Rams must begin planning for future at QB

EARTH CITY, Mo. -- What was once again thought to be a make-or-break season for St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford broke Sunday, two weeks before it even started.

With news coming from ESPN NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that Bradford will miss the 2014 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the Rams will almost certainly turn to veteran Shaun Hill to replace him. In Hill, they have an in-house replacement they believe to be an upgrade over Kellen Clemens, the quarterback who replaced Bradford last year.

But Hill is 34 and what was already an uncertain picture at the game's most important position just became a lot fuzzier. Bradford is scheduled to count $17,610,000 against this year's salary cap. His number for next year is a daunting $16,580,000. And he's headed for his second left knee surgery in less than a year.

Forgetting the Rams' inability to reach the playoffs or even post a winning record under Bradford's guidance for a moment, the harsh reality is that there's no longer any debate about whether Bradford should be the team's quarterback of the future. Once this season ends, Bradford will have missed 25 consecutive games over two seasons.

In a five-year career, Bradford will have missed 31 of a possible 80 games, and that doesn't include time playing with a high ankle sprain in 2011. Whether or not you believe Bradford was the right man for the job is beside the point. He's now got a long enough history of serious injury that he can't be considered the team's quarterback of the future.

Simply put, it's time for the Rams to move on. And more to the point, it's fair to wonder whether they should have already had the succession plan in place.

This isn't a second guess, this is revisiting a relevant conversation that came up repeatedly around the NFL draft. Even as rumors of the team's interest in Johnny Manziel swirled, Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead remained steadfast in their belief in Bradford.

With picks at Nos. 2 and 13 in the first round, the Rams could have drafted any quarterback they wanted with the second pick and all but Blake Bortles with the 13th selection. Although it appeared the Rams never really considered grabbing a signal-caller with either of those picks, there were those who would have liked to see them do it, especially considering the bonus pick the team had from Washington.

The Rams eventually spent a lowly sixth-round pick on developmental prospect Garrett Gilbert -- who is nowhere close to being an NFL starter -- despite multiple hints that they'd spend at least a Day 2 pick on a quarterback. While there are examples of quarterbacks drafted later than the top of the first round panning out, they're traditionally difficult to find.

Even had the Rams drafted a quarterback, Fisher said they'd probably be in a similar predicament because the young quarterbacks in this class will take time.

"Had we drafted a quarterback, I would say that Shaun would probably still be the starter for week 1 considering the circumstances," Fisher said.

Taking it a step further, it was also fair to wonder whether the Rams should have more strongly considered a quarterback at the top of the draft because they might never draft in such lofty territory again. In Fisher's 18 full seasons as a head coach, his teams have had seven or more wins 15 times. He's had one season each with four, five and six wins.

In other words, Fisher's teams almost always find a way to a baseline of mediocrity that doesn't yield many opportunities to draft franchise quarterbacks. The average first-round draft position of Fisher's teams, not including picks gained in trade, is 17.9.

On the two occasions his Tennessee teams picked in the top three, they drafted a quarterback both times, one being the home run that was Steve McNair, the other being the whiff that was Vince Young.

Such is life when betting your franchise's future on a young quarterback. It's a bet the Rams weren't prepared to make again while waiting to see if the one they made on Bradford in 2010 would pay off.

But because they didn't, the Rams now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to place their next bet with far less valuable chips.