When Sam Bradford was coming out of college the major selling point on him was accuracy. He was one of the most accurate passers most draft analysts had ever seen. During his college career he completed 67.6% of his passes, and was placing passes at will during his pre-draft workouts. So it is both curious and a little ironic that in the NFL it has been his accuracy as much as anything that has held Bradford back from becoming the franchise quarterback the Rams so desperately need him to become.
In this game alone I am about to highlight two plays that should have put 14 points on the board for the Rams, but because of inaccurate throws from Bradford ended up resulting in an interception and settling for a field goal. NFL quarterbacks can’t afford to leave points out on the field, especially when all that’s causing it is a lack of accuracy. At this level it’s too hard to do all of the difficult work of diagnosing coverage, making the correct read, and identifying the correct target, only to miss him by a couple of yards and undo all of that good work. There isn’t that margin for error when you get to the big leagues.
The Overthrow: San Francisco @ St. Louis | 1st Q, 7:17
This looked like a bad pass from first glance, but when you look at the breakdown in the San Francisco secondary that led to the opportunity, it becomes far worse. The Rams put Tavon Austin in motion pre-snap, and this caused confusion among the 49ers’ defenders. He moved inside, and caused the two corners to that side to switch assignment –, but then he motioned back outside, and the two CBs can’t correctly communicate which receiver they each have covered. When the ball was snapped they were both still trying to communicate, and wound up both covering Austin’s quick out route.
Both corners tearing off to cover the flat on 3rd-and-2 left Austin Pettis completely uncovered to run his corner route away from the safety’s leverage. With the lone exception of a total and utter coverage breakdown where nobody at all is covering a receiver over the top, this is as easy as throws in the NFL get.
Bradford had an acre of space to put the ball into, and enough air under the ball would have given his receiver enough time to find it and go and get it. Instead he fires a ball in low and fast. He had pressure coming at him, but by the time he cocked his arm to throw it was still relatively under control. He would have been aware the pressure was coming through, but it’s not as if he was faced with an unblocked lineman steaming toward him. This is a throw Bradford simply has to make, and would be considered pretty routine for a top quarterback. Instead of floating it to a safe part of the end zone he tried to fire it in and missed long.
The Underthrow: San Francisco @ St. Louis | 2nd Q, 4:06
The Rams face 3rd-and-1 down at the San Francisco 34-yard line. As Brad Nessler pointed out pre-snap they are one of the worst teams in the league at 3rd-and-1 so far, so they elect to go deep. Bradford correctly read the coverage pre-snap and knew he had a one-on-one matchup on the outside. The 49ers were playing man-free in coverage, with everybody underneath playing man-to-man and a single safety over the top playing the deep middle. A well thrown ball would beat the single high safety to the sideline every time, so all Bradford needed to worry about was throwing the ball to beat the cornerback.
Brian Quick doesn’t get a great release off the line, and Trumaine Brock does a decent job of initially staying with him, but he never squeezed Quick toward the sideline and Bradford still had a lot of open space in which to fit this football. He didn’t take advantage of it, and instead underthrew the ball to the inside, essentially throwing it to Brock, and not away from his coverage and to a place where only Quick could have made a play on it. This forced Quick to try and come through Brock to get to the football, and he made a reasonable attempt at it, but Brock was able to bat the ball away right into the waiting arms of Donte Whitner, the FS who had been unable to get across to make a play on the pass initially.
Instead of expecting Quick to be able to come back through the man he is running with to try and catch it, this pass needed to be out in front of him and make use of the space that he had maintained toward the sideline. Quick had around 4 yards of cushion to the sideline, and a ball high and to the outside would have been impossible for Brock to do anything about. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been complete anyway with the corner in tight attendance and the shrinking of margins for a successful play, but at the very least a pass in that location would have been safe from what ended up happening — an interception in a crucial area of the field. If you are going to miss on this pass, you have to miss long, where the worst that will happen is an incompletion forcing a field goal attempt. This pass is not a hugely difficult throw for a top-tier quarterback, traveling less than 35 yards in the air, but Bradford again proved inaccurate on the throw and it ended up costing the Rams, who at this point in the game were still well in it.
Bradford never had eye-popping measurables, a howitzer for an arm, or off-the-charts intangibles as a prospect, but he did have unerring accuracy. So far in the NFL his career completion percentage is just 58.3%, and this season just a hair better at 58.8%. This is a league where Peyton Manning is now leading the way with a completion percentage of 73% and, adjusting for drops and throwaways and the like, is accurate on 84.3% of his passes. Bradford needs to either rediscover his ability to put the ball exactly where he wants to, or the Rams need to start looking for a new plan at quarterback, because this level of accuracy won’t cut it.
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