ST. LOUIS, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Sam Bradford #8 of the St. Louis Rams looks to pass the ball against the Arizona Cardinals at the Edward Jones Dome on November 27, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Rams 23-20. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Brian Schottenheimer's ready to leave the New York Jets for the St. Louis Rams. Will he give Sam Bradford the same leeway they gave Mark Sanchez?
The St. Louis Rams reportedly settling on Brian Schottenheimer as their next offensive coordinator hasn't just been big news in the Midwest—over in New York(-ish), Jets fans have celebrated Schottenheimer's exit with nearly as much fervor as Rams fans managed when the Cleveland Browns poached Pat Shurmur this time last year. All the complaints wielded against Josh McDaniels at the Edward Jones Dome have been applied at MetLife Stadium—Schottenheimer's playbook is incomprehensible, common-senseless, too pass-heavy and not adaptable enough. It might make you a little cynical about the Rams' prospects next year, but I do have one piece of good news: Sam Bradford is at least as good as Mark Sanchez.
Sanchez—thrown into the fray early like Bradford—has had better pieces, better teams, and little more going for him, even in his two AFC Championship appearances. In 2009 he was the quarterback we all wished Bradford could be in 2010—allowed to learn on the job thanks to the talent around him, Sanchez made just 364 attempts in 15 games and was not very effective while he did it, finishing his rookie season with 12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, and a DVOA of -21.9%.
Things came together in 2010 and 2011, and he's been on either side of average since, taking on more of an offensive responsibility in the process. In 2009 Sanchez (who Wally Pipped current Rams backup Kellen Clemens) made 364 attempts, against 607 rushes from Thomas Jones, Shonn Greene and company. By 2011 Schottenheimer had taken the leash off; this year he threw the ball 543 times, against just 443 (considerably less effective) rushes from Shonn Greene and the change-of-pace-guy version of LaDainian Tomlinson. The Jets were confident enough in Sanchez this year to leave nothing but 41-year-old Mark Brunell between their quarterback situation and the waiver wire.
It's been a reasonable evolution for the average quarterback, if not the pin-up star New York version, a breed who's permanently doomed to a life of being overrated and over-overrated in turn. But the best part of it has been that Sanchez was allowed to learn the most effective parts of quarterbacking on the job. He's inaccurate and he takes too many chances, but that's because he's been allowed to go for the big play, something that will be increasingly important as the offense becomes reliant on his abilities. It paid off this year, when he and Plaxico Burress somehow combined, at times, to be a plausible end-zone threat.
Both quarterbacks were coddled their rookie seasons. Sanchez sometimes barely seemed there on offense behind the bruising his running backs gave and took, which allowed him to average 12.5 yards on the completions he did make. Sam Bradford wasn't given that luxury; with no depth behind Steven Jackson and no options on offense, Bradford was thrown into Pat Shurmur's ultra-conservative offense and made to move the ball with more four-yard tosses to a streaking Danny Amendola than most people reasonably expected to see in their lifetimes.
In his much-anticipated debut, he threw the ball 55 times for just 253 yards, and it got worse from there. Not only did he end the season averaging 9.9 yards per completion, he had four games (losses, and only two of them blowouts) in which he took at least 35 attempts and managed fewer than five yards per attempt.
Through all that—through 590 attempts—he was competent, putting up big counting stats through force of will and sheer reluctance to see A.J. Feeley attempt a pass. But he's never had a chance to play the role of a trusted quarterback, except under duress; the flashes he showed early in the season, mostly in the fake-injury-prone no-huddle the Rams employed against the New York Giants, were rapidly lost beneath a hail of sacks and injured wide receivers.
We've never had the chance to see Sam Bradford freed up—neither from the responsibility of hitting his safety valves nor the necessity of escaping large, angry, not-especially-deterred defensive linemen. We've never seen Mark Sanchez any other way, although he'd probably trade Bradford a beaten-up locker room for his current "toxic" model.
I don't know whether Brian Schottenheimer's the answer or not, but whether we'll ever see Sam Bradford free to take risks and develop is the question that should worry Rams fans the most.