EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Apparently intent on sending a message about the state of his surgically-repaired left knee as he arrived at his fifth NFL training camp, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford left little doubt about his status during mandatory conditioning tests.
“We’re just going to go and if we have to back down, we’ll back down. But at this point he finished the conditioning test," coach Jeff Fisher said. "I won’t mention the names of the people that crossed the line after him, but he did well. He’s worked really hard.”
While Fisher and a few other Rams declined to name names, it was clear that Bradford's efforts in the conditioning test placed him above some players you wouldn't expect.
“Guys that you would think would do a lot better," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "How does that sound?”
It sounds like the Rams have their quarterback back in the fold at full speed and with little to no restrictions aside from wearing a knee brace. That was Bradford's goal in the spring and it appears it's one he's reached this summer.
During organized team activities in June, Bradford came along slowly, participating in a little more than half of the team workouts but with those appearances kept to a minimum of a couple of segments of seven-on-seven and a little bit of work in team drills, particularly in the hurry-up offense.
In the time since, Bradford hasn't had any clearly defined moment where he was cleared so much as a continued gradual build toward returning to the field at full speed. He was essentially full go in the final week of OTAs, but the Rams didn't push him knowing that he'd be ready to go for training camp.
Bradford felt good enough to have his usual summer get-together with some of his receivers and tight ends in Norman, Oklahoma, an annual event in which Bradford picks up the tab so he can spend some quality time throwing to and hanging out with the young pass-catchers. This year, Bradford worked with receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Brian Quick and tight ends Lance Kendricks and Cory Harkey.
After apparently dominating the conditioning test, Bradford got an even better test Friday when he joined his teammates for the first day of training camp. It was far from Bradford's best day as he regularly faced pressure from all angles. Although the Rams aren't yet in pads and contact is not allowed, the pressure made it difficult for Bradford and the offense as a whole and it was clear there is plenty of rust to knock off.
On the bright side, Bradford moved around well and came out of the practice feeling good about his physical status.
“I feel great," Bradford said. "My knee feels really good. It feels better than when we finished OTAs. I finished those last two OTAs pretty strong. It feels even better now. In talking to Coach [Fisher] and [head athletic trainer] Reggie [Scott], they feel good about having no limits. If it starts to get a little sore and we feel like we need to pull back we can always do that. Out of the gate I’m going to try and do everything.”
As Bradford enters his fifth season, the more he can do, the better. It's no secret that the court of public opinion has yet to render a verdict on Bradford as a quarterback who should hold a starting job for the long-term future though there are certainly those who have made up their minds on both sides of the fence. But regardless of outside opinion, the Rams have committed to Bradford for at least the 2014 season and it's obvious he's going to get another chance to make a statement that he deserves to stick around for awhile.
The phrase "make or break" has been thrown around seemingly every year when it comes to Bradford but with only one more year on his contract beyond this season, it seems the Rams have no choice but to truly figure out what they have with their quarterback this time around. If nothing else, a fully healthy season would go a long way toward helping the Rams make a legitimate determination on Bradford's future.
Even Bradford, who steadfastly (and wisely) refuses to read or listen to any praise or criticism of him as a player, is aware of the seemingly annual "make or break" discussion.
“I don’t really pay attention to that -- I think that question’s probably been asked every year since I’ve been here," Bradford said. "Every year is a make it or break it year according to someone."
For now, Bradford says his focus is solely on making sure he's back to full speed and doing all he can to help a team that he believes is on the cusp of a breakthrough season. The simple act of getting back on the field is at least a baby step in the right direction though the real tests still await.
“It might be a little different the first time we step on the field for a preseason game or a regular-season game -- the bullets are live,” Bradford said. “But at this point, I haven’t noticed anything.”