When the St. Louis Rams made the 2012 trade that enabled the Washington Redskins to move up and select quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second overall choice in that year’s NFL draft, the Rams did so with the conviction that Sam Bradford would be their centerpiece quarterback and they could use the picks gotten in the deal to build around him.
“You could see where we were as an organization,” General Manager Les Snead said in a September 2012 interview. “The goals were to get younger and acquire players to help us out of this hole we were in — and, frankly, acquire a lot of those players. We had a quarterback we feel is a franchise quarterback.”
That plan seemed to be working well until Saturday night, despite the seemingly temporary setback last October when Bradford’s 2013 season was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Bradford’s play this preseason was drawing praise and the Rams were putting an ever-improving supporting cast around him.
Then came a seemingly innocent hit by Browns defensive end Armonty Bryant during Saturday’s preseason game in Cleveland, followed by Sunday’s news that Bradford’s left ACL is torn again and he will miss the entire 2014 season. The Rams’ plan to build around Bradford suddenly has been shattered into dozens of tiny pieces, and for now there’s no way of knowing if those pieces ever can be reassembled.
The Rams’ would-be franchise quarterback’s NFL future is uncertain. Their short-term options for replacing Bradford are perhaps unappealing. And their long-range prospects for getting a reliably productive quarterback in place are unclear.
“We lost our starting quarterback,” Rams Coach Jeff Fisher said at a news conference Sunday. “But for Sam personally, it’s devastating. The news was devastating to him this morning, as you can appreciate. Anyone that’s gone through that procedure and the rehab understands, and to have it happen again within the calendar year is very, very difficult.”
The Rams’ first task is to put a replacement for Bradford in place to open the season. For now, at least, it’s veteran backup Shaun Hill. The University of Maryland product was with the Detroit Lions the previous four seasons and also had stints with the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings in a 12-year NFL career.
There has been plenty of speculation about the Rams potentially trading for the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Mark Sanchez or the New England Patriots’ Ryan Mallett. Fisher didn’t rule out a trade but said the Rams won’t make a desperate move.
“It makes no sense to jump and react right now and try to fill the hole, whatever it costs,” Fisher said Sunday. “We’re gonna take our time and evaluate this. There’s gonna be some quarterbacks that are released and there may or may not be some quarterbacks out there that have trade value. We just don’t know. It’s way too soon.”
Fisher is close to former Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, who drafted Cousins in 2012 even after taking Griffin and started Cousins in the final three games of last season. Shanahan presumably would give Cousins a positive recommendation if Fisher asks. But the Redskins were thought to have wanted a second-round pick in the offseason if they were going to trade Cousins; they reportedly rejected a Browns’ offer of a fourth-rounder. Cousins’s effectiveness decreased steadily during his three-start audition at the end of last season, ending up with totals of four touchdown passes and five interceptions, and one person close to the situation expressed doubts Sunday that the Redskins would trade Cousins at this point with Griffin struggling in the preseason.
Sanchez has looked good in Philadelphia this summer playing in Coach Chip Kelly’s offense. He played for Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer while with the New York Jets. He’s still only 27 and he once helped the Jets to two straight AFC championship games. But his final season as a starter in New York resulted in a 13-touchdown, 18-interception showing in 2012, and USA Today reported he’s not interested in reuniting with Schottenheimer in St. Louis.
Mallett is entering his fourth season in New England and has been the subject of trade speculation previously. But he has thrown only four regular season passes in the NFL.
“There’s no reason to believe any of those guys who are out there would play any better for them than Shaun Hill, who’s there and knows the offense,” said an agent who doesn’t represent any of the quarterbacks involved.
Hill has made 26 NFL starts, all of them in a four-year span for the 49ers and Lions between the 2007 and 2010 seasons. Once upon a time, former Rams coach Dick Vermeil replaced injured starter Trent Green with an unheralded, 28-year-old backup named Kurt Warner in 1999. All that did was launch the “Greatest Show on Turf” and a potential Hall of Fame quarterbacking career.
“We move forward as a football team,” Fisher said Sunday. “Shaun’s our guy. We brought him here. He’s got experience. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. We have around our quarterback position right now probably as good of talent as we’ve had since we came here.”
The Rams have done well to build around Bradford with the draft choices received in the Griffin trade. Those picks yielded six potential starters — defensive tackle Michael Brockers, cornerback Janoris Jenkins, linebacker Alec Ogletree, wide receiver Stedman Bailey, tailback Zac Stacy and offensive tackle and guard Greg Robinson. Unfortunately for the Rams, they play in probably football’s toughest division, the NFC West, alongside the 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. It would be tough to envision them making much noise in that division this season, whether it’s Hill, Cousins, Sanchez or Mallett starting at quarterback.
If Hill remains as the starter this season, the Rams will have an offseason decision to make about whether to draft a quarterback next spring. Bradford, the top overall selection in the 2010 NFL draft, will have made about $65 million from his six-year, $78 million contract by the end of this season. He will have played 49 of the Rams’ 80 games since they drafted him. He will have gone almost two years since playing a regular season game and he’ll have a twice-repaired ACL. He will be entering the final season of his contract.
Snead said in that interview in the fall of 2012 that the Rams never gave serious thought to keeping their No. 2 overall selection in that year’s quarterback-rich draft and trading Bradford.
“There was never that consideration,” Snead said. “We felt like this organization made the right pick then.”
It’s becoming more and more difficult, in retrospect, to remain convinced of that.
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