It was about 8 a.m. in Oklahoma when Sam Bradford got the call from Eagles coach Doug Pederson. Bradford was back home for the first weekend of September and had not even brought a suitcase from Philadelphia. When he told his wife he’d been traded, she asked if he was joking. But by 1:30 p.m., Bradford was on a plane headed to Minnesota and his new job as Vikings quarterback.
“I’ve pretty much worn the same outfit for the last two weeks,” Bradford says. “I don’t think it bothered anyone.”
Given the way he has played in place of the injured Teddy Bridgewater, no one can complain. After serving in a backup capacity during a Week 1 win over Tennessee, Bradford has stepped in and played two of the best games of his career, topping preseason MVP picks Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. Entering Monday night’s game against the Giants, he ranked third in QB rating.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have hardly struggled in Bradford’s absence. No. 2 pick Carson Wentz has had a historically efficient beginning to his NFL career, leading Philadelphia to just its third 3–0 start in the last 23 seasons. The only other undefeated NFC team? The Vikings. Two teams that appeared headed for lost seasons are now leading the playoff hunt.
The early returns from this rare September blockbuster could not be farther from the impact of the first trade involving Bradford, which sent him from St. Louis to Philadelphia in March 2015 in exchange for Nick Foles. Twelve months after that deal (following a season in which Bradford and Foles ranked No. 25 and No. 33 in passer rating, respectively), both teams sacrificed a pile of future picks for the top two slots in the 2016 draft and another roll of the QB dice.
Vikings general manager Rick Spielman had a hunch he would see a different outcome this time around. “I watched every game Sam played last year, and the last three games, I thought he was playing as well as anyone I saw last year,” Spielman said at the time of the trade. “I know our coaches wanted him.”
Spielman also thought he could get Bradford. He made calls all around the league after Bridgewater dislocated his knee in practice on the last Tuesday in August, but by the end of the week, he focused on making a deal with Eagles GM Howie Roseman. While Roseman was content to let Bradford start for his team, Spielman figured that the QB might be available given Wentz’s presence behind him on the depth chart. Plus, Spielman had the benefit of a strong relationship with Roseman. The two had made a number of draft-day deals over the years (Roseman has been the Eagles GM since 2010; Spielman has run the Vikings since 2012), but their rapport goes beyond the negotiating table.
“We share the same agent, Bob LaMonte,” Spielman explains. “He has a dinner for his clients at the owner meetings, so we’ve gotten together socially … I’ve met Howie’s wife. I know his kids. He knows my wife. There’s more than just a business relationship.”
While other teams tried to take advantage of Spielman’s desperation—“There was blood in the water and teams knew it,” he told Peter King—Spielman could tell Roseman would be willing to make a fair deal. So, that Friday night, he got aggressive, offering a 2017 first-rounder and an additional pick that could be as high as a second-rounder.
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Spielman has pulled off win-win trades before, like when he acquired Jared Allen in 2008 for picks that Kansas City turned into Pro Bowlers Branden Albert and Jamaal Charles. In fact, he prefers when things work out well for both sides. General managers might be some of the most competitive people around, but trying to hoodwink each other is bad for business. Relationships are the bedrock of negotiations, in Spielman’s eyes, and his connection with Roseman proved critical as they hammered out a deal with the clock ticking.
“This one had a sense of urgency to it because … if they were going to make the trade, they wanted to make sure Carson would have time to get him prepared as the starter,” Spielman says. “It’s not something where we are trying to get one over on you or me. It’s both of us trying to do what we can do to make the best of the situation for each club. It’s working together to come out with something beneficial for everyone.” In this case, two friends were able to do just that—so far, at least.
Once the trade was finalized on that Saturday morning, it was up to Bradford and Wentz to make their bosses look good. When Bradford arrived at the team facility, six of the QB’s first words to Spielman were “I’ve got to get to work” before he hunkered down with quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. His days since have consistently involved a full course load of video work and Turner Offense 101 (Scott’s father, Norv, is the OC), a quick dinner with his wife Emma, and more film study. “He’s immersed himself so much in the playbook and learning how his receivers are going to react on routes that we kind of haven’t really talked a whole lot,” his dad said in September.
The work has paid off. Bradford completed 71% of his passes in a prime-time win over his now-rival Packers. The following week, he started slow in Carolina but recovered in time to lead three second-half scoring drives and hand the Panthers their first home defeat since 2014.
Part of the early-season success, Bradford believes, is simply a carryover from the form he found late last year. “I had started to feel healthy,” he says. “I wasn’t worried about my knee and I had gotten back to playing my game. I felt really good in training camp and in the preseason in Philadelphia.” Yet he adds that maturity and perspective have also played a factor. “At times early in my career, I wanted everything to be perfect. I would let things drive me nuts. If a route looked bad in practice, I’d say, ‘We can’t run that play. It didn’t look good. It’s out.’ Now, if a play doesn’t look great on Wednesday, it’s, ‘O.K., let’s look at it on film and maybe try to run it again on Thursday. It’s not that big of a deal. You know what, the world is going to continue.’”
That type of patience was required of Bradford as he learned a playbook on the fly, but it is also a result of everything he’s been through over the last three years—namely two season-ending ACL injuries and two career-altering trades. At 28, Bradford is just as old as Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton, yet he casually drops “When you get to be my age…” in conversation. But you are not that old, Sam. “Well, I feel like it sometimes,” he responds. “Just with the injuries and with the trade to Philadelphia last year and what we went through early in Philly, it’s given me a different perspective … You just mature. You just grow up.”
That said, he has hardly lowered expectations for himself since entering the league as the No. 1 pick in 2010. “There is a level of play that I expect myself to play at,” he says, and even though the bottom line is that his team is 3–0, he feels he’s only hit that standard “at times” this year. He also hasn’t relaxed since being thrown into this tempest. The team’s Monday night game meant an extra off day last week, but how did Bradford spend it? “Still going to work. I was at work, just watching film. It was nice.”
The overloaded schedule has made it tough for Bradford to stay as connected with his former teammates as he’d like. Still, he’s done his best to reach out when he can. “That’s the hardest part,” Bradford says. “It’s kind of like when anyone moves cities or goes to a new school. You stay in touch with the people you had the best relationship with … I still talk with quite a few people from St. Louis, I still talk with quite a few people from Philadelphia. More than people I worked with, they are people you really consider friends.” While he tries to keep conversations away from what’s going on at respective day jobs, he is always glad to see his friends succeed.
So he was happy to catch a few minutes of Philadelphia’s Monday Night Football matchup against Chicago two weeks ago as the Eagles cruised to a 29–14 win. In that game, his replacement, Wentz, handled consistent Bears pressure with aplomb and finished the night as the only rookie QB since 1970 to win the first two games of the year without throwing an interception. Three games into his career, Wentz’s coach has already called his preparation “Peyton Manning-ish” while praise has poured in from the likes of Brett Favre and Joe Biden.
After the Bears game, Spielman and Roseman shot a couple friendly texts back and forth. Roseman was happy to see Bradford get up to speed so quickly. Spielman was impressed by how well Wentz was playing. Their teams will face off in three weeks, but until then they are appreciating each other’s success. Wentz and Bradford, meanwhile, haven’t texted since a brief exchange on that Saturday that changed their lives. Can you blame them, though? Both have been busy.