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Bernie: Bradford still the man for Rams

2013-12-19T14:00:00Z 2013-12-30T00:49:06Z Bernie: Bradford still the man for RamsBernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The Rams are 3-4 since Kellen Clemens took over as the starting quarterback in the aftermath of Sam Bradford’s season-wrecking knee injury.

Clemens has struggled with completion accuracy during his career, so I didn’t expect much. No offense to Clemens, who has admirable energy, competitiveness and intelligence.

I must declare: Clemens has played better than I anticipated. He’s done a good job of running the Rams’ redesigned, run-first offense. His teammates obviously respect him.

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And Clemens has been opportunistic, striking opposing defenses for big plays when the Rams have established early momentum. That happened again Sunday in the Rams’ 27-16 ambush of the 10-win New Orleans Saints.

But I have to say, it makes me loony to hear the predictable braying that occurs when the Rams win a game.

See!

The Rams don’t need Bradford!

They’re better with Clemens at quarterback!

Granted, this is a minority view.

I confess that I’m an idiot for paying attention to it instead of just ignoring the emails and tweets. But I can’t help myself. This stuff drives me crazy.

Does anyone of sound mind really believe Clemens is responsible for the Rams’ sporadic improvement over these past seven games?

Really?

Goodness. It’s time to drop some reality-check factoid bombs on this bizarre fantasy land.

In Clemens’ seven games as the starter, the Rams ...

1. Are leading the NFL in rushing, with an average of 159 yards per game.

2. Are second in the NFL with an average of 5.2 yards per rushing attempt.

3. Have a defense that leads the league with 24 sacks.

4. Have a defense that’s second in the NFL with 11 takeaways.

5. Have a defense that’s second against the run, allowing 84 yards per game and 3.4 yards per rushing attempt.

6. Have have a defense that ranks seventh in points allowed, at 20 per game.

7. Have a defense that has nine interceptions while allowing eight touchdowns over this stretch.

And over the last seven games, the Rams’ starting quarterback ranks 17th in passer rating (78.7), with seven touchdown passes and five interceptions. That would be Clemens. And his completion rate of 55 percent over the last seven starts ranks 20th among regular NFL quarterbacks.

Before Bradford got hurt, he made three starts in the revamped offense. He thrived after the change, benefiting from the renewed emphasis on the running game.

Early in the season the young Rams weren’t ready to master a wide-open offense, so coach Jeff Fisher wisely went back to his roots. He installed Zac Stacy as the lead back and turned his offensive line loose to blast opponents with a physical style of play.

Fisher’s offenses in Tennessee always could run the ball with authority. Same with Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer; over his six seasons in charge of the New York Jets’ offense, the team led the NFL in rushing. And Rams offensive line coach Paul Boudreau is good at this too; the Rams’ coaches know how to scheme a running game. That’s obvious.

Here’s what Bradford did in his three games in the heavy, run-based offense: a 65.4 completion rate, seven touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 111.1.

The Rams were 2-1 in those three games. And I would have liked their chances of winning two games (Seattle and Tennessee) that they lost after Bradford was sidelined.

Bradford was well on the way to his best NFL season; at the time of his injury he was ranked 11th among quarterbacks, with a 91 passer rating, and was establishing career highs in completion percentage, touchdown-pass percentage, and for his lowest interception rate.

Did this mean that Bradford was becoming Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning?

Of course not.

Bradford still has much to prove.

Bradford might never reach the truly elite level. He might not be the game-changer, the franchise cornerstone, that the Rams hoped for when choosing him No. 1 overall in 2010.

He inherited awful circumstances that obviously stunted his growth. But instead of getting worse, Bradford was improving.

Until going down with torn knee ligaments, we saw a still-young quarterback (age 26) settling comfortably into a compatible offense that gave him more confidence and brought out his best form.

And I firmly believe Bradford would have continued in this positive direction, growing in harmony with the Rams’ young backs and receivers and the more sensible approach on offense.

I’m not saying that the Rams should stick with Bradford for the long term.

I’m not saying the Rams should forget about drafting a quarterback in 2014; cultivating a young quarterback would be a smart move for a number of reasons.

Suppose Bradford is physically compromised by the knee injury?

Suppose the Rams and Sam can’t agree to a new contract after the 2015 season?

Suppose the Rams conclude that it makes more sense to start all over again with a younger quarterback instead of investing another small fortune in Bradford?

All of these considerations are on the table.

If Bradford wants top money to stay here, then over the next couple of years he’s going to have to prove that he’s worth it.

Period.

I can’t predict what will happen to the Bradford-Rams relationship down the road.

I do know this: knee-rehab permitting, Bradford will be this team’s starting quarterback in 2014. And he deserves it.

After seeing Bradford make such obvious progress before a bad break ended his season, it makes no sense to pull the plug now — not unless the knee is so damaged that it will make Bradford a lesser quarterback.

After investing so much time and money in Bradford to get to this stage, you don’t bail out now, not when this team is so close to a breakthrough. Not when the Rams have a winning record (7-6) with increased scoring in the last 13 games started by Bradford.

That would be a dumb move. But not nearly as dimwitted as actually believing that Clemens is the better quarterback.

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