ST. LOUIS – Sam Bradford refuses to let this be about him. He chooses not to hear the chatter. He tunes out comparisons to rookie Robert Griffin III, the unwanted static, because failing to do so would be a distraction.
He says he doesn’t pay attention to the media as he faces a scrum after practice. The statement shows his scars. It’s Wednesday afternoon in the locker room at Rams Park, four days before the third-year player leads the St. Louis Rams against the Washington Redskins at the Edward Jones Dome. Parallels between the quarterbacks are obvious.
Once, Bradford was a coveted Heisman Trophy winner, a sure-thing prospect from Oklahoma who signed a $78 million contract to lead a lost franchise. Now Griffin, a Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor, is the NFL’s Next Great Thing. Now RGIII is the charming personality with a cannon right arm who captivated the league by passing for 320 yards with two touchdowns in a stunning victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 1.
Years pass. Fascinations change.
“I’ve been in games where they’ve tried to paint it where it’s me versus the other quarterback, but it’s never the case,” says Bradford, who threw for 198 yards and a touchdown in a loss to the Detroit Lions. “It’s the St. Louis Rams versus the Washington Redskins this week. It’s two teams going at it. I’m glad that I’m in this locker room and I’m part of this team. I can’t wait to get out there Sunday and give them a battle.”
Bradford’s battle is one that all young stars, including Griffin at some point, must confront as memory of walking across a stage at Radio City Music Hall becomes distant: How does a player adapt to pressures of being a franchise’s face? How does he evolve after living success and failure early as a professional? What does it say about the NFL that a player like Griffin can replace Bradford so fast as the next prized star?
Bradford has lived through trial in the search to answer those questions. The Rams are 9-24 since he was signed to replace Marc Bulger. He has played under two head coaches, three offensive coordinators and has received patchwork help on the offensive line and at wide receiver. Some criticism is warranted, but grumbles about his ability to lead a turnaround will grow louder if he’s ineffective like in a lost 2011 season.
Meanwhile, Griffin is only beginning this fickle dance. He came to Washington after St. Louis wisely showed trust in Bradford and traded the No. 2 pick in March. Eventually, Griffin will experience growing pains as well.
“The main thing I tried to do was make sure I didn’t try to be a leader,” Griffin says. “I think a lot of guys can get annoyed by that just because you are the quarterback. You’re the natural leader no matter what.”
Griffin is living a high now. He’s an unscratched Ferrari. He has been praised for his historic debut, an effort made possible against the Saints in part because of surprise.
But as Bradford has learned, shine wears. Opponents adapt, and losses come. Time takes care of a star’s naivety.
How will Griffin react when the glowing headlines stop? How will Griffin respond when, like Bradford, hardship arrives?
“No, not at all,” Griffin says, when asked if he could imagine a better opening. “You come away with a win, that’s the most important thing. Then from a personal level, to go back home to my real hometown of New Orleans, La., and get to go out there and get a victory against the hometown team with my family all there to see it and the way we won the game, that was truly special.”
But NFL life is fluid. Special starts don’t remain that way. One minute, a star’s ceiling appears limitless, like Griffin’s did at a silenced Superdome. The next, momentum can turn.
Bradford knows this well. He won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2010 after passing for 3,512 yards with 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Then he sustained a high left ankle sprain last season, limiting him to 2,164 yards with six touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games played.
Later, some called for the Rams to draft Griffin. This was ignorant talk, mostly frustration after a year in which the Rams were expected to compete for the NFC West crown. Make no mistake: St. Louis was savvy to gain three first-round picks and a second-round selection in the trade.
Still, Griffin’s rise reveals this truth about Bradford: There’s always someone new. There’s always another phenom with a sterling college pedigree ready to burst onto the scene. There’s always pressure to grow, to produce, to stay relevant with age. After all, Griffin is what Bradford used to be: A hot talent entrusted to change the fortunes of a once-proud franchise.
“I think both teams have the same thing to look forward to – (Griffin’s) future and our future in the draft,” Fisher says. “So we both have a bright future ahead of us.”
It remains to be seen what that future will hold for Griffin and Bradford. Yes, the parallels between the two are obvious. But little about their environment is the same.
Griffin has become an instant sensation in a city that hasn’t seen a playoff berth since the 2007 season. He represents hope after a weak parade of signal-callers: Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman. He has become a symbol of optimism for a starved fan base that has been without a Super Bowl title since the 1991 season.
Meanwhile, Bradford has become an open-ended question in a city that hasn’t seen a playoff berth since the 2004 season. He represented hope after an embarrassing stretch that saw the Rams lose 60 of 80 games from 2005 to 2009. But he has become a symbol of uncertainty as Fisher and first-year general manager Les Snead try to remake a franchise that last won a Super Bowl in the 1999 campaign.
Both quarterbacks have promise. And both will share a field Sunday knowing time waits for no one.
“I know from playing RGIII in college that he’s a great player,” Bradford says. “I remember sitting in team meetings and (Oklahoma) coach (Bob) Stoops … making sure that everyone knew how good of an athlete he was and that he could throw the football and run the football. Obviously, kind of listening to coach Fisher in some of our team meetings, it sounds like he’s doing the same things at this level. There’s no doubt that he’s a great talent and a really good quarterback.”
Many had the same praise for Bradford two years ago.
There’s always someone new. There’s always motivation to adapt.