Look back at a lopsided loss to the Arizona Cardinals late in his lone season with the Philadelphia Eagles to get a glimpse of the full Sam Bradford experience.
Bradford, who was acquired by the Vikings on Saturday for a 2017 first-round pick and a conditional pick in 2018, completed short pass after short pass after short pass to set up a field goal on the Eagles’ opening drive in that Week 15 loss.
Staring down a five-man blitz on third-and-15 from his 2-yard line during the third quarter, Bradford finally displayed the full tool kit needed to thrive in offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme. He patiently waited for wide receiver Josh Huff to get open on a deep out route near the 25-yard line. And he also had the courage to deliver an accurate strike while getting barreled into by a Cardinals blitzer.
But then it was back to the short passing game, whether it was by design in the Eagles’ mix of the shotgun spread and West Coast concepts or the result of Bradford checking down when he didn’t like what he saw deep down the field.
The game would quickly become a rout after Bradford lost a fumble and later threw a pair of interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown.
It was a microcosm of his career — a few big throws, a bunch of short ones and some critical miscues that make you wonder why the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft didn't reach his potential in six uneven seasons with the St. Louis Rams and Eagles.
The Vikings, despite the steep price paid in the Eagles trade, don’t need Bradford to be their savior in 2016. With a strong supporting cast led by All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, they will mostly ask him to hand the ball off and avoid backbreaking mistakes — just like Teddy Bridgewater, who is out for the season.
But they will at times need him to throw the ball downfield in Turner’s vertical passing attack. Analysts are split about whether he can do that consistently.
“That downfield passing game isn’t the old Al Davis-style ‘bombs away.’ It’s the intermediate passing game — those 14-to-20-yard completions on posts, corners, deep square-ins and seam routes that pick up yards in chunks,” Chris Brown, the author of “The Essential Smart Football,” said Sunday. “But throughout his career Bradford has been one of the biggest dink-and-dunk quarterbacks in the NFL.”
Bridgewater was statistically one of the NFL’s best in the intermediate areas of the field, which are the bread-and-butter throws in Turner’s offense. Bradford, on the other hand, had a 10-to-9 TD-INT differential on passes thrown between 10 and 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2015, according to Pro Football Focus.
He fared better, though, than Bridgewater when chucking it deep last season, though he didn’t do it very often. Bradford was accurate on 41.5 percent of his throws that traveled at least 20 yards down the field. That ranked 14th among qualifying QBs. Bridgewater, meanwhile, ranked 23rd in deep accuracy, though this summer he had showed significant improvement throwing the deep ball.
Author Cian Fahey — who recently charted 16,800 throws while breaking down 35 of the NFL’s top passers for his annual preseason quarterback guide — said that while Bridgewater is a better QB overall than Bradford, he believes Bradford will be a better fit in Turner’s scheme due to “his ability to push the ball downfield.”
The issue, Brown argues, is whether Bradford has the willingness to throw deep.
Last season, 63 percent of his passes were thrown within 10 yards of the line and in 63 career starts Bradford has averaged a substandard 6.5 yards per attempt.
Fahey believes improved pass protection is critical to maximizing Bradford’s skills because he is not as skilled at avoiding the rush as was the crafty Bridgewater.
“One of the biggest things Bridgewater did … was function against pressure. Bridgewater is — or was — one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in a tight pocket,” Fahey wrote on his website, presnapreads.com. “Bradford won’t replicate that element of Bridgewater’s play, but the Vikings hope that he won’t have to.”
And then there is the critical matter of not turning the ball over. Bradford had five multi-interception games in his 14 starts with Philadelphia last season.
Knowing that the Vikings would often rely on a stingy defense to win low-scoring games, Bridgewater was much more cautious, so much that the coaching staff had been encouraged him to take more chances, which is uncommon with young QBs.
Of course, the opinions that matter most are the ones who belong to the Vikings’ top decisionmakers. And they wouldn’t have done this bold deal if they didn’t think the 28-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner could fit well in Turner’s scheme.
Even though the Vikings had the 30th overall pick back in the 2010 draft, General Manager Rick Spielman and their scouting staff still did their due diligence on Bradford. And Spielman said he has “always been a big fan” of Bradford.
“Sam is a big quarterback. He’s a very accurate thrower. He does a great job of getting through his reads and progressions. He makes quick decisions in the pocket. He can throw the deep ball down the field,” he said Saturday. “Some of the routes we throw in our offense, we’ve seen those same routes and have seen him complete those same balls that he’s going to have to do in this system.”