EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Watching Sam Bradford at training camp is a thing of beauty. The third-year quarterback might throw the prettiest pass in the NFL. The ball comes off his right hand smoothly and swiftly, often squeezing through windows no bigger than a defender's hand. He makes it look so simple, so effortless, that you begin to wonder if the Rams might have gotten off cheaply when they guaranteed him $50 million after drafting him No. 1 overall.
Unfortunately for Bradford and the Rams, the picture has not been as mesmerizing during actual games. St. Louis has managed just nine wins over the past two seasons, and Bradford has been beaten up badly in the process. According to Football Outsiders, he was sacked or hit 83 times as a rookie, fifth most in the league. He would have shattered that mark last season had an ankle injury not sidelined him for six games. Even so, he was knocked down 76 times, which put him on pace to have hit the turf 122 times.
"You can say what you want, but if somebody comes up and punches you in the face, the first time you might shake it off, the second time you'd probably blink and the third time common sense is kicking in and you're looking to avoid it," said new Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. "Hits on the quarterback is not something you worry about with just Sam Bradford; everybody is worried about it with their quarterbacks. There's such a big emphasis on these pass rushers -- obviously blitzes have gone to a high level. Everybody is being creative with the blitzes they're throwing at offenses, and we have to adapt with the way we design our protections, the way we call games. We have a few things that we can use to our advantage, like our cadence and screens. But if any coach said 'I don't worry when my quarterback gets hit,' he's lying to you. Over time if you get hit enough it's going to affect you, just like if a corner gets beat a couple of times on deep routes early in the game. You can say what you want, but it's going to affect him. Maybe not consciously but subconsciously it's in his mind."
The Rams will seek to protect Bradford by leaning heavily on the run game and utilizing safer, smarter play-calling that won't consistently look for the big play in 3rd-and-long or leave overmatched linemen in one-on-one situations. New coach Jeff Fisher's strategy is apparent in his coaching staff, which on the offensive side is loaded with assistants with ties to strong running games.
Schottenheimer coordinated the Jets' ground-and-pound attack that ranked first and fourth in rushing in 2009 and '10, respectively. Line coach Paul Boudreau was with Atlanta the past four seasons when the Falcons ranked 11th or higher in rushing attempts, including twice finishing in the top five. And tight ends coach Rob Boras spent the past two seasons in Jacksonville, where Maurice Jones-Drew finished first and second in rushing the past two seasons.
By running the ball effectively with Steven Jackson, who is seeking his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, by staying out of 3rd-and-long and by not trying to make a big play in every long-yardage situation, the Rams can minimize the hits that Bradford absorbs. The Texans failed to do that after drafting David Carr No. 1 overall in 2002, and he became a shell of himself after being sacked at least 49 times in three of his first four seasons. As a rookie he was sacked a league-record 76 times, and in his fourth season he was dropped another 68.
Bradford is far from gun shy, but during his film study in the offseason he was surprised to see that the hits had affected his play.
"You can come out and say it doesn't affect you, but subconsciously you start to be a little more aware of what's going on up front," he said. "You probably start to drop your eyes a little bit, or escape the pocket just half a count earlier instead of sliding to avoid pressure. The more I went back and watched the tape after the season, I saw myself doing that more than I [noticed] during the year.
"It's one of those things that just comes with trusting your guys up front and them trusting me. We're starting with a clean slate and for the next five weeks in training camp we are going to build that trust. I'm going to learn to trust my guys and trust that they're going to do their job and keep guys away from me, and they're going to learn to trust me that I'm going to get the ball out on time and do my job and help them when things are messed up.
"By building that relationship it makes you better and stronger as an offense. Building that trust now is what carries you through the tough times in the season, if there are tough times. If there's no trust between me and them, or them and me, when we do face tough times what are we going to do? Everyone starts to do their own thing, trying to compensate or make up for it instead of just relaxing and doing their job and letting things come naturally."
Bradford and the Rams were in a tough spot last season. The lockout prevented them from getting a head start on installing Josh McDaniels' complicated new offense. It didn't help that some linemen reported to training camp out of shape. Injuries also took a toll, with tackles Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith missing time because of concussions, and Saffold being placed on injured reserve in November because of a torn pectoral muscle.
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Bourdreau, the long-time line coach, turned a group of overachievers into a formidable run unit in Atlanta. He has more talent in St. Louis, which should put smiles on the faces of Bradford and Jackson. The Rams lack an established No. 1 wideout, but Schottenheimer doesn't see that as a problem if the team is able to establish the run, which would force a safety into the box and create more one-on-one matchups on the outside.
"When you look at our group, we don't have a name that everyone is going to say, 'Wow, that's a premier receiver,'" he said. "But we've got a good core group of guys. Danny Amendola has a chance to be as good of a slot guy as there is in the league. Brandon Gibson, who I think is underrated, is a terrific route-runner and has excellent ability to create yards after the catch. Danario Alexander, boy he can really stretch the field. He's had big plays here in the past; he just has to battle some injuries. And [former Giant and Eagle] Steve Smith was a great addition.
"Then you go and look at Greg Salas and Austin Pettis, guys we drafted last year. We've got young players with talent; we've just got to continue to develop them, which we'll do. We've got one of the best receiver coaches in the game in Ray Sherman. Then you add the guys we drafted this year in Brian Quick and Chris Givens. As a core I'm very, very happy with the group. if people don't see us as having a premier No. 1 receiver, that's fine by me. I'd rather have a core group of guys because it's easy to double one guy and take him out of a play. What we're figuring out now is what each guy does well, and it's going to be our job to plug them into those spots and feature what they do well."
This much is certain: If the Rams give Bradford time and options, he'll capitalize. He wasn't voted Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2010 by accident. Fisher knows it. After watching Bradford dissect the defense on the opening day of training camp, Fisher sat in the shade outside the locker room and leaned over to a visitor.
"Sam's really good," he said. "No, I mean really good."
The look in his eyes was more telling than the words from his mouth. Watching Bradford in practice can do that to viewers. Now it's time to carry it into games.