The Philadelphia Eagles are at the midway point of their 2015 season, and, subsequently, still in the midst of discovering their identity. The ups and downs of the Eagles’ season have been evident over recent weeks, however, the team’s ability to win in a variety of ways is becoming somewhat of a hallmark. Whether it’s via defensive effort (Giants), a combination of defense and special teams (Jets), or a game in which the offense picks up the defense (Cowboys), this team has proven, at the very least, that it isn’t one dimensional. What we haven’t seen, however, is a victory fueled by the passing game, particularly on the shoulders of Sam Bradford. Eight games in, Bradford has demonstrated slow but steady incremental improvement from week to week, dating back to week 4 in Washington. Still, the innate ability to elevate the offense beyond the sum of its parts has yet to manifest itself, though it’s not unreasonable to hypothesize that such a game could be on the horizon.
Many have proposed the height –or lack there of– of Bradford’s ceiling over the course of the season, but have done so prematurely given the extenuating circumstances surrounding his reintroduction to competitive play. Yes, this is a concept that I have discussed at length many times throughout the season, however, it bears mentioning so long as the false narratives persist. Despite the ubiquity of these notions, Bradford is displaying the traits that prolonged success necessitates, and is only now recapturing his physical potential.
Bradford is what he put on tape in St. Louis; a poised passer whose conservativeness can be both a help as well as a hindrance, but overall demonstrates the ability to be an effective distributor who can make any throw, navigate the pocket, process information, and get the ball out quickly. Through the first 3 weeks of the season, Bradford did very little to silence the critics, failing to demonstrate his aforementioned signature traits. Unfortunately, for the majority of fans and media, first impressions dictate prevailing opinions and, like the foundation of a house, are incredibly difficult to alter once in place. Still, while criticism has mounted, Bradford continues to improve. Here’s what I wrote prior to his start against Carolina (which, in my opinion, was his best pre-Dallas performance):
Now, from Week 4 in Washington to Weeks 5 and 6, Bradford has demonstrated yet another significant leap. He looks undeniably strong in the pocket compared to his early-season self. He’s maneuvering quickly around the pocket and is planting/driving with much more authority. Everything he does looks a lot more natural and dynamic. There is simply no stiffness or tentativeness to his game, as there was before. Instead, he’s simply allowed to play without being over encumbered by the burden of his previous injuries. This has allowed Bradford to be more comfortable stepping into the line of fire and delivering passes.
The results have been mixed as Bradford continues to get more comfortable, both from a physical and a scheme perspective, however, the skill set he has demonstrated recently is much more conducive to sustained success than what he has previously shown. The tentative and conservative play from earlier in the season shrunk the field and made things difficult on the Eagles offense. Now, things have opened up a bit, and with the run game clicking he’s taking advantage of opportunities in the deep-intermediate sections of the field. This will lead to more mistakes than in previous weeks, but it’s necessary for a quarterback to take calculated risks.
Now, with the previous 2 games under his belt, I feel as though Bradford has taken the right step in shedding his newly acquired “turnover prone” label, and edging closer towards finding his potential. The 10 interceptions that Bradford has accrued over the course of his first 8 games have given pause considering his penchant for ball security during his tenure in St. Louis, however, nothing has inherently changed; the vast majority of Bradford’s interceptions were a result of mechanical flaws and, to a lesser degree, miscues by his pass catchers. That is to say, now operating much closer to his physical potential, the mechanical inconsistencies are no longer affecting his ability to distribute the ball on a regular basis, and undesirable results are no longer perpetuating the false perception that Bradford is a poor decision maker.
With a stronger base and quieter body, Bradford is allowing his arm speed to take over in depositing balls into tighter windows. It has also allowed him to better control his release point and locate passes for optimal YAC, as he did on several throws this past Sunday night, as well as limit the amount of times he sails/under throws his target due to poor weight distribution and body lean. The issues that Bradford faced earlier in the season are quickly becoming non-issues.
Now that Bradford and the offense is getting into a groove, I would expect him to begin to take more calculated risks in testing the defense. Before, it was clear that Bradford was petrified to make a mistake, likely for fear of his mechanical/fundamental inconsistencies that are no longer prevalent. Although, to be clear, Bradford is an inherently conservative quarterback, and while it’s possible that he gets a bit edgier as he becomes more deeply integrated into the offense, he’s not going to spontaneously morph into Brett Favre and start slinging the ball all over the yard. Moreover, I’d be inclined to believe that Chip prefers a quarterback who plays more within the lines, as Bradford does.
Overall, Bradford continues to trend in the right direction, largely in congruence with his physical improvements. This systemic remedy could fuel a potential leap in the second half of the season, though the Eagles’ pass catchers will have to limit their mistakes to make this resurgence possible. The next three games –Dolphins, Bucs, Lions– pose little threat to Bradford and the Eagles offense, and could prove to be a launching point for the stretch-run. The real test, however, will be Bradford’s series against Buffalo, Arizona and New England. Those three games, in contrast to the upcoming three, will be what defines Bradford’s season, and perhaps future as the Eagles’ quarterback. If Bradford is to prove his worth, elevating the team during the toughest part of the schedule is essential; Bradford can not simply be a piece of the puzzle, he’ll be forced to make several splash plays in each game to get a win and propel the Eagles to the playoffs. While I’m not confident in definitively saying that Bradford can accomplish this, his recent improvements are inspiring optimism.
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