Bradford’s Stepping Up, and Growing Up

When Dick Vermeil was coach and, more important, president of football operations for the Rams, he regularly talked about having self-starters on his team. On draft days and in free agency and trades, Vermeil didn’t want to import players that he had to prod to play. He wanted guys that were motivated and loved to play football.

I bring that up because it’s pretty obvious that the Rams have collected a group of those players now, especially their leaders on offense and defense. Quarterback Sam Bradford, cornerback Ron Bartell and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis got in touch with their locked-out teammates and started practice at Lindenwood on Monday, a truly impressive gesture by a group of predominantly younger players.

It’s one thing for Drew Brees to assemble his teammates, who are 15 months removed from a Super Bowl, and have organized workouts in New Orleans. Same for Peyton Manning with the Colts, Eli Manning with the Giants, or even defensive end Richard Seymour with the Raiders. Even though the Raiders haven’t won, they are a veteran team loaded with high-priced players that have no trouble traveling to Georgia to get ready for the season.

Veteran teams like the Packers, Vikings, Steelers and Seahawks haven’t gotten their groups together to practice yet, and the Rams have it going. In fact, the two most impressive teams to be doing this, based on their youth and level of experience, are the Rams and the Lions. The commitment exhibited by the young players on both teams really is extraordinary, and when you factor in that they have arranged weightlifting sessions and on-field work, you can tell they’re buying in to their coaching.

The “veteran” players were able to get in touch with the rookies, so Lance Kendricks, Austin Pettis and Greg Salas will all get a chance to work with their future offensive teammates. Also joining the group, according to 101 ESPN NFL Insider Tony Softli were receivers Donnie Avery, Danny Amendola, and Brandon Gibson. The entire group of tight ends was on hand, as were numerous offensive linemen and linebackers. Only a couple of defensive backs made their way to Lindenwood on the first day, and no running backs or defensive linemen were on hand.

Bradford had already gotten together with the wideouts down in Texas, learning the new playbook and getting their all-important timing down. Laurinaitis had been working out in Ohio, but returned to St. Louis with most of his linebacking corps to get to work on football activities.

In addition to their on-field work, the Rams’ players went a step further. Former Rams star receiver Torry Holt and longtime safety Corey Chavous, one of the most observant and hard working players of his generation, were on hand as coaches. How valuable will the input of former players like that be to the Rams’ young receivers, and any young defensive players that show up? Holt always accepted a leadership role with the Rams and enjoys working with kids. And his experience in last year’s New England Patriots camp can only help because the Rams are trying to emulate what the Patriots have done in the past. Any knowledge of that playbook and those plays that he can impart to the Rams’ youngsters will be important.

Remember how much Isaac Bruce helped Holt? How much they resembled each other when they would line up on either side of the line? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that guys like Gibson, Pettis and Salas will pick up one little pointer from Holt that will allow them to make a play this season that they wouldn’t have had the knowledge to make otherwise.

The most impressive part of this whole endeavor? It’s that the second-year quarterback is leading the way. He knows the playbook. He’s coaching his teammates. And as Softli says, “It’s Sam Bradford’s team.” Here you have A.J. Feeley, Bartell, Holt and Chavous on hand, but it’s the precocious Bradford leading the way.

Like Peyton Manning of the Colts, Bradford has a remarkable eye for detail, a desire to learn, and an appetite to be great. He doesn’t want to be on different pages with his receivers when training camp does start, and has respect for the position that he occupies.

It may not happen in 2011, that the Rams turn into a playoff team. But, they’re on their way because the players have that same attitude that Vermeil craved. Every draft day, Billy Devaney talks about how he wants “smart, passionate, productive football players.” And clearly, this group has that inner drive that the great ones have. When their coaches aren’t allowed to make them better, these players have taken it upon themselves to make each other better.

Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Hasselbeck haven’t assembled their teams this offseason. And at least in this regard, Bradford has joined the Manning brothers, Brees and Mark Sanchez to get things started. They may not win with Bradford and Laurinaitis, but if the Rams don’t, it won’t be for lack of effort.