Yes, it was only practice, albeit in the vast expanse of the Edward Jones Dome. But be it fans, coaches, teammates or media, it was hard to walk away from the FanFest festivities Saturday and not be impressed with the aerial offerings of quarterback Sam Bradford.
“A lot of big plays down the field,” coach Jeff Fisher said afterwards. “If there was any question about Sam’s ability to play the position (post-surgery), I think it was answered today. At least early here in camp.
“He really had a good week of camp. Some great throws today.”
After displaying some initial rust at the start of training camp, Bradford has progressively gotten better. On Saturday, he displayed a quick release, decisiveness and more zip than usual on those deep outs and long passes.
His progress showed to the point where some members of the coaching staff couldn’t suppress smiles as they left the field.
“He did a lot of extra (upper-body) conditioning as well as the rehab on the knee,” Fisher said, by way of explaining the increased arm strength. “We’re watching the pitch counts right now, and he’s not having any problems. And you can see, those balls were humming today, especially the deep ball to Kenny (Britt).”
That came in one of the last 11-on-11 periods of the afternoon for Bradford, a 61-yard touchdown pass that left a vapor trail as Britt raced behind the secondary. Bradford was especially in sync with Stedman Bailey, completing about a half-dozen balls his way during “team” periods, mostly of the intermediate and deep variety.
Bradford also threw a TD pass to Bailey during a two-minute drill period.
“He’s been looking really good after surgery,” Bailey said. “And after all the rehab he’s been going through, he’s been working extremely hard to come out and just be good at what he does. He’s been working on his craft, and he looks really good.”
Even on some of his incompletions, and there weren’t many, Bradford had the ball where he wanted it. Wide open tight end Jared Cook had what would have been a 20-yard TD catch bounce off his hands during a red zone period.
Late in the red zone session, cornerback Brandon McGee displayed good closing speed breaking up a Bradford pass over the middle to Tavon Austin.
The closest thing to a Bradford misfire in the various 11-on-11 sessions Saturday came in between those balls to Cook and Austin, when a back left corner toss was caught just a step out of bounds by Austin.
Because of all that upper-body weight training early in his rehab Bradford said, “Coming into this camp is probably the strongest I’ve been from the waist up.
“I think it probably has paid off a little bit. I feel like I do have a little more zip on the ball. I feel like I can make some of those throws that maybe were a little slower last year.”
The “pitch counts,” as Fisher calls them, also have helped prevent Bradford from getting a tired arm.
“It’s something that we actually started when Coach Fisher arrived (in 2012),” Bradford said. “We’ve done it every year. One of our assistant strength coaches, he kind of monitors my dropbacks and my throws — let’s me know at the end of the day. That way I can just kind of track it over a couple-day period and make sure it doesn’t exceed a certain number.”
But Bradford said he hasn’t had to back down on throws so far in camp. In fact, more than a week into camp the Rams haven’t had to back down on anything regarding Bradford. Fisher, remember, had indicated the team would back off on Bradford if he experienced any physical setbacks coming off his December knee surgery.
So Bradford’s good health and good play is about the best news about Rams camp as the team closes in on its preseason opener Friday against New Orleans.
Who knows what will happen in the regular season? Will the knee hold up? Will Bradford be skittish when the pass rush closes in? Will he take less chances when he has chances to scramble?
On Saturday, all the signs were good. Bradford didn’t favor the knee. He moved the pocket a couple of times, stepped into his throws, and threw with confidence.
He’s wearing a left knee brace, but Bradford said, “I’ve worn this brace since college, so I don’t really notice it.”
(Well, not the exact same brace — but a brace.)
Bradford said he won’t be hesitant to scramble because of the surgery, but he will be more judicious about how he ends such plays.
“You’ve got to be the same quarterback,” Bradford said. “Obviously, I think I’ll be a little smarter about getting down. If there’s anyone in my vicinity, I’ll probably slide and get to the next play. But you can’t be scared to take off and run. It’s part of the position, part of the game.”
So is getting hit.
“I got hit the first day of training camp, if you didn’t see that one,” Bradford teased a reporter. “So I kind of got that one out of the way. But there’s definitely a part of me that just wants to get back out there and just feel the speed of the game again.
“Take that first hit and probably prove to everyone else that I’m gonna be fine more than myself. I know I’m gonna be ready to go.”
Although he’s said nothing definitively, at the start of camp Fisher hinted strongly that Bradford won’t play in Friday’s exhibition opener against the Saints. Either way, Bradford is fine.
“That’s totally coach’s call,” Bradford said. “Obviously, I’m gonna be ready to go. And if he tells me I’m playing, I’m gonna be pumped to get back out on the field. If he feels that it’s best not to go out there Friday, then I trust him, and I’ll be ready to go the following week.”