JACKSONVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 01: Quarterback Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams attempts a pass during a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on September 1, 2011 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Bradford's 2010 season wasn't as good as it looked, which makes a sophomore slump more or less likely, depending on how you look at it.
Sam Bradford's rookie season for the St. Louis Rams was impressive, but it was the worrying kind of impressive. He started every down, but that "intangible" shows up in his counting stats; he accumulated a ton of passing yards and 18 touchdowns, but they came on 590 attempts. He's got a better offensive coordinator, but the offensive personnel isn't quite as heavily upgraded as it seems at a glance—Steven Jackson got competent backups, but the wide receiver upgrade basically involved having more questionable guys around to choose from. Bradford's yards per attempt was the lowest of any quarterback with significant time except Jimmy Clausen, who was buried beneath Giants Stadium sometime after the 2011 NFL Draft.
All this would be the usual sophomore jitters if Bradford didn't seem so solid on the surface. It's that combination of misplaced risk-assessment and poor statistical evaluation that's led to some equally egregious evaluations on the other side—Rick Mirer, anybody?
At this point in time, with Josh McDaniels's offense in place, a regular sophomore slump would be something like Bradford replicating his 2010 performance, and the Rams could successfully deal with that; this team is better than it was last year, and the NFC West hasn't quite improved enough to leave them in the dust. If Bradford really craters, however—an unlikely scenario in any case—they could be in trouble.
With Thaddeus Lewis back in Pat Shurmur's arms the backup is A.J. Feeley, who remains the ultimate replacement level quarterback. Solidly worse than even last year's Bradford, Feeley or a Feeley-like Bradford would put far too much pressure on Steven Jackson, who's coming off the worst season of his career, and the defense, which proved itself in 2010 but often looked strangled by the Rams' offense's inability to stay on the field.
That's what's so strange about projecting Sam Bradford in 2011. If you look at how it looks like he performed, a sophomore slump seems likely; his flaws from 2010 are going to be exposed at some point, no matter how tardy the football media is in understanding a quarterback's statistical performance. But if you go by how he actually performed, a sophomore slump looks tough to predict. He's a number-one pick, after all, and he's got a more pass-heavy offense and a better team around him; how many years can you expect a guy with his pedigree to be below average?
The Rams can deal with a sophomore slump relative to Sam Bradford's perception—that is, this is a competitive team even if he doesn't throw for 5000 yards, 40 touchdowns, and negative-five interceptions. If he improves on his place in the 2010 advanced metrics, which shouldn't be difficult, the Rams could win 10 games.
If he actually does have a bad year, as unlikely as it might seem, expect to see Steven Jackson's legs fall off on national television sometime around his 450th carry of the season.