ST. LOUIS -- For the better part of the past decade, whenever the Rams needed leadership in a close and late situation, they turned to running back Steven Jackson.
Trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter Sunday against Arizona, Jackson was nowhere to be found. After an offseason of building an offense with quarterback Sam Bradford as the centerpiece and as he enters another season as an offensive captain, all eyes were on Bradford.
Bradford doesn’t have the fiery, in-your-face personality that many often (and mistakenly) associate with leadership. He’s always been a calm, lead-by-example type who wants to lead with actions rather than words.
So when Bradford entered the huddle with his team trailing 24-13 and less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, his teammates saw exactly what they always see from Bradford. He stayed the same on the next possession and every one thereafter.
“Sam is cool as a cucumber all the time, man,” left guard Chris Williams said. “That’s just Sam for you. He’s not a panic guy. It’s great.”
Starting with that drive late in the third, Bradford went on to complete six passes in a row for 76 yards and a touchdown to draw the Rams within five. On the ensuing two-point conversion, Bradford found another way to add points to the Rams’ tally, taking a snap out of the shotgun, showing pass and bursting into the end zone to trim it to three.
“Yeah, how’d you guys like that?” Bradford said, laughing. “That was pretty good, huh? I think they had no idea that I was going to run the ball on that play and I think that’s why it worked so well. But hey, we’ll take what they give us.”
Bradford’s late-game heroics weren’t limited to sneak-attack runs either. Starting from that late drive in the third quarter, Bradford went 11-of-13 for 121 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 131.1 to close out the game and the Cardinals.
For Bradford to take the next step and become the quarterback he was drafted to be and that the Rams believe he can be, he’ll need to continue to find ways to bring his team back when it falls behind.
In his first two seasons, Bradford struggled in late-game situations. In games where his team was either up or down by seven points or fewer, Bradford posted a rating of 67.6 as a rookie and 75.0 in 2011.
Although it went a bit under the radar, Bradford began to show a penchant for coming through when the Rams needed it most in 2012. With the Rams in more close games last year, Bradford got better and better with victories on the line as the season went along.
When all was said and done, Bradford posted a rating of 92.7 in the fourth quarter of games still hanging in the balance and led the Rams to game-winning drives in fourth-quarter comebacks three times and engineered a comeback that led to a tie against San Francisco. That doesn't include a near-miss in last year's season opener in Detroit.
Bradford led a game-winning, fourth-quarter comeback just once in his first two seasons.
“Sam did a great job,” tight end Jared Cook said. “He kept his composure the whole time. He put everybody on his back and on his shoulders, and he carried us to victory.”
That Bradford is not only embracing his role as a leader but also proving capable of handling the role in winning fashion is a good sign not only for his future but for the Rams. The team invested heavily in surrounding him with talent in the offseason and has committed to making him the focal point of the franchise moving forward.
It’s only one week into the season but a comeback win in which the Rams scored the final 14 points of the game would seem to be a good building block from which to grow.
“He’s a tough kid and he battles hard and I think he works as hard as anybody in this league,” said defensive end Chris Long, a close friend of Bradford’s. “He’s had a lot not go in his favor so far in his career that he can’t control. So to have him with every resource at his disposal and the continuity that he has going into this year, that’s big. You’ll see great results.”
As for any lingering doubt that might have been left as to where to look when a boost is needed, there’s clearly a consensus choice in the locker room.
“It’s Sam’s team,” Long said. “It’s Sam’s team all the way. We have built things around him so it’s Sam’s team. That’s the way everybody wants it.”