Of course veterans, potential draft washouts, and backups have a lot to prove as the NFL pre-season enters week two. These are the prototypical personalities and stories that most sports blogs and Web sites devote pixels to.
But those are easy, with all due respect to my colleagues, who both make interesting arguments.
The tough argument to make is how a brand spankin’ new rookie has the most to prove out of any of the usual suspects. Yet, with $50M of guaranteed money, rookie Sam Bradford has now become the highest paid quarterback in the league. In fact, his six year, $78M deal is huge, especially considering it can grow to as much as $86M with incentives. The deal could be worth as much as $14M more than the deal Matthew Stafford made as last year’s number one overall pick in the draft.
Rookies always have a lot of pressure, but nothing like the pressure felt by the one shaking Roger Goodell’s hand, holding a number one jersey. Those guys must be brilliant from the first snap in training camp through the last snap in a surprisingly productive season. Fans must be happy, or they will boo. Coaches must be happy because it can be tempting to teach a rookie the proper clipboard holding technique.
Every bad throw – even in training camp – gets scrutinized. Every mishandled snap calls a player’s draft status into question. The pressure does not alleviate as the season progresses, either. Short of winning a Super Bowl as a rookie, there is very little that number one overall draft picks can do to win the adoring favor of hometown fans. As interceptions and losses pile up, seats empty out. Sure, other players and coaches sometimes get fingers pointed at them. But it is also the time when the general manager’s job security comes into to question. And, in the name of American trickledown economics, the GM automatically calls the coach’s ability into question. A poorly performing number one overall pick has consequences. Those consequences are felt throughout the entire organization.
Plus, Bradford already enters the NFL will plenty of criticism for a number one overall, highly successful, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback. Bradford must prove early on in his professional career that he is not worthy of the “system quarterback” label that has been assigned to him. In college Bradford would get the play call for the sideline, and then endure the demeaning process of calling an initial cadence, looking back to the sidelines for a potential audible, and then executing on what the coaches communicated.
Smart fans know that it takes talent to execute on those coaching directives as well as Bradford has done. Smart fans also know, however, that number one quarterbacks are team leader – rookie or not. Therefore, any type of process that undermines their authority – such as gaping at the sidelines after a dummy cadence in hopes of coaching direction – does not exactly instill faith in the folks on the team that are supposed to be following him.
Bradford, now not only has to prove his ability to compete at the professional level, he must also prove he can lead. The dual talents a quarterback must have are exactly why the position is so difficult to do well. Leadership will likely grow because, after all, Bradford HAS to tell the other players what to do. But talent could be trickier. Bradford has to prove to his teammates that he is good when it counts – when the designed play breaks down and everyone must adjust. Whether he likes it or not, the stigma of being a doer instead of a thinker is following him because of the system he played in while in college and the reduced field time he saw as an injured player last season.
I have faith in Bradford. While I am not a Rams fan, I am a Sports Geek. Bradford seem to have tremendous ability that certainly warranted a number one pick. But, is he better than Peyton Manning. Is he better than Tom Brady? Those may sound like bizarre questions, but they are valid since Bradford is now getting paid more money than those two marquee, established, legend-in-the-making quarterbacks.
Bradford feels pressure to perform for another important reason. The Rams sucked last season. Bad. At first glance it seems like tossing more than 12 touchdowns – the combined output from the trio of quarterbacks that graced the once boastful turf in St. Louis – will be enough to warrant a Bradford statue at the entrance to Bradford Lane in the newly renamed Bradford, Missouri. But, if Bradford is unable to make an impact on the team that is significantly better than what the team’s quarterback accomplished last season, he will be booed right to the bench.
Between the huge bucks Bradford is making, the “like-it-or-not” stigma, and the massive rookie pressure, Sam Bradford has more to prove in the 2010 season than any other quarterback in the league. If he fails, he’s the next Ryan Leaf.