ST. LOUIS – The most-watched left ankle at the Edward Jones Dome spent the first quarter marching downfield, looking like an asset rather than an issue, looking like part of a physique that includes so much promise rather than a potential hazard. Study of Sam Bradford’s mobility is only beginning – much to the frustration of the gifted St. Louis Rams quarterback – but Saturday offered little reason to worry.
The most-watched left ankle at the Edward Jones Dome will continue to be dissected, of course. The study is far from over. But Bradford’s 6-of-9 passing effort for 102 yards with two touchdowns in the Rams’ 31-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs provided a glimpse of how effective the former Heisman Trophy winner can be with NFL-quality protection.
He was collected in the pocket. He looked comfortable. By the end, he left a building that provided so many horrors a season ago feeling quite good about himself.
“I don’t think I got touched once,” said Bradford, who played three series. “Any time you come out of a game and you’re not sore, it’s a great feeling.”
Yes, it is. And for Bradford, the feeling was fleeting for most of last season – a dreadful 2-14 year that included a high-left ankle sprain sustained in a Week 6 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
The ailment defined his clunker of a fall after showing flashes of brilliance as a rookie. He played in 10 games in 2011, none after Week 14. It’s fair to say his final year under former coach Steve Spagnuolo was at best a lost campaign and at worst a lingering one health-wise for him.
Flashbacks to a season that included Bradford hunched in front of his locker with bloodstains on his pants were rekindled earlier this month. On Aug. 4, he described his ankle’s progress this way: “It’s close. I think it’s as good as it’s going to feel. It’s something that we’re managing right now. I’ve been able to take every snap so far without any setbacks, and I think that’s a positive sign. … It is a little bit frustrating that (the pain is) somewhat there still. I thought with rest in the offseason it would’ve been gone by now, but it’s not.”
Recently, rumors surfaced about Bradford needing possible offseason surgery to heal the ankle. He rebuffed a question about the topic this way last Thursday: “That would be news to me. To be honest, I’m tired of talking about the ankle. And until it causes me to miss reps or miss time, it’s a non-issue.”
So here was Bradford on Saturday, trying to make the most of an issue he could control, flinging passes before a sleepy crowd in an attempt to turn back the clock. For a short time – and keep perspective, because this is the preseason – he looked like the confident rookie who entered the league as the top overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. For a short time, he played with command, the disaster of 2011 a distant memory.
“We got some more things in,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “Things started to fall together for us during the week. I thought Sam did a good job. He made some great throws.”
Take a moment to remember a few …
Drive 1: A four-play, 80-yard beeline that included a 35-yard strike to wide receiver Danny Amendola and a 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lance Kendricks.
Drive 2: A five-play, 31-yard march that included an 8-yard, three-ring-worthy touchdown toss to Amendola over Chiefs cornerback Javier Arenas.
Drive 3: An eight-play, 35-yard effort that stalled at St. Louis’ 44-yard line but didn’t produce a turnover.
“He looked pretty poised out there,” said Rams running back Steven Jackson, who finished with 49 yards on seven carries. “He threw the ball well. We mixed it up. … We actually had some five-, seven-step drops for him as well to work. Our protection was up. We allowed him to step into his throws, and he made them.”
For the Rams, the offense’s awakening was a welcome sign after a blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. That afternoon, Bradford finished 7-of-9 passing for 57 yards on a day when quarterback Andrew Luck became what Bradford used to be – a bright talent with tantalizing potential making his NFL debut.
Bradford’s numbers were respectable during Luck’s coronation at Lucas Oil Stadium, but there were smudges as well. Bradford missed Amendola open in the flat on a fourth-down pass on the opening drive. Later, the former Oklahoma star overthrew Steve Smith on a deep ball with the wide receiver streaking along the sideline.
Both sequences led to fair criticism. Both sequences, along with analysis of Bradford’s play Saturday, highlighted just how strong fans and media will study Bradford this fall: Is he healthy? Is he going through his progressions? Does he have the protection to maximize his skill?
“That makes all the difference – when Sam has time to throw the ball,” said Kendricks, who finished with two catches for 34 yards and a touchdown. “The O-line did a great job today. When he has that time to throw the ball, he is at his best.”
There’s little doubt about that. Because of it, the most-watched star at the Edward Jones Dome gave his audience a show.