Standing by Bradford right move ... for now

ST. LOUIS -- Somewhere along the way, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford became a hot topic of conversation before the NFL offseason even began.

Speculation about his future with the team has been rampant for months, with some pundits predicting his release.

However, that speculation isn't coming from inside the walls of Rams Park. Bradford suffered a torn ACL against Carolina on Oct. 20. The next day, Rams coach Jeff Fisher made it clear that Bradford would remain the team's starting quarterback in 2014.

It's a familiar refrain that hasn't changed. It's a stance that certainly didn't soften Tuesday, when Fisher reiterated the team's commitment to Bradford, or when general manager Les Snead told ESPN's Ed Werder that the Rams "have been and still are open to extending Sam."

At least for the 2014 season, the decision to keep Bradford is the right one.

More often than not, those advocating a departure from Bradford cite his upcoming salary-cap number ($17.61 million), combined with the team's continued inability to reach the playoffs, as the primary reasons for starting over at the position.

Statistically, Bradford's production in his first four seasons hasn't been much to write home about. He has a total QBR of 40.7, below average for an NFL starter, and his career-passer rating is a mediocre 79.3.

Beyond that, the case can be made the Rams might not be in such good position to draft a top quarterback again for a while. The No. 2 overall selection the team received as the final piece of a trade with Washington has it in a prime spot should it fall in love with someone such as Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel or Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.

Fisher-led teams have a knack for finishing in the middle of the pack, meaning that even if the Rams continue their streak of not reaching the postseason, they might not have the chance again to draft one of the top quarterbacks. They could then find themselves in the same position as Washington, in which they'd have to mortgage their future picks to get the right quarterback.

The best reason to consider a move is actually the one that doesn't get mentioned enough: Bradford's health. Not including his injury history at Oklahoma, Bradford has missed 15 games in four seasons and spent part of a miserable 2011 season playing on a bad ankle.

Releasing Bradford now would save the Rams $10.4 million in 2014. All of those reasons for making a change at quarterback are logical, but that doesn't mean it's the right decision.

The Rams also have plenty of good reasons to keep Bradford, allow him to rehabilitate his injured knee and draft a quarterback in the middle rounds to provide a better backup with some long-term potential.

Whether it's Fisher, Snead, COO Kevin Demoff or any number of teammates, the most oft-cited reason for keeping Bradford is the idea that he was starting to find his groove just before he got injured. The Rams' plan to go to a more wide-open, spread-style offense flopped, culminating in perhaps Bradford's worst game on national television against San Francisco in Week 4.

Undoubtedly, the stench of that performance has lingered, but there were positive signs of progress the following weeks. With a return to the run game the next week against Jacksonville, Bradford was one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks. In the following three games, he completed 65 percent of his passes to go with seven touchdowns and one interception for a QBR of 68.0.

Even if two of his best games were against bottom-feeders Houston and Jacksonville, Bradford showed signs that he could have success at quarterback if the players around him were doing their jobs.

The bigger picture here might actually have nothing to do with Bradford. Teams are always looking out for the next Andrew Luck, the franchise quarterback capable of elevating a franchise immediately. Unfortunately, that search is frustrating for a reason: Those players are hard to find.

Although someone of Manziel's talent and charisma would fill seats, opinions on his NFL future vary wildly. The same can be said for Bridgewater and Central Florida's Blake Bortles. While that trio forms the core of the top quarterbacks in this year's draft, you would be hard-pressed to find any team that sees a sure thing there.

If this year's draft had a couple of top quarterbacks at the same level as Luck, the Rams might view things differently. Maybe then they'd draft a quarterback, move on from Bradford and see if they can hit on a big-money free agent with the savings.

The Rams have remained open to signing Bradford to an extension but he has declined, choosing instead to bet on himself getting the job done and re-signing later. Bradford's cap number will come in well above that of a top-drafted quarterback, but this is an important year for the Fisher regime.

Starting over with a new quarterback wouldn't mean the Rams can't win in 2014, but it would be a gamble for a team in its third year of a dramatic rebuild. Essentially, they're willing to pay a premium for the guy they know versus three or four they don't.

Along with their commitment to Bradford, the Rams must continue to help him by spending free-agent dollars and draft capital on the offense. Those commitments must be buoyed by a talented offensive line and top-notch receivers, tight ends and running backs. Drafting a talented backup is, and should remain, a priority.

The time to compete, post a winning record and reach the playoffs is now. There are no more excuses.

Keeping Bradford puts him right there with the rest of his team. As he enters his fifth season, Bradford's ceiling is much lower than it once was. Much will need to go right for him this season. He must stay healthy. He must produce. He must win.

Sticking by Bradford is the right decision for the Rams in 2014. But if he doesn't get it done, suffers another injury, or both, the speculation that began this year should become much more real this time next year.