The evolution of Bradford and the Rams

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
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Sam Bradford Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsSam Bradford is excited about how the Rams plan to attack opposing defenses this season.
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Rams quarterback Sam Bradford stops to ponder the question, searching the deeper recesses of his memory.

The question isn’t difficult, it’s a simple test of the mind. But considering how much information Bradford has socked away in the past six years, it’s not surprising it takes a minute to locate the answer.

Talking X’s and O’s after another training camp practice, Bradford is asked if he remembers how Oklahoma once built the nation’s most prolific, up-tempo offense around his right arm and the very brain he’s now using to come up with a response.

“It’s hard to remember back that far,” Bradford said, a sly grin creeping across his face.

Five-plus years really isn’t that far but in the mind of a quarterback who learned three new offensive schemes in his first three NFL seasons, that time might as well be translated to dog years.

When Bradford arrives at the answer, he begins retracing the steps it took him to a Heisman Trophy in the 2008 season and he begins to connect the dots between the transformation of that Sooners offense and the one the Rams are now building with him as the centerpiece.

‘Play fast but don’t hurry’

In the years before Bradford arrived on the Oklahoma campus, the Sooners were a run-heavy team, making the easy decision to put the ball in the hands of running backs like Adrian Peterson. Oklahoma ran the ball 61 percent of the time in 2005 and 62 percent in 2006.

Peterson departed for the NFL draft after that season and then-Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson & Co. began to evaluate which direction the offense would go.

Bradford was coming off a redshirt freshman season in which he impressed on the scout team and positioned himself to take over as starter. Just as the Sooners were ready to make it official, Bradford struggled mightily in a public scrimmage.

“He had probably his worst scrimmage of the whole time he was there,” Wilson said. “The day we were ready to say Sam is the guy, he just had an off day.”

The Sooners still decided to make Bradford the starter. From there, the evolution of the offense took on a life of its own. While in the process of determining their offensive personality, things began to turn in the team’s second game of the season, against Miami (Fla.).

In the week leading up to the game, the Sooners had practiced a play-action pass designed to get receiver Malcolm Kelly open in the back of the end zone. Bradford hit Kelly six, seven, eight times for a touchdown during the week.

When Wilson called the play in the game, Miami’s safeties stayed home and Kelly was not an option. Bradford calmly flipped a pass in the flat to fullback Dane Zaslaw for a walk-in 9-yard touchdown, one of five he threw that day.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
Jerry Laizure/US PresswireWhile at Oklahoma, Sam Bradford was part of one of the most prolific offenses in college football history.
“I put Sam in a position to fail but he’s so bright and so smart, he made the right play,” Wilson said. “I didn’t expect him to play it that way. That was just what a real player does.”

The first year Bradford started, the Oklahoma offense was a bit more traditional, huddling on a regular basis and sticking to basic personnel groupings. The Sooners stuck to the run, too, going to the ground 59 percent of the time. But they did begin the process of speeding things up, tallying 951 plays, up from 887 in 2006.

Wilson and his staff began to recalibrate the idea of what the offense could become. Surrounding Bradford with talented players like Kelly, tight end Jermaine Gresham, running back DeMarco Murray and an offensive line stocked with future NFL players, the Sooners quickly realized their best bet was a no-huddle offense with Bradford as the trigger man.

“Our offense changed dramatically,” Bradford said. “We went no-huddle, fast break. We had 11 personnel, 10 personnel, smaller, faster and spread it out to start throwing the ball a lot more. I remember that first spring, I really wasn’t sure I was going to like it because I had never run the no-huddle before. It seemed like everything happened too fast but the more we did it, the more comfortable I got with it. It turned out; it was probably the best move we made because we were really good at it.”

The concept wasn’t terribly complicated, though it might have seemed that way at first. Wilson wanted Bradford working from the shotgun but with elements of the West Coast offense mixed in.

Bradford would take snaps in the gun but the concepts were designed for him to make quick reads and get the ball out to the Sooners’ assortment of playmakers, who could turn short catches into big gains.

“He was the point guard who was distributing,” Wilson said. “He was very instinctive, very good mind."

The next step was speeding up the offense to keep opposing defenses off balance. Using a term he’d heard from Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, Wilson, now the head coach at Indiana, wanted to "play fast but not hurry."

Bradford’s ability to make quick decisions combined with an up-tempo pace would allow the Sooners to keep their foot on the gas for entire games.

“[Sam’s] got Wi-Fi in his brain to process real quick,” Wilson said.

Oklahoma put that brain to work during the week, too. Every Friday, Bradford and quarterbacks coach Josh Heupel would have breakfast and go over the game plan, picking out concepts Bradford liked and didn’t like.

“They really did listen to those because if I didn’t like something, we weren’t going to run it,” Bradford said.

The 2008 Oklahoma offense went on to become one of the most prolific in college football history. Playing at a breakneck speed in which they snapped the ball every 22.31 seconds, the Sooners ran 1,089 plays -- the most of any team in the country.

[+] EnlargeSam Bradford
James Lang/US PresswireSam Bradford's 2008 season culminated in the Heisman Trophy.
Bradford threw for 4,720 yards with 50 touchdown passes and eight interceptions on his way to the Heisman. He would miss most of his junior season with a shoulder injury before declaring for the NFL draft but the league had already seen what he could do in the right situation.

Building something new

For the better part of the past decade, the Rams' offense has been centered on running back Steven Jackson, who holds the franchise record in nearly every rushing category. He signed with Atlanta as a free agent in March.

Even before Jackson’s departure, it was becoming clear to Rams decision-makers that for Bradford to reach the potential that made him the No. 1 pick, they needed to surround him with playmakers much like at Oklahoma.

Enter tight end Jared Cook and rookie receiver Tavon Austin, who can work the middle of the field and create matchup problems. Bring on tackle Jake Long to protect Bradford’s blind side.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has been planning for the offensive personality shift since before Bradford’s new toys were added. He spent the spring going back with Bradford and identifying concepts that would fit an altered approach.

Schottenheimer’s plans kicked into overdrive when free agency and the draft were complete. New ideas and concepts began to bloom in the spring and training camp and preseason were used to put things into place. Schottenheimer said his group is still kind of scratching the surface on what it could become.

“That’s why training camp is so good because you work through and almost finalize your fingerprint or identity during the spring and then when you come back you can really dive into specifics of what you want to be and what you expect to have success with,” Schottenheimer said.

The Rams made it a point of not tipping off what those specifics will be during the exhibition season, though Bradford and Schottenheimer have offered clues along the way.

Bradford says the offensive approach will be different, noting the Rams will use a lot of personnel groupings, many of which are primary components of a more spread out attack. That means more "11" and "10" personnel with just one running back and one tight end or neither of one or the other.

“Obviously there’s a shift from what we were doing last year,” Bradford said. “You just look at our roster and we’re built different. So I don’t think it would make a lot of sense to try to do what we did last year. That’s not who we are, that’s not the way we are built anymore. Kind of going back to when I was at Oklahoma, we have got a lot of speed now and in order to get that on the field, we have to play spread out.”

Bradford and Schottenheimer have spent countless hours going back through film of last season, identifying things Bradford likes and discarding he doesn’t like. Schottenheimer said the Rams wouldn’t go as far as watching film of Bradford at Oklahoma but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t incorporate concepts from Bradford’s time in Norman.

In the team’s second preseason game, one of Bradford’s favorite college plays was on display against Green Bay. Bradford lined up in the shotgun with back Daryl Richardson to his right and Cook, Austin and Austin Pettis split to the left and Chris Givens to the right, Givens ran a short inside curl, drawing in the corner and clearing out space down the right sideline. The other three receivers ran similar routes on the left sideline.

Richardson ran a wheel route in the right flat that isolated him in space against linebacker A.J. Hawk. Bradford dropped in a perfect touch pass to Richardson for a gain of 24 yards. It’s a play Bradford said the Sooners ran with ruthless efficiency in his college days.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
David Welker/Getty ImagesAdding weapons like Tavon Austin has made the Rams' offense more dynamic.
“We wore it out,” Bradford said. “It’s basically a spot spacing play, and everyone in college football runs it. We thought we could get the halfback on a little swing pass and get the ball in DeMarco or Chris’ hands in space against a corner, it was usually 10 or 15 yards guaranteed. That and then the hurry-up bubble screens, the hurry-up play-action, I think those are the things that would see every week with us.”

The chance for Bradford to play in a system a second year has been beneficial. He and Schottenheimer have been consistently on the same page and building the offense to the point where it can add an element of sophistication and multiplicity.

“We are so much more advanced now,” Schottenheimer said. “That’s just because he’s able to get us into certain plays that last year he might not have been sure how to communicate that whether it’s a verbal communication or a non-verbal communication, now he’s got it down. He knows what to do, how to do it and that makes all the difference in the world. That’s stability.”

Tempo and pace

Playing at a faster pace in a more spread-out style has been in vogue in the college game for much longer than in the NFL but it’s starting to become more common across the league in recent seasons.

Defenses have become more specialized and offenses are constantly searching for ways to create mismatches. The easiest way to do that is to spread out the defense with a variety of receivers and attempt to get snaps off in short order to keep defenses from being able to match up with extra defensive backs or rotate out tired linemen.

Likewise, the simple belief around the league is the more snaps you play, the more chances you have to score.

“If you look at a lot of the offenses that have been successful in this league over the past couple years, for the most part they have all been spread offenses, pass happy, passing attacks,” Bradford said. “You look at the best quarterbacks and that’s what they’re doing. They happen to be the best offenses in the league, too.”

Since Bradford entered the league in 2010, the Rams rank 16th in total snaps, averaging 63.9 a game. Detroit, New England, New Orleans, Atlanta and Houston are the top five. Each of those teams has at least one playoff berth in that span.

Will the Rams plan to go hurry-up all the time? Not necessarily. Schottenheimer acknowledges the offense will look to go at a little faster pace, especially given the talent and speed surrounding Bradford and his comfort level in making adjustments going into his second year in the scheme.

“We just want to play at a fast tempo and that’s not necessarily all no huddle or anything like that,” Schottenheimer said. “We are a fast team. We have speed. We want to be able to put pressure on the defense by being in multiple personnel groupings, making them adjust to us by putting people in different spots but then not stand up at the line of scrimmage all day long and let them diagnose things.

“Up-tempo is used so much around the NFL. [Philadelphia coach] Chip Kelly comes and adds a different dimension but again, we want to play fast in general.”

For now, Schottenheimer said the Rams wouldn’t be fully committed to spreading it out and playing at a fast pace.

“There will be some weeks where it looks different,” Schottenheimer said. “There will be other weeks where it looks the same as last year. We are going to be real game-plan specific but we have more weapons, we have more tools to use just because it is year two and so I think as you look at it, I think you will see some subtle differences.”

After spending just 10 minutes discussing the shape of the offense and where it could be headed in 2013, Bradford is asked a general question about his excitement level. There’s no search for answers this time. His face lights up.

“I’m really excited this year with what we are going to do and the way we are going to attack defenses,” Bradford said. “I think with our speed and the playmakers that we have now, we are going to be able to put more pressure on defenses. In the past I don’t think anyone has really respected our speed or our ability to run by them so they squatted on things and made it tough to get completions underneath. This year, I think that’s going to be a different story.”

Nick Wagoner

ESPN St. Louis Rams reporter

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