t receive as much support from Mike Martz as the Rams are giving Bradford now.

Sam can do no wrong — well, at least not in the eyes of the people that pay and coach him.

Sunday, after Bradford and the Rams were embarrassed 27-13 by the determined and inspired New York Jets at the Edward Jones Dome, Fisher came dangerously close to criticizing his quarterback.

As Fisher described the Jets effectiveness at covering the St. Louis receivers, he added, “and Sam was holding onto the ball.”

Whoa ... what do we have here?

Was Fisher upset with Bradford’s indecisive, slo-mo, play in the pocket? Was he suggesting that Bradford needed to be more assertive, even if it meant throwing the ball away?

Bradford struggled through one of his poorest games as a Ram, and everyone in the stadium could see it.

Well, not quite everyone.

“I’m not faulting Sam by any means,” Fisher said, making a quick backpedal. “I’m just complimenting the defense. That’s a tough defense to play against.”

This impenetrable NY Jets defense came into Sunday’s engagement having given up more points per game (25.4) than all but eight NFL teams.

In the two previous games, both losses, the invincible Jets defense had somehow succumbed to Miami backup quarterback Matt Moore and Seattle rookie QB Russell Wilson.

Bradford was brilliant on the Rams’ first series, completing six of eight passes for 80 yards, including a one-yard TD pass to Brandon Gibson on fourth down. (Hey, Gibby lined up right!)

But after a sharp opening drive Sunday, Bradford took a step back. Actually, he took a trip back in time to the horrors of 2011.

Over the Rams’ next eight possessions, Bradford completed 7 of 15 passes for 38 yards. He threw an awful interception, and lost a fumble that the Jets converted for a crucial touchdown.

During this miserable stretch Bradford misfired on eight of nine passes on third down, and the Jets overcame the early 7-0 deficit by scoring 27 points without intervention.

It was almost as if Bradford and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez traded places for the day.

Bradford had displayed across-the-board improvement this season, and finally seemed to be re-establishing traction after a slip-sliding career turn in 2011. All of Bradford’s pertinent passing numbers were moving in the right direction. He was making more plays and throwing accurate fastballs to down-field receivers.

Sanchez has been the object of scorn and ridicule in New York, with the fans mewling for backup Tim Tebow. Sanchez entered this game with the worst completion percentage (52.0) among NFL starting quarterbacks, and was losing more confidence with each errant throw. Defenses beat him up on Sunday; New York tabloids piled on in Monday’s editions.

Sanchez rallied Sunday. He was a smooth operator, slicing the Rams with 15 completions in 20 attempts, efficiently accumulating 178 yards overall and pump-faking Rams rookie cornerback Trumaine Johnson into the Laclede’s Landing for a 25-yard touchdown pass. Sanchez finished with his second-best passer rating (118.3) of the season.

I’ve defended Bradford and will continue to do so when warranted. Until this stinker against the Jets, I was encouraged by the upturn in Bradford’s play. I also realize that this isn’t singles tennis or golf; Bradford doesn’t compete by himself.

For example: Sanchez benefited from his coaches making an all-out commitment to the ground game Sunday. The Jets stubbornly pounded away, rushing the ball on 21 of 24 first-down plays. And through three quarters, when this was still a contest, the Jets called 26 runs and 22 passes.

The Rams ran the ball effectively on the Jets, but offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called more passes (22) than runs (16) over the first three quarters.

This made no sense. First of all, why put the game in Bradford’s right palm when he couldn’t throw strikes? And unless I imagined it, last week I saw the Rams maul the 49ers for 159 yards rushing on 37 carries. So why not blast the Jets — who are ranked 30th in run defense — with the same aggression?

This is worth mentioning, but this doesn’t justify Bradford’s regression. The Rams need him to become the kind of quarterback that can carry the team instead of being a quarterback that the team must carry. The Rams need Bradford to elevate his team’s performance instead of being overly dependent on his team’s performance. Bradford doesn’t have to be perfect. But does everything around him need to be perfect around for the Rams to win games?

As No. 1 overall picks go, Bradford isn’t a bust. It’s too soon to make such a preposterous declaration. Bradford isn’t JaMarcus Russell, Tim Couch or David Carr. But he isn’t on the way to becoming John Elway, Troy Aikman or Peyton Manning, either.

Thirty-six starts into his NFL career, and we still don’t know what the Rams have in Sam Bradford.

Copyright 2015 stltoday.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

ACTIVATE YOUR DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

Get weekly ads via e-mail