ST. LOUIS -- The about face is radical.
Before the April 22 draft, the mention of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford as the Rams' savior drew ire and scorn -- seriously. Supporters of this woebegone franchise wanted no part of him, even though they were exasperated with oft-injured veteran Marc Bulger. To them, Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the answer, not a shotgun quarterback who barely played last season because of a shoulder injury.
The Rams, 1-15 last season, wisely paid no attention to public sentiment and selected the quarterback they desperately needed with the first overall pick. Since then, sentiment has flipped. The tall, strong-armed kid from Oklahoma who shares a lot of the same Midwestern values as the people here is nearing folk-hero status before he's even played a game. Bradford drew a standing ovation when he recently threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game.
In this town, that's a huge deal.
Bradford isn't quite comfortable with the adoration or attention, especially when he's around his teammates who've actually taken snaps in the NFL. During a recent building of a playground at a needy neighborhood school, Bradford denied media requests for interviews because he didn't want to upstage his teammates, telling reporters to speak to players like current/temporary starting quarterback A.J. Feeley instead.
"That's something that I am conscious about," Bradford said in an exclusive interview. "I understand that being the No. 1 draft pick is a huge honor, but I also realize I haven't done anything yet at the pro level. I have a long way to go before I am where I want to be. I have to put in so much work to get there.
"Being a rookie quarterback you do have to have confidence in yourself and be able to walk into the huddle and take command. The guys who are on the field with you have to believe in you. There's a little bit of a balancing act, and I'm trying to do it the best I can."
"He's everything and little bit more," coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "He's got a long way to go. This thing's a process. He's been terrific with it. He's the ultimate team guy. He is singled out a lot because of what he means and where he was picked, but he always asks, 'Can I do it with the other rookies?' He gets that part of it, which is huge. This is all about team; it won't be about one person."
Temper your expectations
Here's where the real message kicks in:
"But in this league," Spagnuolo said, "the focus is on the quarterback, and he understands that."
In other words, at some point soon, Bradford will have to scrap the rookie persona -- at least in the huddle and in the meeting rooms -- and take control of a team desperately in need of a field general. He can play the nice, humble guy -- which he is -- all he wants publicly, but that won't work when it's third and 14 at midfield with 35 seconds left and the game's hanging in the balance.
The Rams aren't going to discuss too much of Bradford's progress now. They want to downplay expectations and, wisely, they don't want to crown him before he's under contract. If they anoint him now then face a JaMarcus Russell-type holdout, they'll have all kinds of issues. To that point, Bradford, who hasn't missed any offseason work, said he plans to be signed in time for training camp.
His agent, Tom Condon, can drive a hard bargain, but there is no secret to the ballpark of what Bradford should expect: A few million more up front and over the course of the contract that was paid to last season's No. 1 overall pick, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (six years, $72 million with $41.7 million guaranteed). Stafford, whose deal was done before the draft, also is represented by Condon.
Though everything is tempered by the fact that Bradford hasn't faced a pass rush and that he hasn't taken a strong hit to his surgically repaired shoulder, the excitement from team officials about how the ball comes out of his hands is beyond enthusiastic. Bradford is making throws a lot of their previous pupils haven't made -- and Spagnuolo has coached Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning.
Bradford has touch and accuracy, and he can pump the deep ball. Man, can he pump it, some of the Rams will tell you.
These are the same things that were said about Peyton Manning; they were also said about Jeff George and David Klingler and Russell (at least the deep ball part). Caution is the approach for now, but the Rams are optimistic that they've got a guy who could be special enough to allow them to address their other multiple needs and to eventually start talking playoffs again.
What will help Bradford is that he has Steven Jackson, one of the top running backs in the league who managed to gain 1,416 rushing yards in 2009 while being the team's only offensive threat. What could prompt the coaching staff to delay Bradford's debut as the starter is an offensive line in transition (Jason Smith, who just broke his toe, was moved to left tackle from right tackle, and the right tackle void is still being figured out). The Rams also don't have a notable receiving corps, although rookie Mardy Gilyard has turned enough heads thus far to spur hope.
That said, a quarterback who can get the ball out of his hands on time with accuracy, regardless of his experience, has made questionable offensive lines and suspect receivers look a lot better than before.
"We've got four quarterbacks right now (Feeley, Keith Null, Thaddeus Lewis), and he's is working his way in," Spagnuolo said of Bradford. "He gets a couple of reps here and there with the first team to work with those receivers, the center and the offensive line. It's going to take a while. There is no perceived schedule. A.J. Feely is doing a terrific job as the starter. Sam is getting what he needs."
Everybody knows this is window dressing because at some point Bradford will be the starter. This is no longer a league where first-round quarterbacks watch for a season and develop, even though that worked for guys like Steve McNair. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, and to some degree, Matthew Stafford, have raised expectations on rookie quarterbacks. And by virtue of being the top overall pick, Bradford almost has to play -- and play early. Otherwise, those converted Suh fans are going to start to wonder.
"It's a lot more comfortable now than I was the first day I was here," Bradford said. "I have a lot more experience now with this offense. I've been in the huddle with the guys, and I'm able to make the calls. The more repetitions I get the better I feel, the more comfortable I feel. I still have a long way to go, but if I continue to progress the way I progress, it's going to be all right."