Attendance at St. Louis Rams training camp practices is up an estimated 70 percent. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote: “The Rams have generated a buzz. For once, at long last, there's a reason to believe the hype could lead to legitimate hope.”
Much of the hope is built around former Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick. Labeled a franchise quarterback, the Putnam City North product was a key reason longtime Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher took the Rams job a year ago.
No one is suggesting Bradford and the Rams are Super Bowl contenders. But the long, tedious rebuilding process finally is producing dividends. For a change, there are expectations.
“Expectations of myself are always high,” Bradford said. “I don't think anyone can have higher expectations of myself than I do. If you look at the games I played well in last year, I kept things simple. I took what was there. I didn't force anything. Obviously, it's something I'm trying to learn from.”
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of the NFL's top stories last season. Replacing Alex Smith at midseason, Kaepernick led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl in 18 years. But you won't see many Kaepernick highlights against the Rams.
One reason Bradford is excited about the future is the confidence he and his teammates gained in two games against the 49ers. St. Louis tied San Francisco 24-24 in Kaepernick's first start on Nov. 11. A month later, the Rams won 16-13 in overtime.
“We were able to do some good things last year,” Bradford said. “We're arguably in the hardest division in football and were able to go 4-1-1 in games within our division. That says a lot about our team and what we're capable of.”
St. Louis finished with the best division record in the NFC West. The Rams swept Arizona, split with Seattle and won the season series with San Francisco.
“The challenge for this team is to build off what we did last year and be consistent,” Bradford said. “You look at the tough games we won in our division, we played consistent football for four quarters and finished the game the way we should.”
Embracing the leadership role
Bradford took on a leadership role in his first three seasons. But when veteran running back Steven Jackson left St. Louis to sign with the Atlanta Falcons, Bradford embraced the responsibilities associated with being an NFL starting quarterback.
“It's the perfect time for me,” Bradford said at the start of training camp. “It's part of my evolution and part of my position that I need to step up and be the leader of this offense.”
Bradford started noticing a difference during OTAs (organized team activities) last spring. The Rams not only were running plays more efficiently, they were running more plays. The offense was less predictable.
“We haven't had a lot of stability the past couple of years. We've had a lot of moving pieces,” Bradford said. “This is the first time since I've been there that we'd had the same offense for the second year in a row. We were able to fine tune things for a change.”
St. Louis Pro Bowl linebacker James Laurinaitis has noticed a difference.
“You're trying to figure out how to match up and man up,” Laurinaitis said. “They present matchup problems. They're going to make defenses have to think and think quickly.”
Leaning on a proven winner like Fisher has been a huge benefit.
“He's the man,” Bradford said. “The way he handles himself, the way he carries himself. He exudes confidence on the field, off the field and in team meetings. He doesn't say a whole lot. But when he speaks up, everyone knows that it's important and you need to pay attention.
“He's a great coach to play for. He takes care of his players. I really enjoyed the first season we played under him. I'm really excited about what might be possible this season.”
A good example of Bradford's leadership role is his work with rookie receiver Tavon Austin.
“I've already learned so much from Sam,” Austin said. “He's a true leader. When we go over film after every practice, he goes over every bad play we had so we can correct our mistakes. I feel fortunate to be put in position to play with somebody like that.”
For the second consecutive year, St. Louis could end up being the youngest team in the league. Bradford already has more years in the NFL than most of his teammates.
“You definitely saw Sam grow last year, but this offseason he grew even more,” Rams receiver Chris Givens said at Bradford's OU summer camp. “He's even more of a leader for all of us.”