Thursday October 21st, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- Sam Bradford wanted no part of the conversation. Three days after completing 23 of 41 passes for 289 yards and the only two touchdowns in a 20-3 romp over Seattle, the Rams' standout rookie made a calculated scramble when a visitor began patting him on the back for the performance.

Bradford rose from the stool in front of his locker, flashed an incredulous smile and asked: "Did you see all the throws I missed?"

"Yeah," the visitor replied. "But I also saw all the throws that you made."

Bradford then excused himself to fulfill a media obligation. When teammates and coaches learned of the exchange later in the day, they smiled and nodded. It was so Bradford. Since being selected No. 1 overall in April's draft, the former Oklahoma star has established that he's more consumed with missed opportunities than made plays.

"He's a perfectionist," says second-year linebacker James Laurinaitis. "When the two of us go to dinner on Monday or Tuesday night after games, we try not to talk about football. But when it does come up, he's like, 'I can't believe I threw that pick in the red zone.' He always talks about the plays that he missed and never pats himself on the back. His attitude is like, I should have had two touchdowns and no picks, not one and one."

That approach is a big reason the 3-3 Rams have already matched their victory total from the previous two seasons combined, and why they're in the hunt for the NFC West title, trailing first-place Arizona and Seattle by a half game. Bradford has completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,357 yards and seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions (which are eight fewer than Colts four-time league MVP Peyton Manning threw in his first six games as a rookie).

DON BANKS: Sam Bradford leads race for Offensive Rookie of the Year

He is doing it with an inconsistent running game -- the Rams rank 17th in rushing, averaging 104.3 yards a game -- and the most nondescript wideout corps in the league. Consider: Danny Amendola was undrafted and cut by two other teams before sticking with the Rams last year; Brandon Gibson was a 2009 sixth-round pick who had only one touchdown as a rookie; Mardy Gilyard is a fourth-round rookie who has only six catches on the year; and Danario Alexander was on the practice squad before being called up and catching a 38-yard touchdown pass in last week's win over the Chargers.

Still, Bradford refuses to blink or complain. In arguably the most challenging situation a young quarterback can face -- third-and-8 or longer -- he has a league-high 119.9 rating under those conditions, completing 10 of 18 passes for 149 yards and two scores, with no picks. Manning's rating is 87.2 rating in that situation.

"He's so smooth and composed," says Lions safety Louis Delmas. "Teams have been throwing eight-man blitzes at him and showing seven-man, loaded-box fronts at him, trying to get him to lose his composure, but he doesn't get flustered. He's a great quarterback."

Bradford has been everything the organization envisioned, a first-in, last-out guy who possesses natural leadership skills and is consumed by the game. He earned the respect of veterans in the offseason by shying away from promotional opportunities because he felt he hadn't done anything to earn the attention.

When the baseball Cardinals invited him to a game and planned to introduce him to the crowd, he stipulated that the team's other QBs had to be invited and introduced in the same way. The first time he went to dinner with Laurinaitis, he picked up the tab even though Laurinaitis told him it wasn't necessary. (Bradford could afford it; he signed a potential $78 million deal that includes $50 million in guarantees.)

"Sam's just a good dude," says veteran cornerback Ronald Bartell, shaking his head and smiling in admiration. "He's one of the guys."

There are no secrets to Bradford's success. He has size (6-foot-4, 218 pounds), intelligence, athleticism and a right arm that's as strong as Baltimore's Joe Flacco; so says teammate Mark Clayton, a former teammate of Flacco's. He is incredibly accurate when on the move to his right, and possesses enough touch to drop a seam pass between a trailing linebacker and a charging safety. Then there's his work ethic.

Besides arriving early and staying late, he spends Tuesday afternoons in the coaches' offices going over the previous game and getting a jump on the next opponent. He arrives with pencils, notebooks and questions -- and a willingness to point out the things he did not do well.

"I think you have to be critical of yourself," says Bradford. "The minute you stop beating yourself up is the minute that you settle. And the minute that you settle and stop pushing yourself, that's when things start to go downhill."

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