Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top priority — protect Bradford

by Bernie M

The Rams' primary objective for the rest of the season should be perfectly clear: adjust the offense and do everything possible to protect and preserve QB Sam Bradford. He's been sacked 37 times this season, more than any NFL QB. (And that's with missing two games because of  an ankle injury.) Bradford is near the top of the board for most hits and most hurries. One injury has already taken him out of the lineup. What's the point of allowing Bradford to absorb a needless beating? What is being gained by having Bradford withstand so much physical punishment?
Having Bradford rocked and slammed to the ground would be OK if the Rams actually had something to show for his bruises. Kurt Warner took more hits than any QB during the "Greatest Show" glory days, but the trade-off resulted in one of the greatest performances in NFL history. The Rams threw 116 TD passes and and averaged 32.6 points per game over a three-season period (1999-2001.) All of those hits eventually impacted Warner's health and career, but Kurt and the Rams were willing to pay that price. Bradford is a tough QB; he doesn't complain about getting smacked around.
Bradford -- like Warner and any competitive quarterback -- is willing to stand in, suffer the pain of a nasty hit and make the throw. They will sacrifice if it means making a play. But Sam and the Rams are getting nothing in return for this steady QB abuse. They're last in the NFL in points per game (12), they're last in touchdowns from scrimmage (10), they have the league's worst third-down conversion rate (29.9 pct.) they rank 30th of 32 teams in yards per passing attempt (5.81), they are 27th in average yards at the point of the catch (5.5) and are tied with Jacksonville for the fewest number of TD passes (6).
The Rams aren't making big plays, they aren't scoring, they aren't winning. So again, please tell me: what is possibly being achieved by exposing Bradford and increasing the likelihood of injury or advanced erosion in his play? We've already watched Bradford descend into regression, and in my opinion there's no question that a lot of this is related to the cumulative effects of the punishment he's taking in this offense.
Last season, in the more conservative and cautious West Coast offense coordinated by Pat Shurmur, the Rams did a very good job of protecting Bradford. He played every snap of the 16-game season. He was sacked only 34 times. Only 11 NFL teams had a better rate of sacks per play (5.4 pct.) than the Rams. Shurmur's approach gave Bradford a lot of quick, three-step dropbacks and short throws. The system kept Bradford secure, enhanced his confidence and gave him a chance to take root in the NFL.
Oh, and by the way: the offense that caused so many fans to go wacko in ripping Shurmur also averaged 18.1 points per game. It was more productive than the sputtering Josh McDaniels offense we're seeing now. Shurmur-ball was hardly an air show, and it tended to be bland. But the small-ball Shurmur offense manufactured a lot of long drives, kept the chains moving, and kept the Rams defense fresh. The small-ball offense greatly reduced the number of hits on the QB and gave Bradford a chance to make plays. Last November 11, I wrote a column about the benefits of the Shurmur offense and was ridiculed for it, but I doubt that anyone of sound mind would dispute my premise these days.
The Josh McDaniels offense may not be as boring in terms of philosophy, but it isn't working. Bradford isn't being protected. Bradford isn't getting better. And the Rams aren't rolling up points. The McDaniels offense is averaging six points less a game than the Shurmur offense. With the Shurmur style the Rams ranked 14th in time of possession last season; this season they rank 26th.  
No, the Rams can't reinstall the West Coast Offense.
But they can modify what they have. With the injuries wrecking the team's supply of offensive tackles, it's imperative to take extra measures to limit the damage on Bradford. No more of this empty-backfield nonsense. If a young and inexperienced kid (Kevin Hughes) has to play left offensive tackle, you'd better line up a tight end next to him to help keep the wolves away from Bradford's throat. The Rams have to grind it out on the ground as much as possible with Steven Jackson. McDaniels has to simplify the offense and scale it down -- the way the Rams did for backup A.J. Feeley -- and give Bradford more three-step drops and quick throws.
If it's boring, who cares?
At least this will increase the chances of keeping Bradford safe. It will cut down on the possibility of Bradford becoming the next victim of The Battered Quarterback Syndrome (Marc BulgerDavid Carr, etc.)
Besides, what we've seen through the first 10 games -- an average of 12 points and only 10 TDs from scrimmage -- is hardly exciting. It's statistically  the worst offense in the National Football League. (Talk about boring.)
And it's getting the quarterback killed, for no good reason.
"I'm worried about Sam," Steven Jackson told 101 ESPN on Monday.
If McDaniels won't alter the offense, it's up to head coach Steve Spagnuolo to intervene. That's what good leaders do.

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