- Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As tensions rose and tempers flared, you couldn’t help but feel that somewhere along the way the St. Louis Rams or Carolina Panthers would suffer some collateral damage beyond the sting of a simple yellow penalty flag.
While the full extent of that damage will be better determined by an MRI on Sunday night, it appears the Rams might have taken the biggest hit of all.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford’s left knee injury left the team clearly concerned with his status moving forward after he was taken to the locker room on a golf cart with a little less than five minutes to play.
The question quickly became whether the Rams’ hopes for a successful season were also a passenger on that cart.
“It’s really tough,” Rams defensive end Chris Long said following the team's 30-15 loss. “Sam has been playing well. Whatever that situation might be, it’s just tough to see him in pain, and it’s tough to see him get some bad luck on that one. It was just a bang-bang play. It’s football. It’s a very physical game, and, sometimes, you are going to get hurt. Hopefully, we’ll have Sam back soon. Sam fights hard for this team and works his ass off. For him to have to exit early, that’s really hard for the team.”
Not that there are many teams around the league equipped to simply replace their starting quarterback and not miss a beat, but there’s little doubt that Bradford -- regardless of opinions on his status as a franchise quarterback -- is the Rams’ most irreplaceable player.
If the Rams do get good news and Bradford misses only a short period of time, it’s possible they could bail water and stay afloat for the time being. If he’s out for a long stretch, well, it’s probably safe to say that any hopes of a step forward in 2013 are gone.
Before the injury, Bradford had been stringing together some of his best games as a professional, and he was having a solid outing against the Panthers, one that would’ve been even better were it not for some costly drops and penalties.
In the nearly seven games Bradford played this season, he was on pace for career highs in nearly every major passing category, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions for a quarterback rating of 90.9.
The Rams’ recent offensive shift to a power-run game with play-action seemed to suit Bradford well, making the sight of him on the sideline that much harder to swallow for his teammates.
“You never want to see your guy go down,” linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “The feeling right now is it’s tough. You have got to let it hurt for 24 hours and then move on no matter what the diagnosis for Sam, and we have got to watch the tape and focus on the football stuff.”
The football stuff could well include another opportunity for veteran backup Kellen Clemens to step into the starting role. Clemens replaced Bradford for the final minutes of Sunday’s loss and completed two of four passes for 19 yards.
Clemens has plenty of knowledge of the Rams’ offensive system, so that part of it wouldn’t be the hard part. The hard part would be getting the consistent production the team needs from the position.
Consistency hasn’t exactly been Clemens’ forte. Neither has production, for that matter.
In 31 career games, Clemens has a quarterback rating of 62.2 with seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He surprised some by winning the backup job over Austin Davis in training camp after it appeared the team might not re-sign him at all back in February.
“It’s never easy when you see a teammate go down,” Clemens said. “When you see a person that you spend as much time with as I do with Sam and genuinely care about as a person; I have a great respect for what he does on the field but just a genuine concern for him as a person. It was not easy to see. Hopefully, whatever it is, it’s quick.”
Whether Clemens’ opportunity is a short cameo or a long-term situation, the Rams will have to add another quarterback to the mix this week. Perhaps Davis, with his knowledge of the offense, will get a call. Maybe the Rams will look elsewhere.
For now, it’s not hard for the Rams to figure out what many will say if Bradford misses extended time: The season is over, the Rams are finished, they have no chance, will be a familiar refrain.
“Of course,” offensive tackle Rodger Saffold said. “But what they don’t know is that Sam believes in us just like we believe in him, and we’re going to believe in Kellen, too.”
The Rams had better, because, chances are, not many others will.