ST. LOUIS — As is routine during the regular season, Sam Bradford gathered in the middle of the Rams’ locker room Wednesday afternoon and staged his weekly chat with local media. Upward of two dozen of us were gathered for his first such session of the season, an impressive turnout that was duly noted by the fourth-year quarterback.
“I hope you’re all here in Week 16,” Bradford said. “There were about four of you here last year at that point.”
Without missing a beat, KSDK’s Frank Cusumano replied: “Give us a reason, we’ll be here.”
“Absolutely,” Bradford said.
Absolutely? As in absolutely, the Rams still will be relevant at Christmas?
Bradford must be feeling confident about the Rams’ chances in 2013. The last season the Rams were more than a playoff pretender at the holidays, Bradford still was slinging passes at Putnam City North in Oklahoma City. They have gone 16-31-1 since he arrived from Oklahoma, 15-26-1 in the games he has played.
But Bradford and the Rams have plenty of reasons to believe this season will be better. Among the most talked about is that Bradford did not have to learn a new offense for the first time since the Rams made him the first pick of the 2010 draft.
More significant, that offense has been upgraded at left tackle, wide receiver and tight end. Combined with the expected improvement of last year’s promising rookies, the Rams finally have provided Bradford with a legitimate opportunity to become a top-flight quarterback.
“It’s really fun as a quarterback to drop back and know that every five positions that are running routes, I’ve got someone who, if I get the ball into their hands, there’s a possibility that they could break a tackle and create an explosive play,” Bradford says. “It just opens up a lot of different options, things that we haven’t had in the past.”
But no matter how much rookie wideout Tavon Austin, new tight end Jared Cook and new left tackle Jake Long bring to the Rams, no matter how much improvement running back Daryl Richardson and receiver Chris Givens show in their second seasons, there is no doubt the Rams will go as far as Bradford leads them.
Coach Jeff Fisher can talk all he wants about how this isn’t a make-or-break season in the 25-year-old Bradford’s career. But after all the work done to improve his supporting cast, a lackluster season by Bradford will have many in the football world thinking the Rams should have grabbed Robert Griffin III when they had the chance.
At least Bradford doesn’t have to worry about his teammates doubting him.
“The league hasn’t seen what he can do when he’s not under pressure,” guard Harvey Dahl says.
“Some of the receivers he went to last year were banged up,” cornerback Cortland Finnegan says. “Where he goes with the football this year, it’s more like pick your poison. That’s something he’s never had. To have that is confidence.”
“There’s an ownership that starts to take shape as a guy has more and more experience in a system,” backup quarterback Kellen Clemens says. “That’s what we’ve seen. His leadership is ready to go to the next level.”
“Sam is one of the guys who makes sure he is doing everything right he possibly can,” says receiver Austin Pettis. “I know he takes things hard when things don’t go his way. The offense can see that and that’s why we work so hard. We have a leader who pretty much wants perfection.”
Bradford, of course, has plenty to prove before his performance could be considered anywhere near the neighborhood of perfection. He has yet to show he can throw downfield consistently or that he has the necessary vision to spot multiple receivers on a play. He knows this as well as anyone.
“Being more efficient,” he says was the area of improvement he has talked most about with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. “Last year we really struggled on third down (29th in the league), but a big reason is because first and second down weren’t very efficient.
“There’s times during games where I’ve got to understand down and distance better and get us into better situations — take a check-down on first down instead of trying to force something down the field. That way we get ourselves to second-and-6 instead of second-and-10 and try to open things up for us.”
What also could help Bradford is contributing more to the offense’s game preparation. Fisher and Schottenheimer will rely more than ever on Bradford’s input into the play calling.
“As you mature in the system, it’s easier from a quarterback’s standpoint to be able to say, ‘Hey, I like this,’ as opposed to, ‘Yeah, I’m not real sure about that,'” Fisher says. “As you go through the week, you experiment with some things. Is he comfortable with taking it into the game? If not, we’ll take it out.
“We want him to be comfortable with everything that we’re doing.”
They know there’s no surer way for the Rams to still be relevant by Week 16.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.