Bradford already dazzling in camp
Rookie QB Sam Bradford is already impressing the Rams on and off the field
The NFL's top pick had his best practice to date Friday and continues to improve
Bradford is battling 10-year vet A.J. Feeley to be the team's starting quarterback
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- If Sam Bradford keeps having eye-opening practices like the one he cranked out Friday afternoon at Rams training camp, this barely-begun St. Louis quarterback competition between the NFL's No. 1 overall pick and veteran A.J. Feeley isn't going to make late August. And that may be the easiest snap judgment I've ever rendered.
Not to go all "I have seen the future of rock n' roll'' on you, but I did just see the future of the St. Louis Rams at the game's most pivotal position, and it's in very good hands indeed. Bradford had a razor-sharp showing in the Rams' 2˝-hour practice, with everyone from St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo on down calling it the finest so far of his nascent NFL career.
"Every day he sees the field more and more, and you can see it coming,'' Feeley told me, just minutes after the Rams completed their final workout before Saturday night's intra-squad scrimmage. "He's starting to get it. You can just tell. Today he just had his best day of practice since he's been here.''
Bradford looked in almost complete command over the course of the Rams' 10th workout of camp, throwing bullets in every direction and routinely hitting his receivers in stride and on the hands. Working with the first team on at least 40 or 50 percent of his snaps -- which is more than he has been seeing -- he had completions to at least a half dozen St. Louis pass-catchers, tossed a pair of crowd-pleasing touchdown passes, and gave a real glimpse of the potential that led the Rams to award him that ground-breaking six-year, $78 million contract last week.
You could almost feel the surge of excitement that Bradford's practice performance created, as teammates, coaches and fans alike watched his every throw with building anticipation. Afterward, the always understated Bradford admitted to me that he felt "pretty good out there,'' which is about as close to bragging as it gets for the former Heisman-Trophy winning Oklahoma quarterback. But if Bradford follows up Friday's results with another boffo display of passing in Saturday night's scrimmage, look out. Bradford Fever may soon ensue in St. Louis.
And the Rams will be Sam's Club before you know it.
"Today was definitely one of my better practices,'' said Bradford, letting a slight smile slip out. "It's always nice when you have days like that, especially this early, when sometimes it's a grind and I feel like I'm struggling and things are tougher than what they were in college. So to come out there and have a day like that, it really does kind of give you some confidence. In your head, you're like, 'Okay, I can do this.'''
I spent 15 minutes with Bradford in the office of a Rams team executive after practice, and he gave me a pretty good snapshot of how the early days of his rookie NFL season are unfolding. He said he felt "overwhelmed'' at times during the first week of training camp, with his mind going "1,000 miles per hour.'' But the game is starting to slow down for him, and he's eager to take the field in Saturday night's scrimmage, because it marks the first time he'll be completely healthy in a game-type situation since the Sooners' 2009 season opener.
"I really haven't played a lot of football in the past year,'' said Bradford, who played in just three games as a senior, finishing only one thanks to two well-chronicled injuries to his throwing shoulder. "I think that's what makes (Saturday night) even more special. Some people look at it and say, 'Oh, it's just a scrimmage.' Me? It's the first opportunity I've had to play football since I've gotten hurt. That's exciting.''
Even Spagnuolo seemed excited by the obvious jump his young quarterback took Friday. Like any NFL head coach (outside of the Jets offices), "Spags'' isn't going to add fresh oxygen to the hype. But Bradford might have teased us all with a preview of things to come this season, and it was hard not to be wowed by his ridiculously accurate arm and quality decision-making. Spagnuolo confided to me that the Rams are putting their quarterbacks on a 35-second play clock in team drills at practice, and the rookie is more than keeping pace.
"That was a good day for him, his best practice,'' Spagnuolo said. "And I know you're probably thinking of the (touchdown passes), but there was a play that he got (the pass) out quick on a blitz that I think was just as incredible as what he did on the touchdown throws. He got the ball out quick all day. The play clock is speeding everything up and the tempo is good.
"One thing you've got to remember now is this is practice. I don't mean to be Allen Iverson here, but you're talking about the development of a quarterback, and there's a certain tempo of practice compared to a preseason game. But Saturday night's environment will be a little different for him. It'll be a good first step.''
While everybody is eager to learn when the Bradford era in St. Louis will start in earnest, meaning his ascension to the starting lineup, here's what I came away from my visit to Rams camp believing:
St. Louis isn't going to run Bradford out there as its opening day starter against visiting Arizona unless the rookie's performance in the preseason justifies it. Just because they gave him $50 million guaranteed, they're not going to skewer the competition between him and Feeley to ensure the rookie wins it. But if it's close, with no clear-cut victor, the jump ball will clearly go to Bradford.
That said, the Rams went 1-15 last year and feel an obligation to the other 52 players on the 2010 team to play the quarterback who gives them the best shot to win games, especially early on. They can't afford year two of the Spagnuolo era to be just about the development of the team's franchise quarterback. Not with St. Louis going an NFL-worst 6-42 over the past three seasons.
Feeley has gotten the vast majority of first-team reps so far in practice and he's having a very solid camp. His command and comfort level with the Rams' version of the West Coast offense is obvious, and he won't be easily displaced in the lineup by Bradford. I could see a scenario where Feeley starts the season at No. 1, and then gives way to Bradford by maybe Week 3 or 4. But I can also envision the momentum building in Bradford's favor from this point forward, with some credible preseason showings clinching the deal for him to be under center against the Cardinals.
As good as Bradford looked Friday, maybe the best news for Rams fans is how he's approaching his quarterback competition with Feeley. Bradford is adamant that it won't be a coronation. He refuses to assume the mantle of franchise savior, and has consistently deferred to his more experienced fellow quarterbacks, Feeley and No. 3 Keith Null. Everyone I talked to at the Rams camp had a story for me of how Bradford gets it, and wants nothing more than to find his place on this team without fanfare or self-importance.
"That's just part of my personality, but I do feel that way because I haven't done anything in this league yet,'' Bradford said earnestly. "I realize everything has to be earned. I don't want anything given to me. I don't want any reps given to me. I don't want to play because I'm the No. 1 pick. I want to play because the coaches and staff feel that I'm the guy who gives us the best chance to win. That's kind of my approach to everything.''
When the Rams told Bradford that the St. Louis Cardinals wanted to invite him to a game and have him introduced to the crowd, he agreed to do it only on the condition that he went with both Feeley and Null and they all got the same introduction. When Bradford, a very good golfer, was invited to play with other NFL players at the American Century Championship Celebrity Golf tourney last month in Lake Tahoe, he declined, saying he didn't feel it was right for him to participate having never taken an NFL snap.
And as Spagnuolo tells it, Bradford also showed pitch-perfect judgment when he agreed to play in announcer Joe Buck's charity golf tournament in St. Louis the day after the Rams' rookie mini-camp closed, providing he had clubs that were supplied by his agents and playing partners that day, Tom Condon and Ben Dogra.
The reason? "Sam said 'I'm not showing up at my first mini-camp, coming off the plane with my golf clubs,''' Spagnuolo said. "Some guys would have not thought like that. With Sam, all those signs are quality signs. We've talked about what he should concentrate on is being the best teammate he can be and the best player he can be. And he is.''
Feeley, the 10-year NFL veteran, is as impressed as anyone with the big-picture perspective of his rookie teammate. The two locker side by side, and Feeley told me Bradford's head is constantly in his playbook, with the former Sooner showing no inclination to try and work the locker room and win over his new teammates with mere words.
"He gets it, and that's what makes him good,'' Feeley said. "He's going to be the face of the organization, and that's inevitable. But he understands what this is all about. That's about getting on the field and performing. So all this stuff that goes on outside of that, it's great and all, but until he feels comfortable in what he's doing and he's proven himself, it's not important to him.''
In some ways I don't know what was more impressive about Bradford on Friday, what I saw from him on the field, or what I heard about him off it. But both of them went a long way toward convincing me the Rams got the right guy at quarterback. In time, with that arm, and that head, he's going to lead this long downtrodden team to better days.
"I'm a part of this team too, and I want this team to win as many games as possible this year,'' Bradford said, when I asked if he had a timetable for winning the starting job. "And if that's with me at the quarterback position, then that's obviously what I want. If that's not with me at the position this year, then I understand that, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to get on the field as soon as possible. I'll be out there when the coaches feel that I'm ready to help this team win.''
After Friday's step in the right direction, that might just be sooner than anyone with the Rams had even hoped.