The narrative outside Earth City doggedly clings to this being Sam Bradford’s make-or-break season as Rams quarterback. It’s as if the only options regarding Bradford are super stardom, Siberia or worse. (Buffalo, perhaps?) Jeff Fisher repeatedly has fielded the question, as has Les Snead. The Rams’ head coach and general manager turn away the notion of a looming pass-fail schedule like so much junk mail.
For a franchise striving for its first winning season since 2003, this is smart on several levels:
It keeps media jackals at bay — at least unless Sam the Ram endures a three-pick Sunday or, heaven forbid, something more than a minor injury.
It lessens pressure on the fourth-year quarterback.
And there is, of course, always the possibility that the organization’s public stance is sincere.
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Bradford insists he is unmoved by the chattering class and print speculation. (“I really don’t pay attention to what’s in the media,” he says.) The make-or-break talk gains no traction with Bradford because it makes no sense to him.
“Why would you do that? I really don’t understand it,” Bradford says. “I think you have to approach each year the same that you want to play to the best of your ability and give your team everything you have to give it every possibility to win. If you do that, it’s all you can ask.”
Accept the premise Bradford has shown enough in three seasons to convince his second head coach and third offensive coordinator that he represents an answer rather than a nagging question.
Accept that he is an ascending player on an improving team. Approaching him about a longer-term arrangement backs up an organizational belief that Bradford can elevate this team, not just vice versa.
Such a stance raises an obvious question: If the Rams believe Bradford part of their long-term future, can there possibly be a better time than the present to make him a Ram for Life, or at least the football portion of it?
The answer, at least from the club’s standpoint, is probably not.
Bradford turns 26 in November. He will be 28 when his current deal expires after the 2015 season. He will average $15 million a season for the balance of the contract. For now he is the league’s ninth highest-paid quarterback.
To say the club is committed long-term to Bradford is to say it is convinced he will improve upon his rookie year’s 60 percent completion rate or last season’s career-best 3,702 yards. Bradford also threw 21 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, marked improvement over his total 24 TD passes against 21 interceptions in 2010-11. Bradford enjoyed his first 350-yard passing day last December against Minnesota, a devastating home loss earmarked by an inability to contain Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Bradford amassed a single-game passer rating of 100.0 or better four times last season after doing so three times in his first 26 NFL starts, including none during his battered 2012.
Engaging Bradford now regarding a contract extension would reinforce the organization’s public commitment. One assumes any such discussion would involve adding at least three years to the current framework, taking him through his 31st birthday.
The Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in March paid a premium to retain quarterback Joe Flacco for six years at $120.6 million. (The final two seasons are options.)
Though Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford had two years plus an option remaining on his deal, he and the club reached agreement last month on a three-year, $53 million extension. Stafford turns 26 next February.
To his credit Bradford calls a potential extension “the furthest thing from my mind right now.” He notes he has as much of his first deal ahead of him as behind him. Bradford insists any such talk would only involve his St. Louis-based agent, Tom Condon.
Bradford’s fixation is instead a familiar offense that has added speed since last season. Reticent to discuss his thoughts about finances, he volunteers his enthusiasm for the scheme and its personnel.
“For the first time in my career we’re going into the second year of an offense,” Bradford said after Tuesday’s late afternoon workout, attended by owner Stan Kroenke, among others. “It’s amazing how much difference it makes when you’re not having to learn an offense. I don’t think the average fan realizes what it’s like trying to learn something as opposed to fine tuning it. ”
By all accounts Bradford fits the St. Louis blueprint. He carries Oklahoma heritage. He enjoys the Midwestern experience rather than craving a coastal experience. He presents an understated, even humble persona that plays well here. He drives a pick-up, likes to golf and seems to smile more than laugh uncontrollably. Bradford appears to play well with others, at least when operating on something more than a high left ankle sprain. In other words, he seems to like it here.
The Rams under current leadership act as a confident bunch. Rather than offer trepidation, they act as a franchise confident of a three-year blueprint that carries through the 2014 season. In all permutations that blueprint focuses on Bradford.
If Bradford and this offense evolve further for a team that challenges or even reaches the postseason, Bradford only gains leverage. A year after ranking ninth in the conference and 18th in the league in passer rating, he fits the description of a player poised for breakout.
The Rams are at a place where they might bet big(ger) on Bradford’s future. Of course, Bradford similarly is at a place where he could bet big on himself.