Every quarterback dreams of The Drive. It’s a euphoric sequence of throws that encompasses a passer’s career, good or bad, in the span of a few minutes. Most remember it as the unfathomable five-minute, 98-yard drive executed by John Elway in 1987 against the (forever) cursed Cleveland Browns, but it’s not always that historic and mesmerizing for others.
It can be miserable, turning what was supposed to be The Drive into The Debacle. It can also be inconsistent like Sam Bradford’s career has been, and like The Drive against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14 was.
It was the fourth quarter and the Rams were down 12-7. To win, they’d have to travel 84 yards through the chaotic Orchard Park, a stadium filled with rabid Bills fans simultaneously cheering on their beloved team and booing the visiting Rams. With 4:55 on the clock, Bradford took his first steps to making The Drive a reality.
He stood with his right leg forward, his upper half bent at his waist, and his hands cocked down to catch the shotgun snap. Surrounding him were three teammates to his right, a mix of receivers and a tight end, and a lonely receiver to his far left. Offset in the backfield and to his left was running back Steven Jackson, who shifted from Bradford’s right following a hand signal from the quarterback.
At the snap, all of the receivers and tight ends ran short curls or spot routes, and Bradford targeted tight end Matthew Mulligan on the latter at the left hash. The pass fell incomplete following a quick three-step drop and an unimpressive effort by Mulligan to box out the Bills defender, who batted the pass away. Let’s be honest here: Mulligan isn’t your first option as a receiver (or second or third, maybe fourth), but teammates of that quality or lack thereof is all Bradford’s had to work with in his career.
Two runs, three plays and more than two minutes later, Bradford was back at it again on 1st-and-10. Field position doubled from the first play, with the ball now sitting at the 32-yard line, and Bradford was under center. Three receivers and one tight end made up a two-by-two formation, which featured wide receiver Brandon Gibson on the short side of the field. Gibson was set to execute a double move, an in-cut and back out, that would free him of coverage down the sideline and fool the defensive back. As the clock ticked down to the 3:23 mark, Bradford hiked the ball and took a three-step drop, pumping his shoulders and looking left as he did it. The pump forced the cornerback to bite on Gibson’s in-cut and allow Bradford to launch the ball down the left sideline, which he did under a caving pocket.
A disintegrating pocket was the norm for Bradford, who has been taken down repeatedly during his three-year career and has become unsteady in the pocket as a consequence. This time, he hung in tough, throwing the football in bullets of pressure, but the throw was inaccurate. It went wide and forced Gibson to turn his body 360 degrees, which he did multiple times this past season on throws down the sideline.
Second-and-10, Bradford is in shotgun and the Rams are in the three-by-one set that they started the drive with. The snap comes in at Bradford’s chin, and he quickly performs a play fake to Jackson before throwing a seam splitting strike to tight end Lance Kendricks. The play picks up 22 yards and takes me back to a time when I saw Bradford throw with jaw-dropping accuracy at Oklahoma. The ball was placed on in front of Kendricks and outside the middle linebacker, giving only his tight end the chance to make a play on the ball.
A few ticks later, there’s only 2:04 left for Bradford to work with on 2nd-and-10. The offense is stationed on the Bills’ 46-yard line and Bradford is in the shotgun with a two-by-two set. None of the four potential pass catchers would be getting the ball, however; it would go to Jackson, the running back who started to Bradford’s right and is now running the option route against the middle linebacker at midfield. The designed dump-off to Jackson goes for nine yards. It’s a simple but very efficient play that doesn’t ask too much of Bradford, which is when he’s at his best.
The next two plays are Bradford in a nutshell. First, 3rd-and-1 is the down and distance and Bradford is under center. NFL on Fox runs a graphic which tells us that Bradford’s had three game-winning or tying drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career. Could this be the fourth? Not on this play. Bradford takes a quick three-step drop and watches the slot receiver run a slant route from his left. He stares him down and then throws the ball too late, dropping it into the bread basket of a Bills safety, who drops the ball too.
Bradford has had issues picking up linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field. It’s like they don’t exist in his mind until he throws an incomplete or intercepted pass, both of which have occurred on multiple occasions in his career, especially in the red zone.
The marker now reads 4th-and-1, and the game is on the line with only 1:53 left. Bradford has to complete this next throw, otherwise the team can pack their bags for this week. He’s under center again and has three receivers to his left, including Austin Pettis in the slot. Pettis motions inside and then back out before releasing off the line of scrimmage and running an angle route. Bradford takes a five-step drop and lets the football go when his back foot hits the ground. It’s traveling behind Pettis, who cranes his neck back to see the ball, catching it with his fingertips. First down.
Next, a two-by-two spread formation is out on the field, and Bradford’s in the shotgun. This is the type of designed setting he operates best in because he had a thorough experience with it at Oklahoma. It’s also what he’ll be using most of next season as the Rams transition to a more up-tempo, spread-like offense that cuts down his thinking time. Less thinking means less mistakes.
In the left slot just inside the numbers is Kendricks, the target for Bradford’s next throw. Kendricks is not the most gifted tight end, as he’s better working underneath than the deep out cut he’s about to run. The play begins and Kendricks runs vertically against the Bills’ bracket (double) coverage. He’s bracketed inside and out, making it difficult for him to run an out cut. The deep Bills safety plays this smartly, however; he lets Kendricks make a break atop the 20-yard line and then cuts to the outside. The patience baits Bradford into throwing a pass that is nearly intercepted. If Bradford wasn’t so set on Kendricks, he could have seen an open receiver running a shallow cross in the middle of the field. Chalk it up as Bradford not thinking on his feet.
At the 1:07 mark, Bradford makes a Roethlisberger-esque play that offers hope for elitism in the near future. He has a three-by-one set, with Gibson the single receiver on the back-side (left) of the play. He’s facing one-on-one coverage, making himself a prime target for Bradford. When the play begins, Bradford takes an elongated three-step drop and reads the middle of the field. No one’s open and the pocket is once again caving — defensive end Mario Williams (who?) speed rushes wide and forces Bradford to move up into more pressure in the pocket. Bodies are all around him and he can’t take a sack here with under a minute left of play. He squeezes up into the left of the pocket and fires a pass over a defender’s extended arms and into the direction of Gibson running a deep comeback route. The throw travels with velocity and accuracy, landing at his right outside arm and away from the defender.
It’s a brilliant play on Bradford’s behalf. The next one isn’t, though.
It lasts four seconds and results in a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. Try again.
Fifty-four seconds are left, and the Rams are on the 13-yard line. They have ample time to move the ball past the pylon even though there’s under a minute left. This is one of football’s greatest paradoxes. Bradford’s in the shotgun with a three-by-one set (of course!) and once again the target is lonely Gibson on the back-side. When the ball is snapped, Gibson stutter steps to confuse the cornerback at the line of scrimmage and then releases inside of him, setting up an eventual deep dig route halfway through the end zone.
Meanwhile, Bradford is in the pocket and has already hit the top of his three-step drop, forcing himself to hitch step into the pocket. As he moves forward and raises his right arm to throw the ball, a Bills defensive tackle throws his arms up to bat the pass away. Not this time. Bradford throws it in between the defender’s arms, over the top of two other defenders in the end zone, and into the hands of a rising Gibson for the game-winning touchdown.
It’s the type of play a top notch quarterback should make under duress: climbing the pocket, surveying his options, reading the defense, and dropping the ball in a tight bucket. This play, along with the two-point conversion — essentially a fade route on a rub concept — is what gives the Rams hope that Bradford can become the face of the franchise like he was drafted to be in 2010.
He clearly has the physical talent to become a top passer, but he has to put it together mentally. His footwork has to improve because he still tends to be inaccurate on simple throws like slant routes, and his ability to read the defense must improve too. He’s still not seeing the traffic in the middle of the field. But drives like the one described above offer hope and high expectations for the future.
Bradford doesn’t have to be Elway to lead more comebacks. But he does have to be serviceable and reliable.