Bradford faces heightened expectations

The other day, after the business of the preseason was finally over, Steve Spagnuolo pulled out the books that contain his regular-season checklists. It was all there. How to handle the day after a game. What to do on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. How to travel. How to treat a rookie starting quarterback.

Spagnuolo took out the page specifically dedicated to Sam Bradford and read the reminders about not putting Bradford in tough situations, about throwing on first down, about using maximum protections so Bradford would not get the confidence pounded out of him.

"I'm real glad we aren't having to go through this checklist again," Spagnuolo thought to himself.

Spagnuolo could say that about much of his tenure in St. Louis. You get a Sam Bradford the hard way, by losing and losing a lot. And it takes time to build back. It comes in inches, not yards, one baby step at a time. The 1-15 season in 2009 gave the Rams Bradford. The 7-9 season in 2010 gave them hope.

Now, with Bradford coming off a season in which he set NFL rookie passing records, expectations are as high as they have been in years.

Apathy among the St. Louis fan base has been replaced by optimism. The Rams' season-opener against Philadelphia on Sunday is sold out, no small feat for a franchise that has had its share of blackouts in recent years. St. Louis is a trendy pick to win the NFC West and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004.

A lot rests on Bradford and his ability to progress, to learn, to adapt and to absorb. He has a new offensive coordinator, a new playbook and a new checklist. More long passes. More calls at the line. More reading defenses. More expectations.

How Bradford handles Year 2 will determine how far the Rams go.

"He's very prideful, very, very competitive, extremely competitive, as competitive as I've ever seen," Spagnuolo said. "I like that about him. It filters throughout the team. … We think he fared pretty well last season. He matured well beyond his years. It was evident he was attacking it the right way. I think the way Sam handled everything, you couldn't ask for anything better."

Bradford did not miss a snap last season. He set rookie records for completions (354) and attempts (590), and his 3,512 passing yards were the second-best for a rookie behind some guy named Peyton Manning.

Relying mostly on short and intermediate throws, Bradford completed a respectable 60 percent of his passes. No quarterback in the league faced five or more pass-rushers more often than Bradford. Under such pressure, he completed 57 percent of his passes for an average of 6.6 yards, with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

Although St. Louis finished 21st overall in passing yards, only four teams attempted more passes than the Rams.

In the offseason, after Spagnuolo's offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Spagnuolo called Bradford. He was considering changing the offensive system, and he wanted to take his quarterback's temperature.

"How comfortable would you be if the system were to change and be different?" Spagnuolo asked Bradford.

Bradford replied: "Well, I learned a system in one year last year. I think I can learn another one."

"He didn't blink," Spagnuolo said. "That was very reassuring. It gave us some options. Those things don't faze Sam Bradford."

Spagnuolo hired Josh McDaniels, the former Denver Broncos head coach, who has preached putting "stress" on defenses. From 2009 through Week 13 of 2010, when the Broncos fired McDaniels, only Indianapolis, Detroit and Seattle called more pass plays than Denver. Like the Rams this season, the Broncos did not have spectacular receivers, but McDaniels was able to turn journeyman Brandon Lloyd into a Pro Bowler in 2010, when Lloyd had 77 catches for 1,448 yards.

Bradford's favorite target probably will be rookie tight end Lance Kendricks. Brandon Gibson will be the go-to guy on third down, and Danny Amendola will be a Wes Welker-type out of the slot.

But it all will come down to Bradford. Can he handle more responsibility at the line? Can he call the right audibles? Can he stretch the field with longer passes? And can he meet Rams fans' expectations?

For the first time since the Greatest Show on Turf was in town, those expectations are high, and growing. Spagnuolo understands and embraces it, but he continues to preach a one-day-at-a-time approach.

"Just because you go 1-15, then 7-9, there's no guarantee you're going to win 10 or 12 games," he said. "We take it one game at a time. That's a lot."

Spagnuolo said he would keep his expectations for this season in-house, but he is optimistic that soon he will get to some of his other checklists: Win the division. Make the playoffs. And make a run at it all.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.