When it comes to football as stimulating entertainment, not all teams are created equal. This is part of my pre-season series on Teams to Watch, which literally means to “watch their game,” not necessarily to “watch out for” (though it can mean that too)
The St. Louis Rams, who went 7-9 in 2010, were not a great team last season and are unlikely to be a great one this year. But there is reason for optimism. First, Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams’ second-year head coach, has been reshaping the defense in his image, and appears to be the steady hand on the wheel the team lacked under Scott Linehan. Second, the offensive line should improve and the backfield looks better and deeper than it is has been since Marshall Faulk manned it alone in his heyday: The great Steven Jackson returns, this time with some assistance from new additions Cadillac Williams and the quick Jerious Norwood. And, of course, Sam Bradford had a magnificent rookie season, where he undoubtedly showed that he is a future NFL great. Or did he? As Chase explains:
Sam Bradford’s rookie season has been incredibly overrated by nearly every football writer and talking head. . . The problem when it comes to evaluationg Bradford is that too many people are paying too much attention to the wrong stats. Bradford’s 2010 performance wasn’t very good, even for a rookie. Over the past 20 seasons, there have been 37 quarterbacks to throw at least 224 passes in their rookie season. According to the Net Yards per Attempt Index, which grades each quarterback by his average net yards per pass attempt adjusted for era, Bradford ranks just 22nd out of 37 quarterbacks. That puts him just behind Tony Banks and Trent Edwards, and right ahead of Joey Harrington and Matt Stafford. Bradford ranked 31st in NY/A last season, only topping Carolina’s Jimmy Clausen; he ranked just 29th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Does that scream superstar to you?
I am a bit more hopeful, and that is why I’ll be catching Rams games this fall. Specifically, although I agree that Bradford’s rookie season should not be exalted as one of the all-time greats, I am willing to go beyond the stats in this case and apply some of that good ol’ fashioned “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” type of analysis. And what I saw was a smart young quarterback on a bad-to-mediocre team with a horrendous supporting cast, who managed to get himself through a lot of ballgames by taking the conservative option, dumping it off, and picking spots to throw downfield. I saw a quarterback who didn’t fall on his face, but, along with developing those downfield weapons, will have to learn to push the ball downfield. Most telling in this regard was St. Louis’s most important game, against Seattle late in the season. Had the Rams won that game, they would have been in the playoffs, but Bradford struggled against Pete Carroll’s blitz schemes, managing only roughly four yards per pass attempt and an interception. But I saw a guy who, with another year of maturity and a better supporting cast, could develop into a good NFL starter (with the added benefit of a generally weak division).
Moreover, the statistics are not all bad. Bradford’s 5.4 Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt (Pro Football Reference’s vaunted quarterback stat), although not great, was better than the rookie number for another highly touted rookie: Peyton Manning only had a 5.2 AY/A in 1998, his rookie season. My point is not that Bradford was 0.2 better than Manning, but instead simply that with young quarterbacks it’s a guessing game. Remember too that Bradford was coming off a college season where he barely registered any snaps due to injuries, and logic indicates that he’s at least on the right direction.
But the point is well taken: Bradford will not be Tom Brady this season, and his progress will be as dependent on his supporting cast as it will be on himself. Most specifically, Bradford needs his receiving corps to step up and improve. The only sure thing returning is former undrafted received Danny Amendola, referred to as a Welker clone for many reasons, some more obvious than others, but not least of all because they both were slot receivers at Texas Tech under Mike Leach. Amendola will roam the undercoverage, but from there it’s anyone’s guess: rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas look promising but are unknowns, Donnie Avery returns from injury, veterans Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, and Brandon Gibson have done some good things; no one really knows. Yet it’s not necessary in modern football to have two great gamebreakers outside, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, to have an effective passing attack. And no one knows this better than new Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
As an example of some of the early returns, in their first preseason game Bradford hit rookie tight-end Lance Kendricks for a touchdown. The play is a good example of what Bradford will be asked to do.
The play has a few shifting parts but essentially breaks into two half-field reads. (Note that some of this is what I’m extrapolating from watching the play; I have seen similar concepts but I don’t know exactly what McDaniels teaches on this specific call.) The offense aligns in a “trips” or “trey” formation, with three receivers to the right and a single receiver backside, with the runningback next to the quarterback in the shotgun. The tight-end aligns off the ball but tight; this allows the offense to either immediately release four receivers to immediately attack the defense or to release three and have seven potential pass protectors for the quarterback (the runningback and tight-end “check release” if the defense doesn’t blitz). Here, the tight-end free releases but it may have been because the defense was showing that it was not blitzing.
On the three receiver side, the outside receiver runs a square-in (it becomes something like a post route in the red zone), while the slot runs a “pivot” or whip route, angling in before pivoting back to the sideline. This by itself is an effective two-man combination, as the pivot and the square-in work well against man coverage, while the square-in should come open behind the pivot if the defenders squeeze the shorter route; if they drop back, the pivot has the freedom to find a spot in the zone.
The tight-end runs a simple drag or shallow route, while the runningback check-releases into the route looking for a spot to settle in after crossing underneath the tight-end. The backside receiver in the clip below simply clears out and runs a fade, but I’ve shown in the diagram some different options. McDaniels will often put his best or most dynamic receiver backside and let the quarterback and receiver find a play that will work for them. They can either signal one pre-snap or McDaniels may gameplan a couple of routes together. Here I’ve shown a simple choice between a fade, a slant, and a speed out route, which depend on the leverage of the defense. The concept is not unlike the old run and shoot “choice” play. To the left side of the field, the quarterback’s read is the backside receiver on the choice route, to the tight-end on the drag to the runningback over the middle as the checkdown. As the clip below shows, the defense (1) is overloaded to the trips side, eliminating the pivot/square-in combination and (2) both the cornerback and the safety sit on the backside receiver’s route, thus opening up the tight-end on the shallow cross. (If the clip doesn’t begin at the right spot, skip to the 0:34 second mark.)
I’m not sure how the Rams will do this year, but however they end up, it should be interesting and worth watching. Hopefully Bradford continues to develop and becomes a standout quarterback; I know McDaniels will do his best to put him in position. How will we know if it’s a success? We’ll know it if the Rams passing game becomes a real threat again, and as a result Steven Jackson and company start churning out more rushing yards at a higher per play clip. But we’ll find out — that’s what the games are for.