A closer look at Sam Bradford's struggles

Sam Bradford's recent play has experts wondering if he'll ever develop into an elite starting QB. Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- Not that there ever is a good time for an NFL quarterback to have a bad game, but the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to have one of his shoddiest NFL outings than last week’s nationally televised blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

With all eyes on Bradford and the Rams, the fourth-year quarterback had a 59.2 quarterback rating that drew mass amounts of criticism and led media types from all over the country to take a deeper look at Bradford’s career to this point and where it might be headed.

Bradford, who has long been his own harshest critic, even went so far as to acknowledge that the San Francisco game was one of his worst.

“I was very frustrated,” Bradford said. “I think last week was definitely one of the tougher games that I’ve had, just knowing how good this offense can be and the way that we can play, to perform the way that we did, it was very frustrating.”

A bad game can happen to any player or quarterback, but this particular game has people wondering what, exactly, is wrong with Bradford and whether his career trajectory has flatlined?

To be sure, there are plenty of mitigating factors around Bradford that aren’t helping his cause: shaky protection, a nonexistent running game and a slow and predictable scheme that doesn’t take advantage of Bradford’s ability to operate in an up-tempo, no huddle situation.

All of those are valid criticisms, but ESPN NFL scout Matt Williamson points out that at some point, the onus falls on the quarterback to bolster his team and not vice-versa.

“I think all of these things are to blame, and we have been able to place blame somewhere else throughout Bradford’s career,” Williamson said. “But enough is enough. Good quarterbacks elevate those around them and overcome a hardship or two. He was awful against the Niners, and even when his surroundings were optimal, he missed open guys and was far too reactive to pressure, whether it was truly present or not. This has become a recurring issue and now, I finally have my doubts.”

ESPN's Louis Riddick, himself a former scout and pro personnel director who also played in the league, long has had his suspicions that Bradford might never become the franchise quarterback that most expected when the Rams drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010.

Riddick has watched far more games than just the tough outing against the Niners, and again saw many of the same traits that he believes have held Bradford back from reaching the status most believed he would.

Included in those traits are struggles with comfort and confidence in finding secondary targets, inability to stand tall or elude pressure in the pocket or make off-schedule plays and failure to consistently deliver the ball accurately. All of those attributes are compounded by what Riddick calls a reluctance to push the ball down the field.

While acknowledging the issues around Bradford, Riddick said he’s never seen the intelligence and ability Bradford has in the classroom carry over to the field.

“I think it’s a confluence of things that are adding up to Sam not taking the expected next step as far as his development is concerned,” Riddick said. “Quite honestly, I’ve never been one that’s really seen franchise difference-making, put-the-team-on-my-back type of ability. I’m just not sold on him being a franchise quarterback, regardless of all the other things going on around him that aren’t necessarily helping him.”

In terms of fundamentals, Riddick points to a few areas where he sees Bradford struggle the most. In his eyes, Bradford still doesn’t look comfortable under center, lacks urgency in his drops and footwork and doesn’t have the feet or awareness to negotiate the pocket and find openings to deliver the ball.

When Bradford does find throwing lanes, Riddick doesn’t see a quarterback who consistently throws with touch and accuracy, despite the occasional flash of brilliance.

“I know that’s a very general statement to make, because there are a number of different things that go into it,” Riddick said. “All those things just don’t seem to be clicking for him to where it’s become second nature for him and it will equate to him being a more accurate, productive quarterback. I just don’t see all those things coming together.”

After an offseason in which the Rams spent major dollars and draft capital to surround Bradford with talent, it was unlikely that all those pieces would come together quickly. The Rams are young at running back and receiver, and Bradford himself is still young.

Coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead have done as much as possible to give Bradford the ideal conditions to succeed, to replicate the type of protection and weapons he once enjoyed on his way to the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma.

But maybe, just maybe, that’s the issue. Could it be that Bradford is a mediocre quarterback in average circumstances who can only rise to another level if all things surrounding him are perfect?

“It’s much easier for any quarterback when he’s out there and it just seems like it’s a 7-on-7 like in any practice,” Riddick said. “There’s a lot of stuff that happens in 2.53 seconds after the snap. That wasn’t happening to him at Oklahoma.”

Riddick said he’d give Bradford more time, but he also believes that despite consistent assertions to the contrary, the Rams have to at least be keeping a watchful eye on Bradford through the next dozen games.

“I’d love to see Sam Bradford excel, I’d love to see every player excel, but for me speaking objectively from afar, I would be having some questions at this point and start thinking 'what if it’s not getting better?'” Riddick said. “What if, no matter what we do, it’s just not what we thought it was going to be? So, yeah, I would think in the back of my mind as a team-builder and as a team planner what the contingency plan would be.

“I’m sure they are thinking about it. They’ll never say that. But they’d be foolish not to, because you always have to be looking ahead. You just do.”