Eagles Analysis: Sam Bradford’s Leap


I have written a lot about Sam Bradford this season; much more than I’d like to admit. The embattled Philadelphia Eagles quarterback has, for obvious reasons, been a huge conversation point for pundits and fans alike since he was acquired earlier this Spring. So, as a man of the people, I’ve acquiesced and diligently chronicled the plight of Sam Bradford throughout this 2015 season (aren’t I a swell guy?). In all seriousness, Bradford has provided an interesting case study, and has proved a worthwhile gamble as a reclamation project for Chip Kelly and Co.. In spite of a brief absence, Bradford has demonstrated a clear tangible progression throughout the year, and –in contrast to public perception– is steadily proving himself in the eyes of the Eagles organization.

Throughout the year, we’ve continually discussed the progression of Bradford and how his mechanical issues have expressed themselves, particularly in the early stages of the season. For the majority, Bradford’s early-season woes were easily explained away; he was simply bad; ostensibly the same quarterback he was in St. Louis.

There is some merit to this line of thinking. In the National Football League a tiger rarely changes his stripes. That is to say, a player typically is what he his; he might improve, but many of the signature traits he exhibits early in his career remain. This is true of the majority of professional athletes, and it is true of one Sam Bradford. Bradford is, more or less, the same quarterback he was in St. Louis, just as he is the same quarterback that came out of the University Oklahoma 5 years ago. The issue with Bradford’s initial evaluation wasn’t this, it was the lack of perspective and misconceptions that served as an impetus for misevaluation.

Bradford was never a bad quarterback. In fact, prior to his latest ACL injury, he had routinely displayed many of the attributes –accuracy, arm talent, athleticism, pocket feel– consistent in good NFL quarterbacks. The issue was that Bradford looked nothing like that quarterback. He was stiff, sluggish, frenetic, and displayed at-best middling arm talent. So what was the deal?

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In week 1 many of the inconsistencies that plagued Bradford were effectively masked. The Eagles offensive line kept Bradford clean, and he and the play-call were conservative to a fault. He stood tall in the pocket, seldom shifting his feet and relying heavily on his arm to deliver passes. To a degree, this wasn’t a poor plan of action. Bradford attempted a ridiculous amount of high percentage throws that, coupled with good pass-pro, didn’t require much nuance in his pocket movement and allowed him to establish a rhythm. So, as a result, Bradford speciously passed the eye-test in Atlanta.

The minor victory in Atlanta was short lived, however, as things quickly unraveled for the Eagles quarterback in the home opener against Dallas. The Cowboys defensive front proved a tougher out than Atlanta’s, and with the offensive line underperforming and the rushing attack MIA, Bradford struggled. Any time he was forced to shift in the pocket, or was otherwise moved off his mark, Bradford was erratic. He couldn’t deliver the ball downfield, extend plays, or maneuver the pocket. The same could be said his following game in New York, where Bradford’s inconsistencies were on full display.

The media and fan fallout was deserved based on the results, but decidedly misplaced (as results based evaluations typically are). Three games in was never an appropriate time to come to definitive conclusions on Bradford. Three games in was a time to reflect and try to understand if his faults were correctable. Turns out, Bradford’s early season efforts were mired by streaky, often times horrific, mechanics, and although they were egregious at times, they ultimately proved correctable.

I’ve written about this concept throughout the season, but the more distance the flow of time puts between weeks 3 and 14, the more apparent it should be to those who have followed Bradford’s plight. He simply wasn’t right early on, and while he shouldn’t be considered franchise quarterback material at the moment, he has drastically improved since the mitigated disaster of earlier this year. Negotiating wholesale change from a schematic standpoint while compensating for a balky knee was simply too arduous a task, particularly considering the gargantuan expectations surrounding Bradford and the Eagles offense.

Imagine breaking your arm and subsequently starting a new job coding for a major software company. With the help of a brief online training course, your boss and coworkers expect you to learn on the go and perform at a high level despite having to type with one hand and a single finger free of the cast. You are not spared strict deadlines, performance reviews, and heavy scrutiny despite this injury and your inexperience in a new system. This is the real-world equivalent of what Sam Bradford was asked to accomplish early on. Here’s what I had to say following Bradford’s week 3 performance; the first time I wrote about Bradford’s mechanical issues (bold emphasis is added for this article):

"During the Eagles week 3 game against the Jets, Bradford displayed very few of the traits that allowed him to paint such a pretty mechanical picture in the past. His footwork is cosmically average and less sudden than before, however, his lack of balance and body awareness presents a larger issue. In the past Bradford consistently gave himself a good base to throw from and nearly always led with his arm when delivering the football.On Sunday however, Bradford had issues with balance, leading to some errant throws. The play in which Bradford fired low to Nelson Agholor –who had a step inside– is a prime example of this. Bradford steps up into a beautiful pocket and, while gaining ground on his plant, allows his upper body to subtly leak over his plant foot and in front of his arm. A passer’s inability to lead with his arm will undermine his ability to establish his release point and effectively locate passes with any semblance of consistency.The more balanced and controlled a thrower can be in delivering the ball, the easier it is to manipulate release point and avoid misfires. Because Bradford leans froward with his upper half he is forced to compensate and adjust his release; he doesn’t stand tall and dominate/manipulate the ball as he has in the past and the throw skips in to his target.Bradford consistently struggled with the foundational components of his mechanics, however, when he did put things together the results were pretty. One such instance was the touchdown pass to Ryan Mathews. Bradford shuffled his feet, established a strong base, stood tall in the pocket, led with his hand, and reached out to his target delivering a great ball. There were no lapses in body awareness or balance, just a well delivered ball on a technically proficient rep. This is the process that Bradford will have to recreate if he hopes to find consistency on a regular basis.Now, there is good and bad news in regard to Bradford’s mechanical inconsistencies. For one, it’s fixable, and is likely a product of his being away from football for such a long period of time, coupled with a lack of time to re-acclimate himself to the speed of the game. Yes, Bradford has the majority of minicamp, OTAs, training camp, etc. to get comfortable: I understand this, however, those reps are in a controlled environment where Bradford can be more cognizant of the mechanical aspects of his game as opposed to just playing. Now, with the bullets flying and everything on the line, Bradford can’t afford to think and go through the motions, instead he has to make reads, maneuver the pocket, and play fast. This is why Bradford’s practice reps have looked so much better than the product he has put on the field.The further we get into the season the more comfortable Bradford will get and the mechanics –and subsequent play– will improve in both quality and consistency. Moreover, the greater issue being mechanical, at least Bradford isn’t consistently making horrible reads. Sure he’s locked on receivers at times and missed an opportunity or two, but he hasn’t displayed the inability to find open receivers to the degree of a Nick Foles or a Mark Sanchez, he just hasn’t been able to deliver accurate passes. When his mechanics catch up to his processing, the results will come.The bad news is that this process could be costly. I have confidence in Bradford being able to recreate his past mechanical successes, however, no one can foresee how long that process might take. The Eagles will only be able to stay afloat for so long while Bradford reestablishes himself, and can’t afford to prop up poor quarterback play for long. Good opponents will have their way with the Eagles if Bradford can’t step up fairly quickly. The coaching staff will be patient as Bradford plays catch-up, however, the offense may continue to suffer in the process."

Looking back, I feel as though much of this has rung true, and is reflective of what was discussed above. Although, the most glaring omission is the lack of an acknowledgement of Bradford’s learning curve. Because Chip Kelly’s scheme is touted as universally quarterback friendly, I never considered that Bradford might’ve still beeen integrating himself into the offense at that point. The reality of it is that mastery of the offense goes well beyond simply knowing the plays; it’s about an innate familiarity to the point of where a passer’s reads/actions are second nature, and his understanding of the protections, the pass catchers, and the most minuscule aspects of the play structures are apparent. Bradford obviously wasn’t/isn’t there, and might not be until some time in the future, however, it’s clear he’s much more comfortable now than in week 1.

Learning curve aside, Bradford’s mechanical deficiencies were apparent and severely hampered his ability to consistently deliver accurate passes in the short term. Since then, Bradford has cleaned up his mechanics, likely due to time element involved in his ACL recovery coupled with his re-acclimation to the NFL and his introduction to the offense. As I highlighted above, the lone saving grace was that Bradford at least wasn’t making poor decisions. However, the mechanical inconsistencies ultimately resulted in a slew of interceptions down the stretch, a residual effect of which was a growing public perception that Bradford is an inherently inaccurate passer and/or poor decision maker; another topic that I tackled in a later post following the Eagles win in Dallas, and after I wrote this highlighting Bradford’s improvement in week 4 (bold emphasis is again added after the fact):

"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."

"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."

This perception was the product of a results based evaluation of Bradford, something that we’ve all been guilty of at one point or another (Nick Foles sends his regards). The important thing to remember here is that correlation does not equal causation; namely, because interceptions strongly correlate with poor decision making doesn’t necessarily mean that all interceptions are a result of poor decision making. In this case, the interceptions were in most cases a byproduct of Bradford’s mechanical issues, but I digress.

As previously mentioned, a tiger rarely changes his stripes. Though this expression typically carries a negative connotation, it applies to positive attributes as well. Bradford has always been an accurate passer, dating back to his time at Oklahoma. He didn’t suddenly become irreparably inaccurate, his bout of inaccuracy was an aberration created by a fleeting, albeit significant, mechanical lapse brought on by extenuating circumstances. This conclusion seems to have been validated in recent weeks, given Bradford’s rediscovered proclivity for ball security. Bradford’s last true interception came against the Giants 5 weeks ago, the two since were a result of pass catchers giving away the football. Granted, Bradford threw a very interceptable ball against New England, but the point remains; Bradford has improved his accuracy, as projected.

Now, the other point is in regard to Bradford’s ability to take a leap during the stretch-run. Although his numbers are anything but gaudy, I’m of the opinion that Bradford has performed very well to this point during the toughest part of the Eagles schedule, and his tape and numbers reflect that conclusion. He has made some big throws when needed (the touchdowns and 3rd down conversion against New England come to mind, as does the strike to Nelson Agholor, and dropped pass to Brent Celek against Buffalo). With the skill players continued underperformance, it’s fair to assert that Bradford has elevated the offense beyond the sum of its parts, to a degree. We have yet to see a game where Bradford unequivocally puts the team on his back and wills them to a victory, but optimism is at least somewhat warranted; Bradford has shown that he can operate effectively within the offense and make occasional splash-plays.

The point of this post was not to make the assertion that Sam Bradford is a slam-dunk franchise quarterback, or anything close to that. The point is that Bradford has demonstrated consistent improvement, and it’s fair to consider if his ceiling is much higher than what he has shown, even during his best stretch of the season. Bradford very well could become a franchise quarterback. I’m not brazen enough to make that proclamation at this point, although if Bradford continues to progress I might feel emboldened.

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Consider this sure-to-be-loathed comparison: Three years ago the Arizona Cardinals took a flier on a floundering veteran quarterback who had experienced his fair share of adversity. He had endured injuries, and wrestled free from one disfunctional organization only to be traded to another. He was surrounded by a pathetic supporting cast and struggled at his most recent stop, only to be thrust into another role with middling skill players, a pathetic offensive line, and rookie head coach in Arizona. The veteran passer was uninspiring in his first year in the desert, tossing 24 touchdowns to 22 interceptions, and committing 28 turnovers overall. Seeing any parallels?

I’m sure it didn’t take more than the first sentence to realize that the mystery quarterback is Carson Palmer.

Palmer’s development in Arizona has been nothing short of breathtaking. In his third year in Arians’ system year he’s blossomed into an MVP candidate, and has the Cardinals as the current #2 seed in the NFC. It’s not a perfect comparison (Palmer had successful seasons in Cincinnati, albeit with dynamite skill players deeply contrasting Bradford’s cast), however, it’s not without merit. Bradford and Palmer aren’t totally dissimilar in their career arcs, a trend that could very well continue for the former in Philadelphia. This is why Chip is so intent on extending Bradford and giving him the opportunity that his performance is beginning to warrant (although things can always change). Chip is hedging his bets that Bradford will undergo a similar renaissance, and elicit the massive bump in efficiency that coincides with that metamorphosis. It’s a risky bet to be sure, however, it’s far from an impossibility, nor does it preclude the coach from taking preventative measures, whether that be through free agency or the draft.