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.”
Bradford finally has weapons
When evaluating Bradford's play his first three seasons, most reviews start with the line, “the Rams need to give Bradford more weapons.”
For a change, Bradford has weapons.
The Rams traded up to No. 8 overall to grab Austin, the West Virginia star. St. Louis also signed left tackle Jake Long and veteran tight end Jared Cook. For depth, the Rams selected Austin's WVU teammate, Stedman Bailey.
Bradford's No. 1 target could be could be Givens, who showed promise last season as a rookie. Known mostly for his speed, Givens late last season evolved into an all-around threat, finishing with 42 catches for 698 yards.
There are additional weapons. Daryl Richardson, a second-year running back who has made a strong impression in training camp, takes over for Jackson. The Rams also drafted Vanderbilt rookie running back Zac Stacy in the fifth round.
Fisher likes what he's seen.
“Sam is really comfortable in this system,” Fisher told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He's throwing the ball well. He's excited about the relationship he's developing on and off the field with Cook and the young receivers. We've surrounded him with better people. All that's going to do is increase his production.”
Bradford's production has been solid. He set Rams rookie passing records. Overall he's thrown for 9,378 yards and 45 touchdowns and only 34 interceptions his first three seasons.
His 58.3 completion percentage needs to improve. But all his stats, across the board, should improve now that he has more weapons.
“It seems everything is clicking for him,” Givens said. “We have a chance to be really good on offense. We're just focusing on our camaraderie, our chemistry. We're all so young we just have to accept our responsibility because we know he'll do his job.”
It will take time for young players to mature, but there is some talent.
“We have a chance to be really good on offense,” Givens said. “Everything started clicking for Sam last year. We've been focusing on our camaraderie and our chemistry, areas Sam has done a great job.”
Bradford's primary message has been all 53 players need to buy in.
“Our young guys have to understand that it takes everyone on Sundays to win a football game,” Bradford said. “It's not like someone can take the day off and we'll be fine. It takes all 11 guys on the field doing the right things. To take the next step we have to be more consistent.”
Taking the next step
The Rams are 16-31-1 in the Bradford era.
Remarkably, winning one out of every three games is progress.
The three seasons before St. Louis selected the 2008 Heisman winner, the Rams were 6-42, including 1-15 the year before Bradford arrived.
That 2009 Rams were voted one of the worst 10 teams in the Super Bowl era.
Things are looking up. St. Louis has a playoff-caliber defense, playoff-caliber kicker and playoff-caliber special teams unit, plus a coach with playoff experience.
The key will be how much Bradford and the offense improve.
Making the playoffs in the NFC is a major challenge.
Most prognosticators have the 49ers, Seahawks, Packers, Bears, Vikings, Falcons, Saints, Redskins, Cowboys and Giants as the 10 teams fighting for six NFC playoff berths. But most agree the Buccaneers, Lions and Rams could be surprise contenders, like Minnesota a year ago.
This isn't a make-or-break year for Bradford and the Rams' offense. But it is the year marked improvement is a realistic expectation compared to the Rams averaging just 16.1 points a game in the Bradford era.
“You can kind of see a growth altogether with really the whole ‘O,'” Laurinaitis said. “It's exciting to see what they're doing to us. Quite frankly, they've done it to us all the way back to OTAs.”
For a change, Bradford and the offense have enough firepower to impact games. But when someone suggested this could be a make-or-break year for Bradford and the offense, Fisher didn't bite.
“It's just the next year,” Fisher told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He's a young quarterback with a great future ahead of him. So that (make-or-break) isn't the way we look at it.”
Bradford, who turns 26 in November, knows about the buzz. He embraces the pressure that comes with signing a six-year, $78 million deal that will average $15 million a season the next three years. But similar to his head coach, Bradford takes a day-to-day approach.
“The challenge for me is to build on last season,” Bradford said. “I'm really excited. Obviously having that consistency in any business is the key to the success. It's going to be a good year. I'm really excited. All the guys with me are excited as well.”