ST. LOUIS — From his office at Rams Park, general manager Les Snead can look onto the practice fields and see the future of his team.
There goes franchise quarterback Sam Bradford rehabbing from the left knee surgery that ended his 2013 season before it was half over. What Snead sees is encouraging.
"I’ve been able to watch Sam over the last couple of weeks rehabbing and you’re just amazed," Snead says.
Five months after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Bradford is moving well enough that the team believes he will be practicing at some point during June OTAs and be a full go for Sept. 7, when the Rams open against the Vikings.
Snead offers two reasons for the optimism. Because Bradford’s ACL did not tear from a contact play, it should heal cleaner. "There was not a lot of structural damage, not a lot of meniscus damage," Snead says. "It was more, ‘Sew the knee up and let’s go’ versus, ‘Wow, you’ve got some dents in your bone and some chips in there.’"
Advances in the rehab process have players returning sooner and sooner from ACL surgeries, Snead adds. He points to a couple of college quarterbacks, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who participated in pro days at their respective schools less than five months after reconstructive surgery. "It shows you, five months, they can be ready," Snead says.
No longer does ACL surgery mean a cast for six weeks. Nowadays, guys already are running on anti-gravity treadmills six weeks after surgery. "The rehab process has really improved over the last three years because of technology," Snead says.
For example, because you can run faster on an anti-gravity treadmill than you can in a pool — where some begin their ACL rehabs — you are able to regain the feel of playing at full speed sooner. "That helps your psyche," Snead says.
Now if that sounds like hopeful hogwash, it’s understandable. The Rams can’t be sure when Bradford will be ready, and they stop short of saying he will be ready for the opener. Snead knows mental barriers must be cleared after the knee has regained its strength, and getting used to being hit doesn’t happen overnight. Bradford could take weeks, months or even a full season to return completely to form.
The Rams, of course, are not in position to think that way. For at least one more season, Bradford is their man. They signed a new backup, Shaun Hill, but he didn’t throw a pass for the Lions last season. The Rams could very well select a quarterback in the upcoming draft, but to think he could supplant Bradford by September is silly.
For better or worse, the Rams are putting their 2014 hopes squarely on the shoulders of the 26-year-old Bradford, even though he will be playing behind a revamped offensive line on a knee that figures to need time before it’s all the way right.
And, oh yeah, the anchor of that line, left tackle Jake Long, also is coming off reconstructive knee surgery that was more serious that Bradford’s. But Snead has been able to watch Long’s progress on the practice fields, too, and is confident he also will be ready for training camp.
Despite the uncertainties, Snead isn’t stifling expectations for the Rams in 2014. He says anything less than the playoffs will be a disappointment, as it was last season when the Rams finished 7-9 after starting 1-3. He says so despite adding that he expects the Rams, who own 12 picks in the upcoming draft, to be the NFL’s youngest team for the third straight season.
"But we’re going to be a lot more experienced," he says.
Snead admits that after last offseason’s much-needed infusion of speed, the Rams weren’t quite sure what kind of team they would become. But after the bad start, coach Jeff Fisher figured it out.
"Those games led Jeff to going, ‘You know what, here’s how I know to win games. We’re going to play really good D, we’re going to run the football, we’re going to do play-action pass and we’re going to win games,’" Snead says. "That’s our identity now. It doesn’t mean we’re just going to ground and pound. What it means is we’re going to build a team that can run, and that’s going to make the passing game better."
Snead knows whatever honeymoon period that came with the hiring of Fisher and him is about to end. Under their leadership, the Rams have moved beyond the dreadful 15-65 five-year skid that preceded them. Taking that next step — from mediocre to the playoffs — is even more challenging, but Snead says it’s time.
"I was jacked the way our team fought back last year. We were a better team at the end than at the beginning, and that was even with some men down," Snead says. "Now (new defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams helps. Our experience will help, and the new talent from this year’s draft is going to help. I look at all those things and think we are ready to roll."
Clearly, he is enjoying the view from his office windows these days.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.