In his very first appearance for the Oklahoma Sooners, as a redshirt freshman, Sam Bradford set the school record for passing yards in a half with 350. A week later, he broke another school record when he completed his 22nd straight pass attempt. Less than a month into his college career, people were already calling him the best quarterback in the Big 12, ahead of established starters like Texas’ Colt McCoy and Mizzou’s Chase Daniel.
Not a bad debut for a former three-star recruit.
Bradford’s historic start would propel him to national prominence and the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore, but after forgoing the NFL draft, his junior season was a harbinger of things to come. He hurt his shoulder in the first game of the year (ironically, the injury occurred one play after he set the Oklahoma record for career passing yards), re-aggrevated it against rival Texas and underwent season-ending surgery. One year after throwing 50 touchdowns, Bradford finished with two. Oklahoma, the preseason favorites for the national championship, went 8-5.
You probably know the rest. Bradford was taken first overall by the St. Louis Rams in the 2010 draft – ahead of Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Eric Berry and Joe Haden – signed a record $78 million deal ($50 million of which was guaranteed) and, after a solid rookie campaign, was beset by more injuries, most notably a second ACL tear that cost him the entire 2014 season. The Rams dealt him to the Philadelphia Eagles for Nick Foles, where he finished out his massive rookie deal having thrown a total of 78 touchdown passes; a cool $1 million per score.
Undeterred, the Eagles were still expected to retain Bradford before he could test the free agent market – but on Tuesday, they surprised pretty much everybody (and saved their franchise tag) by giving him a two-year, $36 million deal, with $26 million guaranteed. That same day, Washington slapped the non-exclusive franchise tag on quarterback Kirk Cousins, which kept him from free agency and will pay him $19.5 million next season. Cousins, of course, led the league in completion percentage and led his team to a place Bradford’s never been: the playoffs.
How could the two QBs be worth essentially the same money (Bradford will make $18 million in 2016) when they were worlds apart last season? What’s more, the ‘Skins are only on the hook for one year; if Cousins regresses, they can move on. If Bradford’s play suffers, the Eagles will still owe him $4 million in 2017, plus another $4 million if he is injured. And, yes, I just wrote “if.”
Also, did I mention this is Sam Bradford, the same guy who finished with fewer yards per attempt last season than Blaine Gabbert and Brian Hoyer and had a lower passer rating than Teddy Bridgewater and Brock Osweiler? Sure, he could earn up to $40 million over the next two years with incentives, but, really, do you think he will?
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Just as Bradford outperformed all expectations at Oklahoma, the inverse has occurred during his pro career. In the five seasons he’s been healthy, he’s averaged just under 16 touchdown passes per season, along with 6.5 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 81 – numbers more befitting of an NFL journeyman, and not a quarterback who will make more next season than Tom Brady, Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton. And that’s if he actually plays. Bradford has missed 34 percent of his possible starts during his career due to injury (including two games last year). Doug Pederson, the new head coach of the Eagles, says that Bradford will be the perfect quarterback for his system. Which is probably what former head coaches Steve Spagnuolo, Jeff Fisher and Chip Kelly said too.
Supporters call Bradford’s deal a calculated risk – not to mention a bid to bring stability to the franchise. Yet it’s also a testament to the tantalizing power of potential. Bradford had two great seasons in college, which is two more than he’s had in the NFL. Why are teams still rewarding him for that?