Will the Rams draft a quarterback?
That's a question I have asked myself over and over again while watching tape of quarterback prospects, assembling mock drafts and compiling notes. It is something I have been asked while performing my little stand-up routine on radio shows. The Rams may or may not be comfortable with Sam Bradford, and their confidence in the first overall pick in the 2010 draft is the unpredictable variable that could topple the entire draft board.
The Rams will tell you they are 100 percent satisfied with Bradford, and they will keep telling you, over and over again. They start to sound like the wife who says "everything's fine" after you came home at 4 a.m. smelling like the alley behind Poledance Boulevard. Bradford has run the gamut from disappointing to injured over four NFL seasons: anyone claiming to be fully convinced of his merits is either privy to secret wisdom, delusional or lying. The Rams organization does not exactly have a track record suggesting "secret wisdom."
Bradford is expensive -- he will make over $33 million in the next two years -- but he can be released with only a moderate cap hit in 2015, and you don't live with perennial disappointment because the alternative is inconvenient and pricey. (Ask that disappointed spouse. Or her lawyer.) The Rams may not want to leap into the Johnny Manziel sweepstakes, but they possess the 13th and 44th picks in the draft, as well as the second pick. They can insert themselves into any Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo or Tom Savage discussion they want, and they can fill other needs with top-shelf prospects while doing it.
So will the Rams draft a quarterback?
To find out just how sold the Rams might be on their current quarterback, I watched every single Sam Bradford pass from 2013 on All-22 coaches film. IT WAS TORTURE. For starters, it meant watching seven Rams games, which are generally as bad as episodes of Alaska Spot Welders. But these were Rams games without the defensive plays. The only reason to watch a Rams game is to see their front four debilitate opposing offenses, but I experienced none of that joy. I was on a mission. Let's face it, I don't watch the Rams much unless they are facing the Seahawks or Niners, and neither do you if you live outside Missouri. Before we determine how the Rams really feel about Sam Bradford, we must determine how we really feel about Sam Bradford. Then, we can decide if we would feel better about Teddy Bridgewater or Jimmy Garoppolo.
The short answer to this long investigation: it is hard to feel good about any quarterback when you are watching a Brian Schottenheimer offense. The Rams need to fix their passing game. But that may not start with the quarterback.
Short and Shorter Passing
Before we hit the GIFs and diagrams, let's examine some numbers. Bradford essentially played seven full games last year; he got injured very late in the Panthers game. He threw 262 passes. Only 34 of them were labeled as "deep" passes according to the play-by-play. That's roughly 13 percent. The average NFL quarterback throws "deep" passes a little over 18 percent of the time.
The five-percent difference does not convey just how short the Rams' short-passing game is, however. Bradford's average pass traveled 6.9 yards in the air. The average NFL pass travels 8.3 yards in the air. The average NFL quarterback throws 49 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage, from screens to dumpoffs to shallow drags and hitches. Bradford threw within five yards of the line of scrimmage 58 percent of the time.
So Brian Schottenheimer's offense is very short-pass heavy. Big deal. Some team has to be below average in the pass length statistics, right? And it's not like Tom Brady is Daryl Lamonica. The problem is that the Rams' short passing did not work very well. Bradford averaged 4.6 yards per attempt on those five-and-under dinks and dunks. The NFL average is 5.2. If you are curious, Kellen Clemens averaged 5.05. All of that short passing should result in an above-average completion rate, but Bradford was below league average (60.7 to 61.2), while Clemens was worse.
Rams fans know all of this, and even those of us who only dipped into Rams film when they faced the Seahawks or Niners had an inkling that the Rams passing game was some sort of nanotech experiment. But the issue was severe. And it was not just a problem when the Rams were facing the Niners. It was a problem when they faced the Jaguars and Texans, but their defense bailed them out, as it would later do in some of Clemens' wins and near-misses.
The Rams' raw passing statistics make them look slightly below average. Even high-tech metrics like Football Outsiders' DVOA grade them as roughly league average. There are some things they do pretty well; goal-to-go situations, for example, are perfect for a coach and quarterback who love to throw short. The Rams passing game also played high-percentage football when the team had a lead. Unfortunately, the Rams did not get to the red zone as often as it should or play with many leads. The Rams passing game was anemic, almost by design: the team threw too short, too often and seemed shocked when they didn't get much out of it.
But was the Rams offense a Bradford problem, a Brian Schottenheimer problem or some kind of weapons-line-circumstance problem? To find out, travel with me though an exercise in masochism.
Deep Analysis of Shallow Drags
The figure below is a representation of Brian Schottenheimer's ultimate fantasy. While we dream of Minka Kelly or giant pillows of pulled pork, Schottenheimer dreams of calling this play:
As you can see, four receivers run shallow drag routes about 1.047 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. All of them swerve to avoid each other like senior citizens with shopping carts on Double Coupon Tuesday. Chris Givens runs a hitch to shake things up. Bradford simply waits for one of the bumper cars to squirt free of the cluster, then slings a short pass to him. The receiver then runs toward the sideline with the entire defensive back seven chasing him. He gains 30 yards after the catch, but 28 of them are sideways, so the Rams gain three yards.
Okay, that was a slight exaggeration. Here is a more realistic diagram of a typical Rams play, amalgamated from several plays they ran in 2013.
The yard lines give a real sense of just how shallow the double drag routes Tavon Austin (11) and Daryl Richardson (26) typically run: they are usually within five yards of the line of scrimmage, in front of the linebacker level in a zone defense. This is a vintage "mesh" play, with the receiver and running back weaving and rubbing defenders to get one another open. There is nothing unusual about the play. What is unusual is just how reliant the Rams are on plays like these, and how often they are used.
Two receivers run deep routes in Diagram Two, but those are decoy routes, and the Rams receivers usually run them like decoy routes, jogging poker-straight downfield and never looking much like they expect the ball. Defenses became increasingly ready for this double-drag concept as the season wore on. By Week 6, there were a lot of plays like this one, with Brian Cushing sitting back and walloping Chris Givens as he tried to run his shallow drag.
Mix a prepared defense ready to pounce on all of those short passes in traffic with inexperienced receivers and you get drops. Bradford had 14 passes dropped that were thrown within seven yards of the line of scrimmage. That's over five percent of Bradford's total attempts! Austin, Jared Cook, Givens and the running backs shared the drop load, so there was no one true culprit. Many of the drops were of the concentration/footsteps variety -- 5-foot-9 rookie feels linebackers converging and does not complete his assignment -- though Bradford did not always pinpoint the ball like an experienced professional quarterback less than 30 feet from his target should.
Let's look at another staple of the Rams short passing game: the Sideways Pass to Nowhere. The following is not meant to be a gag diagram. It is taken from the second quarter of the Cowboys game.
The Rams go through so much trouble setting up a fake handoff to the right, with a pulling guard and all, that they do not bother blocking DeMarcus Ware (94) or Jason Hatcher (97), the two Cowboys defenders you really have to block. Scottenheimer is trying to set up a flat pass to fullback Cory Harkey (46) here, but the blocking scheme is blown up so quickly that the Hartley and Richardson stumble into each other while trying to block and-or leak into the flat.
Here, check it out in GIF form to see that I am not making stuff up. As an added bonus, note the fact that zero receivers go downfield to clear out the cornerbacks or safeties. If Hartley somehow catches the ball, he might gain three yards.
Lots of Rams plays look like these. Remember that old cartoon machine that tears down two-thirds of a forest to create one perfect toothpick? Brian Schottenheimer's offense is like that. Linemen pull and trap, receivers cross this way and that, formations shift all over the place and the result, at best, is a crisp six-yard pass.
Sometimes, all of the short passing works. Those shallow drags turned into 17-yard gains at times, because Austin and Givens can do wonderful things if the first defender misses his tackle. Those Sideways Passes to Nowhere sometimes resulted in productive completions. The problem with the Rams offense was that it forced everyone to execute, execute and execute some more to sustain drives. Neither Bradford nor his teammates were capable of executing with that kind of precision, especially when defenses knew precisely what to expect.
To hammer home the predictability of the Rams offense: Bradford attempted just six "deep" passes in seven first quarters last year. Five of those passes were thrown 20-23 yards downfield, so they were hardly deep at all: the Rams rarely bothered to throw basic downfield passes in their first few drives of the game. Defenses knew they could expect a steady diet of shallow crosses, play-action weirdness in the flat, tunnel screens to Austin, hitch routes and other highly-engineered five-yard nonsense. No wonder Bradford's first two interceptions of the year were Pick-6s by defensive linemen: Darnell Dockett and Osi Umenyiora each gobbled up tipped passes and ran (or simply fell, in Dockett's case, because the Rams were near their own goal line) for easy scores. The defense was simply ready for all of that lateral passing.
Scottenheimer and Bradford might take the restrictor plates off the passing game later. But by then, everything might simply be out of hand.
Any Time Can Be Garbage Time
The Rams spent a lot of time trailing opponents when Bradford was quarterback last year. He threw 44 passes with the Rams leading and 187 with the team trailing. All of that come-from-behind passing can skew statistics and perceptions in a number of ways.
The Rams executed plenty of pointless long drives during Bradford's tenure last year. Against the Falcons in Week 2, they finished the game with a 16-play, 80-yard, 4:03 drive to cut their deficit to 31-24. All 16 of the plays were Bradford passes, and the drive represented a grinding futility: Bradford did not complete a pass longer than ten yards, and the Falcons were happy to let the Rams goof off and burn two of their timeouts when they had a two-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter.
Against the Cowboys in Week Three, the Rams had two ridiculous fourth quarter drives that netted 100 total offensive yards but zero points in what ended as a 31-7 loss. Bradford attempted 24 passes on those two drives. Add the Falcons and Cowboys games together, and Bradford threw 38 passes in the fourth quarter against prevent defenses: that's just under 15% of his full-season workload, and it was unproductive nonsense.
On the flip side of those stat-padding late-game drives were several "not gonna happen" drives. The 49ers took a 21-3 lead on the Rams before the start of the fourth quarter, and the Rams got the ball back six times, never managing more than four plays (although they scored one touchdown after a turnover). Bradford's pre-injury game against the Panthers was full of long-drive, tragic-result tomfoolery, including 10, 15 and nine-play drives with the Rams trailing that totaled six points.
Watching the Bradford games in rapid succession shows that the Rams' results were as predictable as their methods. If they faced a bad offense like the Jaguars, Texans or early-season Cardinals, their defense could keep them in the game, and their short-passing attack provided a trickle of productivity that could spur a victory. Against a good offensive opponent with a terrible defense (Falcons, Cowboys), they would fall behind then throw a million passes playing catchup. Against a decent offensive opponent with a great defense (49ers, Panthers), they would hang around the rearview mirror for the whole game. There was a little script-flipping when Clemens took over, but not that much: the Colts win was mostly Colts weirdness, the Saints victory was a mix of the Rams front four in tiger shark mode and the Saints having a road sputter, the Bears victory was when the Bears run defense became an HOV freeway lane. Kellen Clemens had efficient games against the Saints, Colts and Bucs, just as Bradford was efficient against the Texans and Cardinals. But there is zero evidence that the Rams passing game had the capability of leading the way toward a victory.
We will get to Bradford's culpability in a moment, and there is plenty of it. But first, the rest of the gang. Rams receivers dropped a total of 19 passes, a high total for seven games and (as mentioned earlier) so many short tosses. Cook, Givens and Austin also fumbled at the ends of completions, Cook and Givens after 47 and 26-yarders. (Cook, Rams fans will remember, was running into the end zone against the Cardinals when he coughed up the ball in the season opener.) There are also numerous passes where a more capable receiver than Givens might have adjusted to a slightly off-target deep pass, and countless times when Rams receivers were jammed and redirected at the line, ruining the timing on deep passes that may never have been thrown in the first place.
The pass protection also shoulders some of the blame, and Schottenheimer certainly realized that he could not count on blockers like Harvey Dahl when he tightened the screws on his "all short pass" offense. Still, there was a lot of wishful thinking in those Rams game plans. Take a look at this play from the third quarter of the 49ers game, when things were in the process of getting out of hand.
Based on what you see there, you have probably determined that Daryl Richardson is never, ever, ever going to block NaVorro Bowman, right? So the last thing you would do, as an offensive coordinator, is assign Richardson to up-the-middle pass protection just two plays later. Well, here is what Schottenheimer asked Richardson to do two plays later.
Also, if Chris Williams and Dahl are my guards, and they have proven just how incredibly limited they both are, I stop calling all of the pulling-guard play-action stuff shown in Diagram 3. In fairness, Schottenheimer and Jeff Fisher had to do all sorts of mixing and matching on the interior line throughout last season, so not much could have been done about some of those up-the-middle errors.
So the receivers made mistakes, the line had problems and the scheme … well, let's circle back to that again later. What about the quarterback? Was Bradford doing everything possible to win games within the confines of the roster and system?
Not hardly. Bradford was not the Rams' only problem, but he was hardly part of the solution.
Off Balance, Off Target, Ill Timed
Let's start with Bradford's deliveries. He has a lot of them: sidearm, short-arm, falling backward, flawless, acceptable, awful. Bradford's throwing mechanics got wobbly late in losses: he looked like he was pressing when he side-armed passes into traffic in the Falcons and Cowboys games and he was understandably rattled late in the Niners game.
When we start talkin' mechanics, it sounds like we are criticizing Matthew Stafford. In fact, Bradford can be thought of as Stafford, without Calvin Johnson, forced to throw about 25 percent more four-yard drag routes. Both are former first-round picks with great arms and decent overall athleticism but suspect fundamentals. Stafford is further along because he overcame early-career injury problems, has a better arm and has Megatron, but they have the same fundamental flaws.
Those flaws lead to the same on-field problems; when we criticize throwing mechanics, we are not criticizing aesthetics. Bradford had 10 passes tipped or batted at the line in seven games: all of those short passes and prepared defenses were one culprit, but short-armed deliveries were another. The number of times Rams receivers had to reach in various directions for short passes was startling: inconsistent mechanics turn short passes into adventures and make yards after the catch difficult.
As for deep passes, forget about it. Bradford's deep passes toward the sideline typically tail away from the receiver. Here is a prime example from early in the Cowboys game. Note the half-hearted pump-fake -- Givens is supposed to be running a stop-and-go, though he doesn't put much effort into selling it, either -- and the off-balance delivery.
Bradford's throw is also late on the play above, and that is another problem with Bradford's occasional forays into downfield passing. He does not know what he is seeing. Often, he takes a cursory look downfield before settling for his 15th four-yard check-down of the afternoon, though such decisions are likely built into the design of many plays. Then, for no reason that has anything to do with the game situation or his receiver's openness, Bradford just launches a bomb. The results are often disastrous, as when Bradford heaved a 3rd-and-1 pass up the right sideline to a blanketed Givens in the second quarter against the 49ers, resulting in a tip-drill interception by Donte Whitner. I don't want to drown in GIFs, but the All-22 shows Cook getting open for a short pass after Bradford briefly looks off him; 3rd-and-1 is the appropriate time for a short pass.
Here is another example of Bradford throwing an ill-advised bomb with a tail. The GIF below shows Bradford launching to a covered Givens on 3rd-and-6. Watch carefully and you can see how open Austin gets on a crossing route right in front of Bradford's face. Bradford is pressured, but he had the time to drop the ball to Austin, particularly if he anticipated the route the way a fourth-year quarterback should.
This is an all-around bad scene. Bradford is consistently late to recognize when receivers will get open, then delivers the ball with inconsistent accuracy. It's a chicken-and-egg problem when coupled with a scheme full of micro passes. Bradford does not throw downfield often enough to get consistent when doing it. So Schottenheimer calls shorter passes or Bradford settles for safe check-downs even when there are deeper passing opportunities. That makes him less comfortable and successful when throwing deep. The result is an offense consisting of so many four-yard passes to wide receivers that you want to throw a brick at your screen, even if you are not a Rams fan.
If Bradford were a rookie or a second-year player, I would be more charitable about his performance. The games I watched were his 43rd through 49th NFL starts. Bradford's downfield passing regressed between 2012 and 2013, despite the additions of Austin and Cook and a year of (theoretical) development for Givens and Quick. Bradford's arm talent is still evident, but he looked like a rookie executing a "protect the rookie" game plan far too often in 2013. At times, I thought I was watching EJ Manuel without the foot speed.
The Circle of Fault
Earlier in this essay, I asked if the problems with the Rams passing game were a Bradford problem, a Schottenheimer system problem or a receiver-line-circumstance problem. That was a bit of false compartmentalization. We all know that a bad scheme can ruin a quarterback and his teammates, bad personnel can ruin a quarterback and a team, and a bad quarterback can turn teammates into bumblers and game plans into gibberish. And worst of all, all three of these things can happen simultaneously and feed each other.
That is what happened to the Rams passing game in 2013. Bradford was bad, Schottenheimer was bad, the receivers were inexperienced and the interior line was porous. Who exacerbated which problem is not an entirely academic point, not when the principal subjects are still gainfully employed.
When a quarterback's short-passing accuracy is poor, his deep-passing accuracy is worse, his mechanics are come-and-go, and his recognition skills are suspect, those are his problems. Bad coaching may have caused some of those problems, but that doesn't make them any less the quarterback's.
When game plans are predictable, players are asked to do things they cannot do and players across the offensive lineup seem incapable of doing the little things that make plays work (selling deep routes, for example), that is the coach's problem. When receivers drop passes and blockers miss assignments, those are their problems, but the Rams are in great position to address some of those issues. If nothing else, their receiving corps is a year older and was playing much better late in the season, and running back Zac Stacy was far better than Richardson once he took over.
What's most distressing about the Rams situation is that we have seen a Brian Schottenheimer offense collapse upon itself before in New York. Bradford looked too much like Mark Sanchez at times last year, and some of the things I saw during my Bradford binge -- Bradford tripping over Jake Long's feet; Bradford bouncing a pass off Brian Quick's back -- were one step away from Butt Fumble territory. The Rams offensive system, from playbook to game-planning to installation-preparation, may not work; it's not like there is a ton of evidence that it has been successful in the past.
But Bradford himself may not be salvageable, particularly within the confines of the scheme. That sounds pessimistic, but there is a little timer inside every quarterback's head that tells him when to cycle from read to read, anticipate the rush and throw the football. Typically, the timer slows down as a quarterback matures, so the kid who runs for daylight as a rookie is finding third or fourth options -- or nailing that primary receiver because he knew exactly when he would flash open -- when he is a fourth-year pro. But sometimes, the timer accelerates until the quarterback takes the snap and nobodyisopenpassrushcomingdumptorunningbackabortabort. Sanchez's timer malfunctioned, as did those of other fine prospects through history (Rick Mirer and Bobby Hoying leap to mind). When a quarterback's first instinct is to look for the three-yard pass, his other instincts are likely to disappear forever.
What Can Be Done
It would be great if the Rams could draft an offensive coordinator. "With the second pick in the 2014 draft, the Rams select Gus Malzahn, coach, Auburn!"
But that cannot and will not happen. Fisher is strangely satisfied with Schottenheimer, and both claim to be satisfied with Bradford. No one seems to notice the obvious: playing for 17-14 wins may have worked for the 2000s Titans and 2010 Jets, but in the NFC West nobody is going to spot a team with a terrible passing game 17 points.
The Rams would be best served by drafting monstrous lineman Greg Robinson with the second pick; whether at guard or tackle, he can make a vast difference. But what about the 13th or 44th pick? After watching Bradford, I am certain they will draft a quarterback with one of those two selections. Improving the line and hoping a more-experienced Stacy, Austin and Stedman Bailey can elevate the offense to where it needs to be is wishful thinking.
Bridgewater, a precision short passer, is a fine Schottenheimer system fit, which is something of a double-edged sword. Carr comes game-ready, Garoppolo with better gifts than either of the others. None of them match Bradford from a talent standpoint, but it is much easier to learn than unlearn. The trick will be teaching good habits ingraining a new set of bad ones; as mentioned again and again, there is reason to be skeptical that Schottenheimer can do this.
Fisher may have to be the one to say enough's enough. Unfortunately, Fisher is (like Rex Ryan) a defensive coach who almost fetishizes ball-control concepts. The coach who let Mike Heimerdinger slam Eddie George into the line 343 times at 3.4 yards per pop in 2002 may well be the last one to notice or accept that he is not getting enough out of his offense.
If the Rams really do covet a quarterback, the impact they could have on the draft board is incalculable. They are in position to move up from 13 (or down from 2) to snatch someone from a quarterback-needy team. Imagine them pairing off with the Jadeveon Clowney-seeking Falcons, sliding down to No. 6 in exchange for a 2015 first rounder, taking the third quarterback off the board before the Vikings or Titans can react and still reaping the fruits of picks in the middle of the first and second rounds. Stuff like that could happen. It would almost certainly be better than standing pat and throwing sideways for another year.
Whatever the Rams do, they cannot keep crossing their arms and claiming that Bradford is just fine, developing properly, on track to becoming a true franchise quarterback and so on. What the Rams and Bradford did together last year does not work, and it is up to the whole organization to come up with something better.
(Rams fans: want to see more funny diagram interpretations of Rams plays? Check them out on the Tailgater blog!)