NFL Team to Watch – Sam Bradford’s St. Louis Rams

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.

McDaniels is the other reason why I’m intrigued by the Rams. McDaniels clearly wasn’t ready for his primetime head coaching gig with the Broncos — continuing to curse of Belichick assistants — but part of that was because he was still obsessed with his offense. I spoke to a number of the Broncos receivers and they loved Coach McDaniels. They told me that he ran a very sophisticated system that gave them a lot of freedom to change their routes based on the coverage they faced, but he did so much homework he managed to distill it for them into very simple rules they could use, primarily focused on the alignment and depth of the nearest deep safety. (Indeed, this itnense focus on the offense is likely one reason why his defenses in Denver were so bad.) But now McDaniels can focus on preparing his offense, letting Spagnuolo be the head honcho for the team. I think this has the chance to be a great fit for everyone involved.

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.

Where to read more Rams: Turf Show Times, Rams Gab, Rams Herd and Ramblin Fan.

  • Anonymous

    One clarifying point: Looking at the video again (it’s hard with the TV angle) it looks like the backside receiver was also running a square-in or post — making the concept a kind of “mirrored” concept — though the point remains that McDaniels often gives that backside guy freedom to run some kind of choice concept.

  • http://twitter.com/RamsHerd RamsHerd

    Fantastic breakdown of the touchdown play, and in my mind the key to making it work was Bradford’s recognition of what the middle linebacker was going to do – or not do – as Kendricks crossed. His timing on the throw was perfect, coming as Brackett was frozen in the zone, trying to defend the RB while the tight end streaked in front of him.

  • Mr.Murder

    Post/deep slant for where you are, similar break(back marker landmark).

    If you could bring the three interior routes closer together it would look like spacing from the bunch set. The one difference being that the routes have more room to work off the player who squeezes coverage from the end being split out and the back offset to the other side.

    Essenetially disguised spacing as a snag concept.

    You know what you get with Indy a lot of the time. They stayed in five under two coverage, the corners sank on the release, you end up bracketing both wideouts and the main player likely to snag. If the back stayed weak would the mike jump the TE like the Sabam ‘rat’ would do a rover, and would the passer stay on the same read going end cross to snag as his 2-3 progressions?

    Wideouts on rythm, slot to end on read, back on release.

  • Guest

    Love this site! It really helps me understand the game as a fan. I have a question though. You had a post a while back  talking about the seminal offenses of decades passed and I am wondering if you see this Josh McDaniels/Charlie Weis offense being the seminal offense in this decade just like the WCO was the seminal offense of the 80’s. I believe it is the same system the Giants and Steelers use and the Patriots still use. It seems to have a few very important factors in its favor if it is to become the next big thing.

    1) The Patriots, Steelers, and Giants all have won Super Bowls with this system. When teams win other coaches try to replicate that success.

    2)
         A-This looks to be a very QB friendly system (which always contributes to more teams running it). QBs in this system throw for a lot of yards, but they can also be protected by good running games like the Chiefs had last year.

        B-I’m probably way off base here so forgive me if I am. This offense looks like the closest thing to a true college spread offense that we will ever see in the NFL. I get the impression that this system packages combination routes more than any other in the league and is relatively easy to teach. If that’s the case, I could see offenses like this becoming a lot more popular at the college and high school level. Struggling spread teams are going to realize they can’t recruit spread personnel as effectively as they used to.

    3) The ability to run the ball is critical for NFL coaches. Although it is a myth that West Coast Offense teams have a hard time running the ball, I do believe the Weis/McDaniels system is probably the better offense if you want to run the ball. I think a new head coach looking to hire an offensive coordinator might choose to go with the Weis/McdDaniels (Erhardt-Perkins) system whereas in the past a new head coach might have gone with the WCO.

    Anyway, I know I wrote a lot, but was wondering what you thought of that.

  • GoldenHorns

    Thanks for the great breakdown of the Rams’ first scoring play.  

    As for the larger point regarding Bradford’s rookie season, I think Chase is right to call out the hyperbole of the football media, especially since a lot of the national guys didn’t watch the Rams much last year.

    You are absolutely correct though in pointing out that even if the drooling over Bradford’s season is a bit silly it doesn’t take away from what he did on the field.  He spent a season getting adjusted to the speed of the NFL, and shaking off a year of rust, and he did it while transitioning from a superior offensive line to a porous one.  He did it without a credible running game or a decent receiver, and like you said he did it without falling on his face.

    Now that he has displayed the competency to play the position at this level we will see if he can improve, especially with an (hopefully) improved supporting cast and better play calling.   If he improves I will ignore the pundits who criticize him for only winning 7 games against a very difficult schedule, just like I ignored the pundits who heaped praise on him for winning 7 games last year against an incredibly easy schedule.

     

  • duh9

    The hype for Bradford coming from ‘football guys’ is justified. The football that Bradford played lends to the idea that he will be a star. Chase’s stats don’t really interest me in this case. Just watch the guy play.

  • juco coach

    Great post… my initial thought when I saw your diagram was, as you hinted, that the Rams concept here was rooted in the foundation of the run & shoot “choice” play that you have previously analyzed.  Again, always great stuff.

  • Chase Stuart

    As an aside, at PFR we use ANY/A or NY/A usually, not AY/A.  The difference comes from including sack data, which is relevant in this case (especially when you adjust for era). We use ANY/A to explain things and rank the best seasons ever, but NY/A as the predictive stat.  That’s because ANY/A has TD and INT bonuses/penalties, which are necessary in an explanatory stat but not useful in the predictive sense.

    As a rookie, Manning’s ANY/A was was 4.8 and the league average was
    5.3. His NY/A was 6.1 and the league average was 5.9. The difference,
    of course, was that Manning led the league in INTs. That made him not
    so valuable as a rookie QB but it meant little about how good he would
    become (Manning is obviously a fantastic example for the argument that a
    QB’s INT rate as a rookie says little about his future ability).

    So Manning’s rookie season was slightly below average (in terms of
    ANY/A) but actually ABOVE average in terms of his expected future performance.

    Bradford, on the other hand, averaged 4.7 ANY/A (lg avg = 5.7) and
    5.2 NY/A (lg avg = 6.2). So he was quite a bit below average in terms
    of his value as a rookie, and also well below league average when it
    comes to projecting future performance.

    Manning’s rookie season has probably been overrated as well, at least to the extent that people look at counting stats.  But it was definitely (before adjusting for strength of opponents or strength of teammates) more impressive than Bradford’s from a predictive standpoint.

  • Anonymous

    Chase: Fair enough, and the INT thing is definitely what set Peyton back that year. From a coaching standpoint it’s interesting because you want to know how would you rather your young quarterback act, and Manning versus Bradford represents a pretty good split for what even high school coaches face: The guy is often either too aggressive and thus turns it over too much (Manning) or is too conservative (Bradford). I know several run and shoot and other coaches that believe that the young quarterback has to throw his way out of his problems, but if he becomes a checkdown king he’ll never quite get out of that.

    So we’ll see. Obviously Bradford didn’t have great downfield threats, but the rushing numbers for Jackson do indicate that the defense was focusing on the run more with Bradford at QB, not less. And in any event I wasn’t so much as agreeing with you as being willing, in this specific instance, to set the stats aside (for now) and see some promise for the kid. But who knows.

    Lastly, one of the really fascinating things about Manning is the huge leap that he made from his first to his second years (team went from 3-13 to 13-3, Y/A and AY/A both jumped over two yards, all the traditional numbers jumped way up (or in the case of INTs, basically went in half). And he did this after losing his leading receiver from the season before: Marshall Faulk, who had been Manning’s checkdown safety blanket, with over 86 catches. The only addition to the Colts that year was Edgerrin James as replacement for Faulk (Reggie Wayne wouldn’t come to the Colts until years later). So who knows.

  • Chase Stuart

    They’re related, but I think the “too agressive vs. too conservative” debate is slightly different from what I’m getting at, but also a very interesting debate.

    Essentially, INTs are very random. For one, they only happen a few times in every hundred passes, so you’re going to get a lot of randomness for that reason alone.  For example, if a QB has a 3% INT rate, over 500 passes, there’s an 11% chance he’ll throw 10 or fewer INTs.  But there’s an 8% chance he’ll throw 20 or more INTs. This has nothing to do with ability — we’re mandating that his true rate is 3% — but just reflects the variance involved with something that is such a rare event. 

    But INTs are even more random than that.  Lots of INTs are dropped, or tipped.  Just in general, INT rates are really random because of the fluky nature of plays and because of the small likelihood of the event happening.  Over 500 throws, things don’t even out.

    However, the conservative vs. aggressive thing is another issue.  They’re related, but I do think it’s worth separating them out at least as an ideological matter.  To some extent they’re correlated: obviously safer passes are less likely to be intercepted, but the randomness of football makes them less correlated.  Other factors like overall team strength (playing from behind leads to more interceptions, playing with a lead leads to fewer) impacts this as well.

     I like looking at yards per completion as a proxy for the gunslinger/checkdown style.  Sanchez, for example, had a very high YPC as a rookie (arguably inflated because of the strong running game made defenses cheat up); Bradford had a very low one. Which style is better?  Personally, I’m more in the camp of believing you need to throw your way out of problems (hey, I’m an AFL guy) but I see both sides.

    That said, I *do* see potential in Bradford.  A lot.  He was the #1 pick, which makes him an outstanding prospect.  So was Aikman and Bradshaw, and they stunk their first year.  For me, I more see potential in Bradford based on what I saw in college and his skillset than what he actually did as a pro last year.  He’ll be an interesting one to watch.

    Manning did make a huge leap in year two.  Hard to explain it other than say he’s awesome and he’s Manning.

  • averagefootballfan21

    you cant even say Bradford is overrated as a rookie. look at the dropped passes. this year we have a better receiving corp. his stats will definitely improve this year, now just imagine if he had an excellent group of receivers. just sit back and watch, theyll be alot better this year then they have been in awhile. im not saying theyll win the super bowl, but its gonna be the start of many good years to come. Hopefully the running game will be opened up as well.