ST. LOUIS — Sam Bradford did not meet with the media Monday afternoon as several St. Louis Rams players cleaned out their lockers at Rams Park. But the quarterback, whose fourth season was cut short by a Week 7 knee injury, was still a topic of conversation among players and reporters.
Some still wonder whether Bradford — arguably the most polarizing figure in St. Louis sports — is the answer for the Rams at quarterback. But to others, including Bradford’s teammates, it’s a non-issue.
"No doubt in my mind," Rams defensive end Chris Long says. "Sam’s got everything it takes. He showed he’s ready to play at a really high level, and he was playing at a high level before he went down there. Everybody believes in him. Kellen (Clemens) did a great job of stepping in and we’re very proud of him — we didn’t expect less from him — but Sam’s our guy and I think that goes without saying. I’m just really excited to see him just continue to take those next steps as we take those next steps as a team."
Clemens, who started the final nine games, says Bradford’s handling of the remainder of the season following his setback was impressive.
"He’s unbelievable," Clemens says. "He really is. And it speaks to his character. It speaks to how much he cares about this organization. A lot of guys have an injury like that and they fall off the map. That’s not the case with Sam. He was here every day. He was working. And he was still a very integral part of the offense."
Clemens, who will be a free agent this off-season, says he valued Bradford’s assistance.
"He was huge for me, to be able to bounce things off and then just to have his counsel on the sidelines a lot of times because it is an emotional game," Clemens says. "So to be able to visit with him and sometimes vent a little bit and sometimes talk through some things, he’s great. He’s phenomenal. He was having a great year before he got hurt. He’s going to pick up right where he left off next year, I’m sure."
Bradford, 26, was on pace to have the best season of his career when he got hurt in Carolina, where he made his 49th career start.
The Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma was completing 60.7 percent of his passes for 1,687 yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 90.9.
If you just double those stats, which would equal 14 games, he’d have 3,374 yards and 28 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. The 90.9 passer rating, the highest of his career, would rank 10th among starting quarterbacks.
Don’t forget Bradford’s numbers came when the Rams struggled to run the ball. St. Louis averaged just 71.8 yards rushing through the first six games, so opponents basically knew the pass was coming.
In four seasons, Bradford has completed 58.6 percent of his passes for 59 touchdowns, 38 interceptions and a 79.3 passer rating.
There’s no denying that Bradford’s contract, the largest ever given to a rookie, is not team-friendly. As the last No. 1 overall draft pick from the era of unwieldy contracts for rookies, there’s almost no way Bradford can live up to that deal, which lasts two more seasons. That’s an unfair burden on him. Honestly, how many quarterbacks in the NFL are worth that kind of money on an annual basis? And would anything short of winning a Super Bowl justify the kind of money the Rams were forced to pay him?
There are certainly questions surrounding him, including an injury history that includes three of his last five seasons (including his final year at Oklahoma).
Is Bradford an elite quarterback? No, so far he hasn’t proven that.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not the right guy for the Rams’ future.
He’ll return healthy in 2014 with a hopefully improved offensive line — re-signing Rodger Saffold to play right guard is a must — and with such weapons as running back Zac Stacy, wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and tight end Jared Cook in their second year in the system. The Rams have two first-round draft picks and the potential to add significantly more talent through the draft.
There will be no more excuses for St. Louis next season, as several Rams players said late in this 7-9 campaign. They won’t be the same young team in 2014 that they were in 2013.
Which means 2014 will be Bradford’s time to prove what he’s capable of — and end all those nagging questions.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.