On a chilly day in the middle of March, Sam Bradford was down in Pensacola, Fla., throwing the football, and the injury that cut short his senior season at Oklahoma drastically short and summoned all of the second-guessers who said he should have entered the draft the previous year suddenly felt entirely healed.
He threw effortlessly, with zip and accuracy, the way he did before he sprained the AC joint in his shoulder that night against BYU.
“The ball was coming out quick,” he would say. “My arm strength felt good. After I went through that workout, I called one of my friends and I was like, `I think I’m back.’ It felt like a normal shoulder.”
Nearly two weeks later, on March 29, representatives from teams across the NFL, including Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo, trekked to Norman, Okla., to watch Bradford complete all 65 passes he attempted. Working with skill players who were once his Sooner teammates, under the guidance of Terry Shea, the consultant to draftees who will build pro days, Bradford threw short slants, medium outs, long balls, flare-outs to the backs, from under center and out of the shotgun, all on air (no defenders).
“We all wanted to see if he was healthy and he threw the hell out of it,” Spagnuolo said. “That got the ball rolling.”
The Rams coach was in great demand that day from reporters in attendance. Everyone wanted to know what he thought of Bradford. At the end of the workout, Spagnuolo slid out a back entrance and stumbled into Bradford’s coach at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, Bob Wilson.
“How proud he was,” Spagnuolo said, “watching his former student in front all those cameras. We talked about Sam. I learned some more about him.”
Devaney and Spagnuolo also attended the pro days for Clausen, Suh, McCoy and Williams during the month of March, mostly out of design. Smokescreen. While they had focused on Bradford, they wanted to keep trade possibilities open for No. 1, especially if Detroit or Tampa coveted the tackles enough to make a deal and they could still land their man.
“Every workout we went to,” Devaney said then, “it’s like a beauty contest. You go out to see Suh – ‘oh, my, I love this guy.’ McCoy’s workout, same thing. And Bradford was no different. We spent a lot of time with him and we asked him a lot of questions. But we did so with those other kids, too. We’ve been saying we’re open (to a trade) and we remain open. There isn’t anything close to being done. We have a little time. We’re going to keep on talking and see what happens.”
Devaney explained coolly that you attend each pro day “because it’s the first pick in the draft; it’s a lot of money. You want to make sure it’s the right guy. You want to be sure that the person you see now will be the same person four of five months from now.”
“Maybe we’re just screwed up,” he said. “But we feel excited about (having the choice). We know whichever we go we’re gonna get a great player. I think we’re on top of this. I see our team getting better and that excites me. I don’t know. Maybe I should feel more pressure but I don’t.”
It is during this time, when March bleeds into April, that the poker game begins before every draft. Everyone is talking. Coaches and general managers and agents all work each other and the media to pass their agenda in what feels like international politics.
The days leading up to the draft were filled with hot rumors and news stories of imminent trades that mysteriously never materialized. One report out of Philadelphia had the Rams trading for McNabb by the end of that work day, exploiting the relationship between Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and the Eagles.
Was the story a plant? Were the Eagles using the Rams to show their willingness to move their own franchise quarterback and thus increase his trade value?
The Rams, in fact, denied even entertaining the idea of acquiring McNabb, especially in the rumored trade that involved the first pick of the second of the round and cornerback Oshiomogho Atogwe, a player whom they deem a secondary cornerstone. Thinking back, why would they? A quarterback in the back end of his prime certainly does not intersect with a team in the middle of rebuilding.
The tip that the Rams were plucking their quarterback from the draft should have came when they signed veteran backup A.J. Feeley. Reid’s model in Philadelphia worked well. He tabbed veteran Doug Pederson to help usher McNabb into the NFL during his rookie season in 1999.
Meanwhile, a handful of other teams lusted after Bradford. One NFC team, in fact, in an attempt to scare the Rams off him, tried to float a false rumor that Bradford didn’t really want to play in St. Louis, and also added that he might have bad knees.
The Rams let it be known that they were unafraid to take Bradford, a truthful notion especially after his visit to St. Louis the Friday before the draft. One last check to make sure the shoulder hadn’t flared up.
The Browns were one team that made no secret of their interest in Bradford.
“He’s the best quarterback to come out since Peyton,” general manager Tom Heckert said via text.
Browns president Mike Holmgren openly spoke about Bradford and the possibility of dealing for him. But in the end, talks never progressed to the point where Cleveland made a concrete offer. Mostly, it was a trade dance, with the Browns asking the Rams what they would want in exchange for the pick and the Rams shrugging, “What do you want to give up?”
In the end, Devaney said the Rams received no real offers.
Fifteen minutes before the draft, Holmgren called Devaney and asked, “Anything change?”
“Nah,” Devaney told him.
In New York City, Sam Bradford wished away the day in Central Park, knowing for sure now that he had not made a mistake by going to back to Oklahoma. He said all the right things later that night in a conference call with reporters from his new city, about how the injury was a backwards blessing, presenting him a new vantage point to the game, allowing him to become a cerebral quarterback. How he ultimately matured from the ordeal.
But he knew, deep down, where he was going when he stepped on to that red carpet at Radio City Music Hall and stood among the greats of the game, before commissioner Roger Goodell announced, “The Rams are on the clock.
At the very same time at The Pageant in St. Louis, Kurt Warner and legendary coach Dick Vermeil gathered in their town of glory at an event entitled, “A Night with Champions.”
The past crept into the night that will define the man’s future.
Back in the SUV, late that night, Steve Spagnuolo said above the wheeze of windshield wipers, “I’m excited. I just hope 12 months from now, we hit it right and got the right guy. I told Sam today, You realize from now on, you and I are tied at the hip?”
And Sam Bradford replied, yes, Coach, absolutely.