Bradford, sidelined 10 games by a shoulder injury at Oklahoma last season, also showed he could take a hit. Multiple hits. Too many hits.
The No. 1 overall draft choice started quickly in his NFL exhibition debut against the Minnesota Vikings. Fans rose from their seats in the Edward Jones Dome and welcomed Bradford with the loudest ovation of the night. They rose again when Bradford completed passes for first downs on his first two third-down plays.
"It was exciting," Bradford said following the 28-7 defeat. "It was the first time I had been in a game situation for a long time. It was fun to get out there, get hit a couple times, get knocked down, get back up -- just getting back into the flow of a football game was fun."
Bradford's first pass went through the hands of tight end Darcy Johnson. He faced third-and-5 from the St. Louis 27 on the next play and found receiver Laurent Robinson over the middle for an 18-yard gain. Overall, Bradford completed 6 of 13 passes for 57 yards and a 58.8 rating. But he was sharp early -- as long as his protection lasted.
"Sam sounded confident in the huddle, real calm and comfortable out there," Robinson said. "Threw a great ball, just put it on me and I was able to make the catch and get the first down. It felt good to get his first completion out there."
Two plays later, also on third-and-5, Bradford found receiver Danny Amendola underneath for a 5-yard gain.
"He is a leader," Amendola said. "He is a smart guy, he is a quarterback by nature."
Bradford completed a 9-yard pass to running back Chris Ogbonnaya on the next play, but the Vikings hit Bradford hard -- a sign of things to come.
The longer Bradford stayed in the game, the less reliable his protection became. Those wondering whether Bradford's surgically repaired throwing shoulder might be vulnerable should know the Vikings drove that shoulder into the turf at least twice. Bradford completed the 9-yarder to Ogbonnaya right before taking the first shoulder-crunching hit. The second hit came on the final play of the final Bradford-led drive of the evening.
Bradford said his shoulder felt fine afterward. More evidence the shoulder was fine: In the locker room, veteran starter A.J. Feeley repeatedly slapped Bradford on the shoulder to congratulate him on his first NFL action.
"The shoulder feels great," Bradford said. "I took a couple hits tonight, landed on the shoulder. Feels great, not sore at all. We'll see tomorrow how it feels, but right now it feels great."
Protection problems aren't always a big deal during the exhibition season. Teams aren't preparing for their opponents nearly as much. Coaches sometimes call plays designed more for evaluation purposes than to put individual players in the best possible position to succeed.
In this case, though, the Rams were certainly trying to set up Bradford for success as they sought to build his confidence and feed fan excitement (the dome was sparsely populated on a day when the Chicago Cubs visited Busch Stadium, always a hot ticket here, and a local MMA card attracted more sports dollars).
Unfortunately for Bradford, right tackle Jason Smith could not block backup Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jayme Mitchell, a player whose most recent regular-season sack came in 2007 (one of 4.0 career sacks for Mitchell). It's not good when the player St. Louis drafted second overall in 2009 cannot prevent an NFL backup from roughing up the new franchise quarterback. But there were mitigating factors. Smith has missed time to injury lately. He improved significantly through the course of the preseason a year ago, and he has time to do the same this summer.
Perhaps this was merely an off night for Smith, but I came out of this game with more questions about Smith's pass protection than about Bradford's poise or potential. Consider it a reminder that quarterbacks, though increasingly important as the NFL becomes more pass-oriented, still need considerable support to function, let alone flourish.
Bradford's third and final series of the first half went like this:
First down: Mitchell drives Smith off the ball, raises his hands and bats down Bradford's pass.
Second down: Mitchell beats Smith again, disrupting Bradford and collecting a half-sack on the play.
Third down: Mitchell beats Smith for a full sack this time.
Both teams were without multiple key players. Running back Steven Jackson, the only Rams player with a Pro Bowl on his resume, was among those sitting out. This game ultimately mattered more for what Bradford showed than for the protection issues.
"I felt like I did some good things tonight," Bradford said. "I felt like I did some things not-so-good, but that's what the preseason is for. When we get in there tomorrow and look at the tape, I'm sure we'll find a lot of things to work on."