ARLINGTON, Texas — Anyone who put credence in a short-lived rumor that the Rams might consider trading Sam Bradford and use the No. 2 pick to select Robert Griffin III wasn't paying attention last January when Jeff Fisher took the St. Louis job.
Sam Bradford is the primary reason Fisher viewed the Rams as a better opportunity than the Miami Dolphins. Miami offered more money. The Dolphins are closer to battling for a playoff berth.
But the Rams had Bradford, the former Oklahoma star who Fisher labels a “franchise” quarterback that can help the Rams become a perennial playoff contender.
It won't happen overnight. The Rams have lost more games (65) the past five years than any team in NFL history.
St. Louis was 2-14 last season. The roster is full of holes. But the Rams have Bradford, who endorses Fisher, the NFL's third-winningest active coach.
“My excitement level with coach Fisher is through the roof,” Bradford said. “I had the opportunity to meet with Coach before we hired him. As soon as I got done with that meeting, I knew coach Fisher was the guy I wanted to take over our organization.”
Wide receiver Danny Amendola, the former Texas Tech star who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, made a similar comment about Bradford being the face of the franchise.
“You could tell the minute he walked in he was a guy we could depend on that would be one of our leaders,” Amendola said. “To be such a good leader this early in his career is really great for our team. He's only going to get better. He's going to be a great one.”
To be a great one, the Rams eventually need to surround Bradford with more talent and provide better protection.
After being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and setting the league rookie completion record, the Putnam City North product was banged up last season. He played in only 10 games after suffering a high ankle sprain midway through the season.
Bradford's left ankle continued to be a hot topic until he stressed recently it's a nonissue, noting he hasn't missed a single snap in training camp. His focus is digesting a new West Coast offense.
“We've had an entire offseason to try and get my hands around it,” Bradford said. “I think I've made a lot of strides. I'm just trying to become a better quarterback in all aspects, things like pocket presence, trusting my (offensive) line and delivering the ball down the field.”
Changing offenses (again)
Brian Schottenheimer is Bradford's third offensive coordinator in three years. The quarterback has learned a new offense every season.
“Obviously it's not ideal,” Bradford said. “It was great when I was at OU because the system stayed the same since from when I was a redshirt freshman until I left. That allowed me to learn the finer points of our system.
“When you have to switch every year, it's really hard to get to know some of those finer details. But I really like what we're doing. I'm excited that we brought in coach Schottenheimer. ... I'm excited for the season. I think it's going to be a good year for the Rams.”
One plus is Fisher places a premium on protecting his quarterbacks. That's good news for Bradford, who has been sacked 70 times and knocked down 151 times. Pro Football Focus reported that Bradford has been under pressure in 34 percent of his career passing attempts, an extremely high rate.
Another plus is only two NFL teams had more rushing attempts than the Titans during Fisher's 16 seasons in Tennessee. The Rams will lean on veteran Steven Jackson, a Pro Bowl quality back.
Another change is Fisher hired Frank Cignetti as quarterbacks coach. Last season, Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pulled double duty.
Cignetti, who made a name for himself as Fresno State's offensive coordinator, is good friends with Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. Cignetti has NFL experience with the Chiefs, Saints and 49ers.
Having a full-time quarterbacks coach is an extra set of eyes to break down film and monitor basics like footwork.
“At the beginning of the season, you're conscious of those,” Bradford said. “But as the season goes along, sometimes you forget about the small things and just concentrate on the big picture.”
In Sam We Trust
Despite experiencing a drop-off last season, the Rams believe Bradford can develop into an elite quarterback, taking a similar path as Detroit's Matthew Stafford, who also experienced growing pains on a bad team. Cignetti said Bradford is the most talented quarterback he's ever worked with.
“You look at the physical measurables and you're talking about a young man that's tall, can stand in the pocket, has great posture, great poise,” Cignetti told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He can make all the throws. He has great movement.
“You look at Sam, you see a quarterback capable of doing all the things you'd like to do (on offense).”
Former OU teammate Brody Eldridge, a tight end, has been reunited with Bradford in St. Louis. Eldridge's first two NFL seasons were in Indianapolis, where he caught passes from future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning.
“I'm not saying he's going to be the next Peyton Manning. That's almost impossible,” Eldridge said. “Peyton is one of the best there's ever been. But Sam has a lot of talent and is great in the film room. He knows what he's doing. He knows what it takes to be great.”
It will take time, but there have been some positive signs.
Two weeks ago in a preseason win over Kansas City, the Rams' first-team offense played three series. St. Louis scored touchdowns on its first two possessions, culminated by Bradford touchdown passes. Bradford completed 6 of 9 passes for 102 yards.
“His accuracy is his best weapon,” Amendola said. “He's tall. He has a great ability to see the field. His timing is great. That's pretty much all you can ask for. It's just a matter of time before we start doing great things in this league. He's going to lead us there. We're all excited about the future.”
Headed in the right direction
During his year away from the NFL, Jeff Fisher traveled. One highlight was climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
Fisher inherits the NFL's version of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The Rams' Super Bowl XXXIV win against Fisher's Tennessee Titans was almost 13 years ago.
With Fisher, Bradford, some young talent and a treasure chest of draft picks, the Rams hope they're the next version of the Lions and 49ers, successful examples of methodical rebuilding projects.
“You look at them now and they're among the best teams in the league,” Bradford said. “I think we're definitely headed in that direction. It takes a lot of hard work. We're going to have to play good football. With coach Fisher coming in, he's a guy who can lead us in that direction.”
How Bradford plays is a key component in how quickly the Rams improve.
Some were concerned about his shoulder after he was sidelined twice as a redshirt junior at OU, the year after he won the Heisman with a 50-to-8 TD-to-interception ratio.
The shoulder hasn't been an issue. Bradford started all 16 games his rookie season, when he passed for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns.
But last year, he threw only six TDs. Nearly every stat slipped, including completion percentage and his quarterback rating.
“People can manipulate numbers all they want to make someone look good or look bad,” Bradford said. “Wins, that's the bottom line. It doesn't matter what you do, if you don't win, they don't care.”
Bradford is part of a new generation of quarterbacks, a mixed bag that includes last year's No. 1 overall pick, Cam Newton, and the top two picks this year — Andrew Luck and Griffin. And don't forget Stafford, another No. 1 overall pick.
The Rams like their guy. They're committed to Bradford, who signed a guaranteed $50 million, six-year deal worth up to $86 million. It was the largest rookie contract ever.
Trading Bradford would be salary cap suicide. That trade rumor? Ill-researched conjecture.
In the end, St. Louis traded that No. 2 pick to Washington for the sixth and 39th picks and first-round picks in 2013 and 2014. It's the type of deal that should speed up the rebuilding process, another reason Fisher liked St. Louis' foundation.
“We haven't been great lately, but in the NFL things can change really quickly,” Bradford said. “You can go from the bottom to the top within one season or a couple of seasons. Everyone here is in the process of getting the Rams back to where they once were.”