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Football Notes

Rams OK with starting Bradford sooner, not later

By Albert R. Breer
September 12, 2010

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Billy Devaney couldn’t have been more excited about Sam Bradford’s effort two weeks ago in New England, and as he approached the quarterback to whom his future as Rams general manger is tied, his confidence level in the 22-year-old seemingly had no room to rise.

But it did.

Devaney called out to Bradford as he boarded the bus in the bowels of Gillette Stadium to say, “That was pretty good.’’ And Bradford’s response was perfect: “Can you believe I missed Laurent Robinson?’’

“It was sincere,’’ Devaney said. “It really ticked him.’’

The play – a blown layup of a 27-yard touchdown pass that would’ve completed Bradford’s beatdown of the Patriots defense and given the rookie a 143.2 passer rating — wasn’t significant, given that it was a preseason game. But Bradford’s reaction, Devaney believes, was.

Coming out of Oklahoma, Bradford was most often compared to Peyton Manning, and the above conversation shows why Devaney believes (a) the rookie has a chance to be great, and (b) can handle starting from Day 1.

“There are so many good things I can say about the guy, but the work ethic really stands out,’’ Devaney said. “We knew he was smart and talented, but the work ethic, how he really wants to be good sooner than later, that’s what you see.

“It’s not by accident that he’s here. He’s gifted, but there are a lot of gifted guys. He has a tremendously high ceiling, and the reason I have no doubt he’ll achieve that ceiling is because he wants to so bad.’’

Bradford’s swift ascent continues a recent trend. Twelve quarterbacks were selected in the first round from 2004-07, and not one started his team’s opener. Just two of 21 from 2000-07 started in Week 1. Yet four of five in 2008 and ’09 turned the trick, and Bradford will make six today. And that says as much about the quarterback’s place on the team as it does about his own work.

“We had no preconceived plan,’’ said coach Steve Spagnuolo. “We said that all along. There’s no preconceived timetable. It’s simply who gives us the best chance to win. Of course, we felt, eventually, Sam would be that guy. But we didn’t know when it would be.’’

Spagnuolo used his resources to get a better idea of how Bradford would be utilized, speaking with coaching buddies who had broken in first-round rookie quarterbacks in Andy Reid (Donovan McNabb), Tom Coughlin (Eli Manning), Mike Smith (Matt Ryan), and John Harbaugh (Joe Flacco).

They all said demeanor and confidence were important in tossing the quarterback into the fray early. And those were areas where Spagnuolo was most impressed during Bradford’s big night in New England.

“It was the way we came out on that first series, after we gave up the big kickoff return to start the game,’’ Spagnuolo said. “There was an air about him and the offense: ‘We have to answer that score.’ And we did. That drive gave him confidence.’’

It also showed the coach more of what he’d seen in practice, and gave him more confidence that Bradford was ready.

“The things you look for, first off, it’s skills,’’ said Spagnuolo. “That was evident early. Then, it was an ability to handle the volume of the offense.

“Can he spit out the play in the huddle? Can he command the offense at the line of scrimmage? Can he change the cadence, manage the play clock, and move people around? But most of all, would people around him feel that air of confidence?’’

The New England game gave the Rams affirmative answers in all of those departments, and Bradford also impressed in his ability to go to his second and third options.

But good nights are one thing. Bad nights are another, and that’s where the Peyton Manning comparison comes in again.

It’s easy to forget that Manning threw more interceptions (28) than touchdown passes (26) during his rookie year, and completed only 56.7 percent of his passes. It’s possible that Bradford will post similar numbers and call it a productive year, if he can learn from his mistakes the way Manning did.

“He knows he’ll take his lumps,’’ said Devaney. “The guy people talk about with Sam is Manning, and I can see it through the work ethic, that he’s a perfectionist, all that. That’s all a tremendous compliment to Sam, considering who Manning is, but Manning took his lumps, too.

“The big thing is it made him stronger, it made him better. He realized that if he got knocked down and he wasn’t crushed because of it, he’d be better because of it.’’

So the idea behind starting Bradford is to accelerate his learning process: take the lumps earlier, improve quicker. St. Louis has quickly become his team, and his teammates have fallen in line.

“He has the ‘rally around’ effect with the other 10 guys,’’ Spagnuolo said. “We’re very young, but we have some vets and they realize who they have to protect and the learning curve ahead, and they’re rallying around him.’’

Spagnuolo and Devaney know there are no sure things, particularly at quarterback, and that’s why they’ll temper every gushing statement with a “wait and see’’ message.

But it’s clear they believe they have someone pretty special, and they know the impact Bradford could have.

“Oh my God, if he’s as good as we hope? Then we have the most important position taken care of for the next 10, 12 years,’’ said Devaney. “That’s a comforting thought.’’

IT’S ONE FOR ALL

Players send out signal with point of a finger

The Players Association made a powerful statement before the Thursday night opener, with Vikings and Saints players raising their index fingers after the national anthem to send their “We are one’’ message to the television audience.

The hope, according to NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah, is that those watching understand the message wasn’t just for other players. It was designed to include all of those stadium workers, bar owners, small business owners, and fans who would be adversely affected by a lockout in 2011.

“The one thing we’ve tried to convey to fans of the game is the dynamic of this season — hopefully, not the last as we know it — doesn’t just impact the stars or the rank-and-file or the practice squad guys,’’ Atallah said. “It’s going to impact all the people that are associated with the game in any way.

“I understand that people care about the games, but if fans of the game want things to continue past this season, the only thing I’d ask is you take the time to understand what’s going on in a real and meaningful way. Because, again, it affects all of them.’’

Atallah said the symbolic gesture wasn’t union-driven, but hatched by the Vikings and Saints themselves. NFLPA president Kevin Mawae heard about it from Brett Favre about an hour before the game, and word trickled down to Atallah.

“Now more than ever, players are aware of what’s going on, and they know they have to stick together,’’ Atallah said. “The locker room that you usually expect to extend to those 53 guys is becoming a single locker room through the whole league.’’

Atallah said similar displays in Week 1 are “up to the players.’’ The Cowboys planned a team meeting to talk about the idea and set up communication with the Redskins, their opponent tonight on NBC’s prime-time platform.

But one thing that’s clear, Atallah said, from all the text messages, phone calls, and e-mails he’s gotten, is that a powerful message has been sent.

“I think the most important thing is that every player has their own voice, but we all stand together,’’ he said. “And through that, I think we show we want the fan support, too.’’

STAYING IN THE POCKET

There is no end in sight for Brady or Manning

Tom Brady signed the fourth long-term deal of his career Thursday, and chances are Peyton Manning will get his third blockbuster before long.

Will these be their final contracts? That is up for debate.

Brady’s new contract will expire approximately five months shy of his 38th birthday, and that puts him in the age bracket where many quarterbacks have hung ’em up. Eight quarterbacks who retired in the last 25 years have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Warren Moon retired at 44; Dan Marino, John Elway, Steve Young, and Joe Montana retired at 38; Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly called it quits at 36; and a concussion-addled Troy Aikman hung ’em up at 34.

Brady and Manning might walk away in the most common age range of 36-38, but there’s a strong feeling they won’t necessarily have to.

“You don’t see any of the signs [of age] with these guys,’’ said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, who won NFL MVP honors at 37 with the Raiders. “They’re both very competitive guys.

“With Peyton, my sense is he’s very aware of the records. I think he wants every one of them. And there’s some of that in Tom, too. Plus, both are in position to win world championships still.’’

Part of that durability, Gannon explained, is due to the advancement in training methods, and an athlete’s tendency to train more efficiently as he gets older. But another factor is the level at which both quarterbacks understand all that is around them, and stay out of bad spots.

“The first thing is footwork, that ability to get away from the line of scrimmage,’’ Gannon said. “If you look at Peyton and Tom and put them in the 40-yard dash, no one’s going to be too excited. But put them in a confined pocket, and watch them step up, slide, and throw from an awkward position and see how efficient they are.

“There’s a reason. How many times does Brady get hit because he doesn’t see the corner blitz coming? Never happens, because he’s smart. He’s a master of that domain with his understanding of that scheme, the protection, what the defensive coordinator is doing, the situation, down-and-distance, all of it.

“If Tom Brady tells you he’ll probably play another 10 years, I’d bet there’s truth to it.’’

Etc.

Miami’s investments weren’t cost-effective
The release of center Jake Grove underscores why the Dolphins chose to spend big this offseason on the high end of the free agent market. Their forays into the mid-level market have been troublesome. In the previous two offseasons, they signed guard Justin Smiley, safety Gibril Wilson, and Grove to five-year deals worth $25 million-$30 million, with a total of $31 million guaranteed. They also gave four-year deals to receiver Ernest Wilford and linebacker Reggie Torbor. Four of those five free agents wound up being released, with the one exception, Smiley, dealt to the Jaguars for a low-round draft pick. The Dolphins wanted to make sure they spent their money this offseason on “ascending’’ talent, which big-ticket items Karlos Dansby and Brandon Marshall have, and avoid getting mixed up in the bargain bin again. The Patriots have had similar problems recently in signing middling free agents. The philosophy of Colts president Bill Polian applies here: If they’re free agents, then, by definition, they weren’t core players where they were.

Reopening the book on ex-champs
The pregame display of solidarity by Vikings and Saints players Thursday night made a serious point, and you can bet NFL retirees were with them. That point is underscored in a new book, “When the Cheering Stops,’’ which is based on the 1990 Giants and was penned by a member of that team, defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, along with CBSSports.com writer William Bendetson. The book chronicles the club on the 20th anniversary of its Super Bowl title, detailing what has become of so many of the players, and how that relates to retired player benefits. There’s the story of star Lawrence Taylor holding out for all of training camp to get the $2 million-a-year deal he signed three days before the season. There are also tales of players who were incarcerated (Mark Ingram, Dave Meggett), broke, or divorced, and the book attempts to tear down the notion that NFL players live privileged lives. And there’s more on the health issues that wound up ending Bill Parcells’s time with the Giants. Parcells wrote the foreword, and there is a detailed breakdown of Bill Belichick’s game plan from Super Bowl XXV. Check it out.

No budge in San Diego stalemates
Proof of how dug in the Chargers are on restricted free agents Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson lies in what has happened elsewhere. While San Diego could have argued that the contract for Brandon Marshall — coming off three 100-catch seasons — was out of bounds, it would’ve been harder for the Chargers to say the same when Dallas came to terms with Miles Austin on a monster deal last week. Likewise, the Jets’ deal with D’Brickashaw Ferguson could be used as a foundation for negotiations with McNeill, who was taken 46 picks below the New York tackle in 2006 but has two Pro Bowl berths to Ferguson’s one. But instead of these deals turning the heat up on negotiations, they simply pumped more steam into the antagonistic standoffs. Owner Dean Spanos pledged his support for general manager A.J. Smith Thursday, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune, “They put themselves in this position. We did not put them in this position.’’ But the Chargers did put both players on the roster-exempt list, which keeps them out for three weeks after they sign, if that ever happens (it’s a total of six games for Jackson, with a personal-conduct suspension forthcoming).

Steel wheels are turning
The expectation is that the Steelers are going to ride running back Rashard Mendenhall through Ben Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension to start the season. But coach Mike Tomlin expressed different ideas this past week. “We are going to monitor his touches simply because that’s the appropriate thing to do this early in the season,’’ Tomlin said. Two things could play into Tomlin’s decision-making. One is that although Mendenhall busted out last year, his fumbling issues remained, and too heavy a workload could exacerbate the problem. Second is his experience with Willie Parker, whom he pledged to ride “until the wheels fell off’’ in his first year as coach. The wheels did fall off, and Parker was never the same.

Three and out
Fallout from the Darrelle Revis contract was stark, indeed. You could argue that it might have pushed a sense of urgency on the Patriots with Tom Brady. But in a more direct sense, the timing of the Packers’ new deal with Charles Woodson — who, like Revis, had three years left on his contract — seemed to be Revis-related. And now Champ Bailey and the Broncos are working on a new contract . . . One forgotten fact: The Colts had a healthy Dwight Freeney (left) for the first half of Super Bowl XLIV. And in those 30 minutes, they kept the Saints to two field goals. The Indianapolis defense was better than most remember, and now it gets a healthy Kelvin Hayden back, a potential rebound from Bob Sanders, and explosive rookie Jerry Hughes . . . How will Chad Ochocinco follow up his day at Gillette Stadium? He’ll be guest-hosting WWE’s “Monday Night Raw’’ back in Cincinnati. You may not know what to expect this afternoon from No. 85, but tomorrow night might be even less predictable.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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