Sam Bradford hasn’t thrown a single pass as an Eagle and already he’s polarized the fan base. To some he is a talented QB who’s been trapped on a team with no talent or hope. To others, he is a mediocre QB living off the rep of being the top pick. Until September, all we have is what we see, whether it be by choice or subconsciously.
You probably have seen this famous illusion, My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. When you first saw it, you either saw the young woman or the old lady. Perhaps you saw the young lady because of bias to see the attractive woman. Or maybe you saw the old lady because the first thing you noticed then drew your attention to the rest her. But you probably only saw one at first, and now that you know that both are there, you can see both. Sam Bradford is this optical illusion. Some see a good QB with nothing to work with, some see a lousy one, but we can see both.
Bradford’s surrounding talent in St. Louis was unquestionably poor. His top wide receivers were Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, neither of whom are starting caliber players. He did have Steven Jackson, but by the time Bradford entered the league Jackson was running on mostly reputation, averaging 4.0 yards per carry in a running offense that finished 31st, 28th and 19th in DVOA.
But he also had Brandon Lloyd. In 2010 Lloyd had a career year with Kyle Orton as his QB and Josh McDaniels calling plays for most of the season. In 2011 he was traded to the Rams mid-season and re-united with McDaniels and played 8 of his 11 games in St. Louis with Bradford. He averaged 5 catches for 64 yards, a 13.8 yards per catch rate, one of the worst seasons of his career. Joining a team mid-season can be difficult, but Lloyd knew the playbook and was thrown to 85 times in 8 games by Bradford, more than any other Ram for the entire season.
His support staff on the sidelines was equally as weak as his teammates. Steve Spagnuolo couldn't cut it as a head coach (and hasn't fared well as an assistant since then), and the overrated Jeff Fisher, who has more losing seasons than winning seasons in his 19 full years as a head coach, has done no better. Offensive coordinators Pat Shurmur, McDaniels and Brian Schottenheimer are as uninspiring and unimpressive as their bosses.
But they weren't completely inept either. Fisher coached Steve McNair from raw but promising top pick to franchise icon in Tennessee. Orton had the best years of his career as a starter under McDaniels, significantly better than his seasons in Chicago. And Schottenheimer's offenses, while a deserved butt of jokes, weren't comically inept. They ranked 12th, 22nd, 18th, 22nd, 16th and 21st by DVOA while with the Jets, his Rams offenses finished 21st and 22nd with Bradford, 25th without him. In offensive scoring per game, his Jets offenses finished 18th, 29th, 7th, 17th, 18th and 15th; with the Rams 28th and 23rd with Bradford, 23rd without him. Brian Schottenheimer is not a good coach, but he has coached average and above average offenses without Bradford, and didn't with him.
The Rams front office did him no favors either, drafting a who’s who of third rate at best pass catchers: Mardy Gilyard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Fendi Onobun, Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Brian Quick, Chris Givens, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Even when they drafted dynamic players, they did it poorly, such as trying to shove multi-use Austin into Brian Shottenheimer’s old school offense. Efforts to improve a weak offensive line and solid running backs were just as fruitless, continuing to add run blockers and second string running backs.
However when Bradford played, that poor offensive line looked much better than when he didn't. In 2010 the Rams were 10th in adjusted sack percentage, and in 2012 they were 14th. In the three seasons that Bradford didn't play a full season or at all, they usually slipped, 28th in 2011 (an injury plagued season for the offensive line), 14th in 2013, 23rd in 2014.
Some expect that with the best surround talent Bradford has ever had, and under a coach whose offense is leaps and bounds better than anything he saw in St. Louis, that Bradford will finally have the breakout season people have been waiting four years for in Chip Kelly's big play offense.
But others point out that throughout his career, Bradford has been reluctant to throw deep passes:
Just 9.9 percent of his professional passes have gone 20 yards or more in the air since he arrived in the league in 2010. Among regular starters over that time frame, only Alex Smith, Matt Schaub, and Matt Ryan (at a league-low 8.0 percent) have been less likely to air it out. During his career, per ESPN Stats & Information, the average Bradford pass has traveled just 7.5 yards in the air. The only regular passer in that time making shorter throws is Alex Smith.
Bradford's average pass traveled 6.9 yards in the air. The average NFL pass travels 8.3 yards in the air. The average NFL quarterback throws 49 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, from screens to dumpoffs to shallow drags and hitches. Bradford threw within five yards of the line of scrimmage 58 percent of the time.
It's easy to blame the lack of talent around him, but other QBs who have a poor group of pass catchers were not as reluctant to throw the deep pass. Including his own teammate. In 2013, Bradford's most efficient season, he averaged 2.86 air yards per attempt, 36th out of 37 QBs who qualified. (Bradford's backups in 2011 didn't qualify.) His replacement Kellen Clemens averaged 3.76, 20th best. Bradford's 44.5% of passing yards as air yards was second worst, Clemens' 54.3% was 12th best. With the same supporting staff, Clemens had no qualms about throwing the ball deep. With nearly the same players (Kenny Britt the only notable addition) and coaching staff in 2014, Austin Davis was 19th, Shaun Hill was 22nd, and both had a better completion percentage and yards per attempt than Bradford did in about as many attempts in 2013.
For every argument in favor of Bradford there is an argument against him. His surrounding talent was weak, but his backups did not perform significantly worse, and in some aspects performed better. Was that because Bradford's teammates were so weak as to limit him, or because Bradford wasn't significantly better than his backups? His coaching staff was not very good, but they mostly had better success elsewhere. Was that because their offenses overall were better, or because Bradford was hindering the Rams with mediocre play? The Rams couldn't draft well on offense, but then teams with a good QB can and do draft poorly and still succeed on the field.
And then there's a similar tale when you look at the depth chart.
Mark Sanchez came to the Eagles a year ago under very similar circumstances. He had poor surrounding talent on his previous team, though the Jets did manage to get him better targets to throw to than the Rams did Bradford. He had a coaching staff that was just as, if not more, incompetent at coaching and developing offense as the Rams. They even both had Brian Schottenheimer calling plays, and they both came to the Eagles after missing an entire season due to injury. Though unlike Bradford, Sanchez wasn’t brought in to be the starter, but he did play half the season, and the results were lukewarm. Sanchez did see a significant statistical bump in many areas under Chip Kelly, with career highs that were significant improvements in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating. But his interception percentage was essentially the same as his Jets career (3.6% in 2014, 3.7% in New York), and he took sacks at a higher rate than in NY. After a promising start, Sanchez turned out to be the same weak armed passer and poor decision maker he was in New York. His stats were much better, but his play wasn't.
But Bradford is considered a better talent than Sanchez. Bradford was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft despite missing nearly the entire season due to injuring his throwing shoulder twice. Coaches raved then and still rave now about how promising a prospect he was, Sanchez's own college coach felt he came out too early. Bradford's rookie year he threw the third most attempts in the league, the Jets shielded Sanchez, he was 25th in attempts, the team was first in rushing attempts by a significant margin. Sanchez started 66 games in New York in four years, including playoffs, the general consensus was he had reached his ceiling prior to coming to the Eagles. Starting 49 games in four years, Bradford, fairly or not, does not have that label, perhaps because he was the top pick, perhaps because he keeps getting injured.
Two images, one QB
Is Bradford a trigger shy check down machine, or is he a talented QB who has been victim of incompetence? This is a debate that has been going on in St. Louis for years. Unlike My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, he can't be both at the same time. Until we see him in action with the Eagles, he will be the optical illusion of our choosing.