Sam Bradford is long-term remedy
With franchise quarterback in the fold, Rams feel they can build solid foundation
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Often in sports, franchises must take a step back in order to move forward.
Blessed with great quarterback play for a decade, the St. Louis Rams kept passing on young quarterbacks, hoping Marc Bulger would cover for their declining talent base. He couldn't. The Rams bottomed out with a 1-15 record last season and got the first pick in the 2010 draft.
Although Rams officials won't publicly admit it, they were sold on drafting Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford before the 2009 regular season ended. It's a quarterback-driven league, and the Rams knew they could get the jump on the rest of their division rivals by grabbing Bradford. Matt Leinart of the Cardinals, Alex Smith of the 49ers and Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks are all in year-to-year situations.
Optimism for this season is grounded in reality. Bradford has the benefit of having a decent offensive line and a great running back (Steven Jackson), but growing pains are inevitable. Steve Spagnuolo is an upbeat head coach who is trying to develop an aggressive defense. But the key to this season is developing Bradford and coming together as a team. That might not translate into a lot of victories, but it would set up the Rams toward becoming players in the NFC West again in years to come.
Here are three observations from Rams camp:
• Bradford shows every sign that he could be the opening-day starter from his work in practice. He's a tall pocket passer with an accurate arm. Having worked the college spread offense for the past couple of seasons, he might not be completely comfortable retreating from center on three-, five- and seven-step drops, but he's good enough.
The key is his accuracy. Bradford knows how to throw a catchable, accurate pass. He has the knack of locating a throw so a receiver can make the grab and get some yards after the catch. The only thing that would prevent him from starting the opener would be the urgency of beating the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams won only one game last season, so Spagnuolo needs a win to give everyone hope.
The talent comparisons between Bradford and A.J. Feeley are dramatic. Feeley is a decent backup. Bradford has that Matt Ryan look of being an elite franchise quarterback. The problem facing Spagnuolo is that if he starts Bradford and the quarterback has a poor game that results in a loss, the feeling that this season is only about developing Bradford might enter the locker room. The Rams will use four preseason games to see which quarterback gives them the best chance of beating Arizona.
• Thursday was an important day for the Rams, as they got to see how the offensive line will work this season. Jason Smith, the second pick of the 2009 draft, was healthy enough to go on the practice field after missing a week because of a slow recovery from offseason toe surgery. A left tackle in college, Smith struggled making the adjustment to right tackle last year because he had to completely revamp his stance, footwork and how he used his hands. A bad concussion and the toe problem further complicated things.
Smith lined up Thursday as the right tackle, leaving second-round choice Rodger Saffold as the starting left tackle. Don't expect that to change. After coaches had watched Saffold in practice for a week, they realized he's better as a left tackle prospect than they expected. He sets up nicely to handle pass-rushers, and Spagnuolo knows the importance of having the quarterback's blind side protected. They also remembered that when Smith played in a three-game stretch at right tackle last season, his ability to maul defenders on running plays to the right gave the offense some of its better yardage numbers. Having the second pick in a draft as a right tackle may not translate into great value for the dollar, but at least the Rams have addressed the two tackle spots and won't have to touch them for the next few years.
• Jackson is a freak. He showed up at camp eight pounds heavier than last season and every bit as fast. Now he's 244 pounds and has 5 percent body fat. He has put together five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and wants to do at least five more. His goal is to play a dozen seasons. Most running backs start to run out of gas after about 1,600 carries. Jackson feels as if he's just getting started after 1,548 rushing attempts.
He knows teams will stack eight and nine defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop him, particularly when the Rams go to Bradford as the starter. Armed with fullback Mike Karney, Jackson is ready for the pounding.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.