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Sam Bradford - Better as a Viking?

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Now that Sam Bradford is soon-to-be the Vikings starting QB, speculation abounds about just how good he will be. Some cite his mediocre history and career stats, and expect the same with the Vikings. Others say he's always played for bad teams, and that has weighed on his performance. Now that he's with a good Vikings team, his performance should improve. Both arguments have merit. Which is more compelling?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Bradford was drafted #1 overall in the 2010 draft, which invites interesting comparisons with other QBs taken #1 overall in recent years.

Conventional wisdom is that Bradford has generally fared poorly compared to the likes of Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, or even Matthew Stafford- QBs taken #1 overall in the years immediately following and preceding Bradford in 2010.

Casting an even wider net of QBs taken #1 overall makes Bradford seem even worse compared to many names now immortalized in NFL annals:  John Elway, Peyton Manning, Terry Bradshaw, and Troy Aikman,  Even lesser names like Jim Plunkett, Drew Bledsoe, Alex Smith, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer were/are better.

Bradford seems to be viewed a lot closer to the outcasts in this group:  Vinny Testaverde, Michael Vick, Jeff George, David Carr, Tim Couch, and JaMarcus Russell.

And yet, when you look at one of the key measures of QB performance as it relates to winning- adjusted net yards per attempt- or ANY/A (yards per attempt, net of sacks and sack yardage lost, and also adjusted +20 yards for TDs and -45 yards for INTs), the picture of Bradford's past and future becomes less clear.

In general, the league average ANY/A is just under 6 in recent years, with most QBs clumped fairly close to that number.  6.5 and above, for example, is top ten performance most years, while anything below 5.5 represents the bottom 5-10.

Below is a chart of QBs drafted #1 overall, along with some other notable QBs for comparison, and how they fared during their first five playing years (years less than 7 games played were omitted), in terms of ANY/A and QB winning percentage.

QB ANY/A & WINNING % - FIRST FIVE PLAYING YEARS
Quarterback First Year Second Year Third Year Fourth Year Fifth Year Five Year Totals
ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W%
Sam Bradford 4.73 .438 4.49 .100 5.64 .438 6.1 .429 5.85 .500 5.36 .403
Matthew Stafford 3.64 .200 6.98 .625 5.81 .250 6.4 .438 6.03 .688 5.77 .459
Andrew Luck 5.66 .688 6.06 .688 7.28 .688 5.04 .286 n/a n/a 6.01 .636
Cam Newton 6.24 .375 6.65 .438 5.69 .750 5.45 .357 7.2 .938 6.25 .577
Alex Smith 1.11 .286 4.8 .438 3.11 .286 5.17 .500 5.61 .300 3.96 .380
Carson Palmer 4.96 .462 7.26 .688 6.79 .500 6.14 .438 5.52 .625 6.13 .545
Peyton Manning 4.84 .188 7.06 .813 7.22 .625 5.88 .375 6.09 .625 6.22 .525
Eli Manning 5.63 .688 4.99 .500 4.82 .625 6 .750 6.89 .500 5.67 .613
Troy Aikman 3.09 .000 3.88 .466 5.82 .583 6.38 .813 7.12 .786 5.26 .633
Drew Bledsoe 4.54 .417 5.19 .625 4.37 .400 5.76 .688 6.04 .625 6.04 .560
John Elway 3.33 .400 5.26 .857 4.65 .688 5.68 .688 6.74 .666 5.13 .676
Terry Bradshaw 0.86 .375 3.06 .385 4.01 .786 2.56 .888 2.92 .714 2.81 .627
Jim Plunkett 4.12 .429 2.15 .214 4.1 .357 4.49 .500 3.28 .500 3.63 .397
Other Notables:
Teddy Bridgewater 5.46 .500 5.7 .688 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 5.59 .607
Aaron Rodgers 6.64 .375 7.47 .625 7.5 .666 9.39 .933 7.33 .688 7.64 .666
Joe Montana 5.52 .286 6.25 .813 6.26 .333 6.69 .625 7.93 .933 6.62 .666
Drew Brees 4.95 .500 3.91 .182 7.78 .733 5.99 .563 7.58 .625 6.12 .541
Tom Brady 5.39 .786 5.54 .563 5.94 .875 6.92 .875 6.86 .625 6.13 .744
Brett Favre 5.53 .615 4.36 .563 6.08 .563 7.25 .688 6.61 .813 6 .649
Dan Fouts 4.85 .272 3.59 .222 4.82 .385 6.08 .643 5.89 .750 5.27 .492
Dan Marino 7.39 .777 8.94 .875 6.21 .750 6.99 .500 6.85 .583 7.27 .696
Ben Roethlisberger 6.93 1.000 7.53 .750 4.97 .466 6.55 .666 5.21 .750 6.03 .718
Note: years with less than 7 games played were omitted.

Of course there are many interesting comparisons when you look at the QB stats on this list.  But one thing that shows up is the differential in winning percentages for QBs with very similar ANY/A, and in general the variance between ANY/A and winning percentages across the board.

What these variances speak to is how much a QB is helped or hurt by the team and organization around them when it comes to winning.


Perhaps the best way to look at a QB's ANY/A is as a jumping off point from which to evaluate the rest of the team and organization around him, and how it added or detracted from expected wins based on ANY/A.

In general, for a QB with an ANY/A of 6.00, and a uniformly average team and organization, you'd expect a winning percentage of .500, at least in more recent years.  Going back to the 90s, 80s and 70s may require an 'era-adjustment' factor that increases the further back you go- but still you can compare QBs from similar eras too.  For example, John Elway and Dan Marino were both drafted in 1983.  They both had similar winning percentages, despite Elway having an ANY/A over two yards lower than Marino.  Elway went on to play in many more Super Bowls than Marino too.


Looking through the table, it's clear that QBs such as Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady were carried by the strength of their team and organization in their early years, with relatively low ANY/A compared to their winning percentage.

QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Dan Fouts and Dan Marino, however, may have benefited from good coaching and development, based on their ANY/A, but suffered from weakness in the team around them, particularly on defense- based on the lower winning percentage than expected based on their ANY/A.

But what is more difficult to determine are those QBs whose ANY/A may have been depressed by weak coaching/organization or the quality of offensive players around them.

Most would agree that a QB's development is helped by being part of a strong, stable organization and good coaching.  QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Joe Montana and Tom Brady benefited from stability and strength in their organization and coaching staffs, and it showed in their performance early on, and throughout their careers.

With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Sam Bradford and the team and organization around him his first five playing years.

Bradford's Organization, System and Coaching Experience

When Bradford was drafted in 2010, he came into an organization that had been going through ownership, front office and major coaching staff changes in the 2008-2009 period that completely turned over all three areas.  In 2009, Steve Spagnuolo became the 3rd head coach of the Rams in just over a year.  A defensive coach, he brought in Pat Schurmur as OC.  That year the Rams started 3 different QBs en route to a 1-15 season that gave them the #1 pick in 2010 which they used to draft Bradford.

Bradford took the Rams from 1-15 to 7-9, and won the OROY award, in Schurmur's West Coast Offense.  But Schurmur left the Rams at the end of the season to become head coach in Cleveland.   Spagnuolo hired Josh McDaniels to become the new OC in 2011, and he brought with him a new offensive system- the Erhardt-Perkins system used by the Patriots.  So after his rookie year, Bradford had a new OC and new system to learn.  It didn't work out well.  Bradford went 1-9 before suffering an ankle injury to end his season.  But the 2012 season brought another slate of changes.  New head coach in Jeff Fisher- also a defensive coach- new OC in Brian Schottenheimer- and also a new system- Air Coryell- to learn.  He also had a new QB coach in Frank Cignetti.  And a new GM too.  Bradford took them from 2-14 the previous year to 7-8-1.  The following year- 2013- Bradford's first year of coaching and system continuity- he posted his best ANY/A figure over 7 games at 6.10.  Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL which ended his season.  He would re-injure the same ACL early in pre-season the following year, and miss all of the 2014 season.  By the time he was ready to go again, Bradford was traded to Philadelphia, where he once again had a new head coach, a new/old OC in Pat Schurmur, and a new system to learn in Chip Kelly's spread offense.   Bradford went 7-7 for the Eagles, before missing 2 games with a shoulder injury and a concussion, before which time Chip Kelly had been fired, and Schurmur promoted to interim head coach.

So, to summarize, since Sam Bradford was drafted in 2010, he's experienced:

1) 4 different offensive systems

2) 3 different offensive coordinators (4 changes)

3) 4 different head coaches

4) 2 different teams

5) 33 missed games due to injury (just over 2 seasons)

It's fair to say that St. Louis was anything but strong or stable during Bradford's years there, and his brief stint in Philly happened as the Chip Kelly era there ended in a fiasco of personnel mismanagement and a scheme that had been figured out and lost it's appeal.

Still, Bradford was able to put up respectable numbers, despite once again being part of an organization in transition.  He completed 65% of his passes for just over 3,700 yards in 14 games, putting him on pace for a 4,000 yard passing season, and an ANY/A of 5.85 - about league average.

Be that as it may, it seems more than reasonable that Bradford's short career has not been helped by being in 4 different systems in 5 years, not to mention the OC, head coach, and other changes that went along with being in franchises in disarray.

Might all of those changes have brought down Bradford's ANY/A?  Pretty good chance.  Pretty sure it didn't help either.

But let's also look at Bradford's teams- particularly on offense- to see what we find in terms of quality teammates.

Bradford's Receivers

Let's start with wide receivers.  Obviously having a solid slate of receivers can help make any QB look at least a little better than he is, as they can haul in bad throws, make contested catches, and even turn short passes into long TDs.  Of course the opposite is true of a weak receiver corps.  Dropped passes, receiver-based interceptions, throw-aways due to non-separation, etc.

In 2010, Bradford had Danny Amendola, in his first full year at the time, whom he targeted 123 times for 85 receptions, 689 yards, and 3 TDs.  After that, he had Brandon Gibson, a 6th round draft pick in 2009 who was traded to the Rams mid-season in 2010, whom he targeted 91 times for 53 receptions and 620 yards.  Then there was Laurent Robinson, who the Rams acquired and released that year, who was Bradford's third most targeted WR.

At TE that year, Bradford had Daniel Fells, another UDFA the Rams traded for, who had his best year with Bradford- targeted 65 times for 41 receptions and 391 yards.

In 2011, Bradford lost his top receiver- Amendola- for the season after the first game.  He also lost Fells.  The Rams acquired Brandon Lloyd, who led the league in receiving yards the year before, but not until the 7th game of the year.  Bradford only played with him for 3 games before missing the rest of the year with injury.

In 2012, Bradford got Amendola back, (101 tagets, 63 receptions, 666 yards), and rookie 4th round draft pick Chris Givens (80 targets, 42 recpetions, 698 yards), who had a 50-yard reception in 5 straight games that year.

In 2013, Bradford lost Amendola again, and acquired rookie 1st round pick Tavon Austin, to go along with Givens.  He also picked up TE Jared Cook, who had 7 receptions for 141 yards and 2 TDs his first game with Bradford.  Unfortunately once again Bradford had an injury shortened season, suffering an ACL that would ultimately end his career in St. Louis.

In 2015, now with Philadelphia, Bradford's top targets were WR Jordan Matthews (126 targets, 85 rec, 997 yards) and TE Zach Ertz (112 / 75 / 853).

Overall, Bradford- perhaps not surprisingly- did not have consistency among his WR corps or TE.  Usually he had one good WR, and half the time a good TE.   But apart from Amendola, most of the receivers he had in St Louis are now out of the league or have led undistinguished careers.  Givens had his best years with Bradford, as did Amendola and Fells.  Jared Cook had a good half-year with Bradford too.   Bradford had a good WR/TE tandem in Philly, who he led to better years than their prior year.

But one stat stands out in particular when you look at Bradford's receiver corps over the years:  Dropped passes.

In 2010, the Rams' receivers had the 6th highest drop rate in the league.

In 2011, it was 4th highest in the league.

In 2012, it fell to 24th.

In 2013 it was back up to 3rd highest in the league.

Last year in Philly, it was the highest in the league.

So, in all but one year, Bradford suffered from the among highest percentage of dropped passes by his receivers.  That says something about the overall quality of play Bradford has experienced on the other end of his throws.

Here's a video of the Eagles drops last season (a few were with Sanchez at QB).  I counted 3 INTs that resulted from dropped passes, and I'm not sure how many lost TDs- maybe around 5.

While some of these dropped passes aren't egregious, several others are pretty bad- including those that resulted in INTs and lost TDs.   No team's receivers are going to be perfect, but when they drop more passes than average, that impacts the QB negatively through no fault of his own.

Bradford's Pass Protection

Lastly, when looking at the offenses Bradford has played in, let's look at the offensive lines and their pass protection.  Here are the league rankings by year according to PFF:

2015:  Philadelphia:  18th

2013:  St Louis:  17th

2012:  St Louis:  21st

2011:  St Louis:  28th

2010:  St Louis:  22nd

As you can see, Bradford has had below average pass protection his entire career so far.  In general, Bradford's ANY/A correlates very highly with these rankings through these first five years, both in league rankings and year-to-year changes.

Bradford's Overall Career Environment

So, given all the numerous coaching, system and team changes Bradford has faced since being drafted, combined with worse than league average receivers and offensive line pass protection, it is fair to say these combined factors- along with his injuries- have had a substantial impact on his performance so far.  Just how substantial is difficult to say, but it's not fanciful to estimate that all these factors combined have depressed his career ANY/A by a yard or so.

And, if you add a yard to Bradford's career (5-year) ANY/A average, that puts him at 6.36 - and suddenly looking pretty good compared to all those other QBs drafted  #1 overall- and some of the other notable QBs listed too.

The problem with that is it doesn't change the reality that Bradford has faced throughout his career so far.

Enter The Minnesota Vikings Franchise

As Vikings fans, we know what a good franchise looks like.  We know what a bad franchise looks like.  We know what a mediocre franchise looks like.  We've seen them all in Minnesota at various times- at least those of us old enough to have done so, and young enough to remember.

What we have now with Mike Zimmer, Rick Spielman and Ziggy Wilf is easily the best combination of coaching, front office, and ownership the Vikings have had since Bud Grant, Jim Finks and Max Winter in the 1970s.  The franchise is both strong and stable, with as young and talented a bunch on defense as we've seen for a long time, and a brand new state-of-the-art stadium.  Offensively it is still a work in progress, but also a situation favorable in terms of receivers, running game and pass protection, than anything Bradford has experienced in the past.   Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and Scott Turner as QB Coach bring a lot of experience in coaching and developing QBs.

All this gives Bradford a solid environment to work in- something he's never had before.  He's got a defense that will keep him in the game, and help eliminate the difficulty for a QB offensively of playing from behind.   He also has a running game that teams game plan to stop first.  And, although not all of us are entirely comfortable with this yet, an offensive line that looks to be at least as good as he had his last couple years on the field.  Certainly the week one effort against the Titans inspires at least a little confidence that they've improved over last year.

Which leave the receiver corps.  I have no doubt that Bradford, when he assumes the starting role, will have Stefon Diggs as a go-to receiver similar to how he threw to Jordan Matthews last year.  I also think Bradford will have no trouble going to Kyle Rudolph similar to how he did with Zach Ertz last year.  Maybe even Jerick McKinnon like he targeted Darren Sproles.

And while Bradford's start with Minnesota has similarities with Philadelphia- new system, new team, etc. - there are also differences.  One of the big ones is that he played last year, whereas with Philadelphia he hadn't played for a year and a half.  Bradford's passer rating the last half of 2015 was 50 points higher than the first half.   The other difference is while going back to Air Coryell is a system change, it is going back to a system he has played in for a couple years.  That was not the case with Chip Kelly's spread offense.

All this is promising.

And yet we all know there are no guarantees.  He finished that last half of last year with an over 100 passer rating.  He went 10-10 with 3 TDs against the Packers first team defense in the 3rd dress-rehearsal pre-season game last year after not playing for a year and and a half.    And he can stretch the field and be effective passing in the end zone as his highlight reel from last year demonstrates:

So, while the Vikings receivers have had only 3.6% drops last vs. the Eagles 6.0%, and the Vikings had roughly similar pass protection- which looks improved this year- combined with a top 5 defense and running game- there can be no guarantees Bradford will perform any better than he has in the past.

But can we really expect him to take a step back?  Assuming he's healthy why not expect him to perform at least equal to what he did last year- or his last year in Air Coryell in St Louis?  That would give him a roughly 6.0 ANY/A - or league average.  Maybe he could do even better than that.

Which leads to the next chart.

QB ANY/A & WINNING % - SECOND FIVE PLAYING YEARS
Quarterback Sixth Year Seventh Year Eighth Year Nineth Year Tenth Year 2nd Five Year Totals
ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W%
Matthew Stafford 6.03 .688 6.39 .438 n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a n/a 6.21 .563
Alex Smith 6.13 .813 6.76 .750 5.94 .733 6.14 .533 6.48 .688 6.23 .690
Carson Palmer 5.54 .250 6.3 .444 6.14 .266 5.67 .625 8.41 .813 6.44 .525
Peyton Manning 7.35 .750 9.78 .750 8.03 .875 7.93 .750 7.29 .813 8.04 .788
Eli Manning 6.09 .625 7.45 .563 6.59 .563 4.55 .438 6.67 .375 6.28 .513
Troy Aikman 6.23 .714 7.22 .750 5.51 .666 5.18 .375 7.06 .636 6.13 .625
Drew Bledsoe 6.01 .571 5.18 .500 4.83 .313 5.72 .500 4.17 .375 5.19 .438
John Elway 4.86 .533 5.11 .666 5.29 .313 5.38 .750 3.99 .666 4.99 .581
Terry Bradshaw 3.88 .500 5.21 .643 6.05 .875 5.89 .750 5.65 .600 5.52 .696
Jim Plunkett 3.6 .357 4.65 .818 2.67 .286 5.03 .888 5.14 .769 4.39 .630
Other Notables:
Aaron Rodgers 8 .750 8.65 .750 6.1 .625 n/a n/a n/a n/a 7.45 .683
Joe Montana 6.36 .600 5.94 .750 6.98 .909 6.19 .615 8.31 .846 6.77 .733
Drew Brees 6.08 .438 7.55 .500 8.31 .866 6.01 .688 8.23 .813 7.19 .658
Tom Brady 6.08 .750 8.88 1.000 7.38 .625 8.25 .875 8.25 .813 7.79 .815
Brett Favre 6.82 .813 6.07 .688 5.2 .500 5.31 .563 7.02 .750 6.03 .663
Dan Fouts 6.48 .688 7.27 .625 7.7 .750 7.32 .500 5.83 .461 6.83 .594
Dan Marino 6.42 .375 6.07 .500 6.22 .750 6.43 .500 6.36 .688 6.3 .563
Ben Roethlisberger 7.12 .600 7.35 .750 6.51 .733 6.77 .538 6.24 .500 6.76 .620
Note: years with less than 7 games played were omitted.

You'll notice that in the 2nd five years of their careers, pretty much every QB here has at least league average ANY/A, most of the time.  Again, for the QBs from the earlier eras, some adjustment needs to be made.

Quarterback Five Year Totals 2nd Five Year Totals
ANY/A QB W% ANY/A QB W%
Sam Bradford 5.36 .403
Matthew Stafford 5.77 .459 6.21 .563
Andrew Luck 6.01 .636
Cam Newton 6.25 .577
Alex Smith 3.96 .380 6.23 .690
Carson Palmer 6.13 .545 6.44 .525
Peyton Manning 6.22 .525 8.04 .788
Eli Manning 5.67 .613 6.28 .513
Troy Aikman 5.26 .633 6.13 .625
Drew Bledsoe 6.04 .560 5.19 .438
John Elway 5.13 .676 4.99 .581
Terry Bradshaw 2.81 .627 5.52 .696
Jim Plunkett 3.63 .397 4.39 .630
Other Notables:
Teddy Bridgewater 5.59 .607
Aaron Rodgers 7.64 .666 7.45 .683
Joe Montana 6.62 .666 6.77 .733
Drew Brees 6.12 .541 7.19 .658
Tom Brady 6.13 .744 7.79 .815
Brett Favre 6 .649 6.03 .663
Dan Fouts 5.27 .492 6.83 .594
Dan Marino 7.27 .696 6.3 .563
Ben Roethlisberger 6.03 .718 6.76 .620

Comparing first-five-year totals to second-five-year totals, you'll notice that every #1 draft pick QB improved- except John Elway and Drew Bledsoe, some notably.   Elway, who didn't have good ANY/A his first 10 years in the league, but whom many consider the best of the #1 picks based on his Super Bowl appearances (and wins) went on to improve his last five years.  Bledsoe, well, got 'Bledsoed' from the Patriots after Tom Brady took over, and found himself in weaker and less stable organizations the rest of his career.

Interestingly, among the other notable QBs on the list, only Aaron Rodgers (so far) and Dan Marino have declined over their second five playing years compared to their first.

Be that as it may, for those #1 draft QBs who made it through their first five years, for the most they improved either a little or a lot over the next 5 years, and with generally the weaker QBs initially improving the most.

Qualitatively, if I were to compare Bradford and his situation past and present with others on the list, I would say he compares most to Alex Smith.

Alex Smith was with the 49ers when they were really struggling as a franchise under head coach Mike Nolan.  Smith, like Bradford, went through many offensive coordinators (Mike McCarthy, Mike Schula, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler, Mike Martz, and Jimmy Raye) in his first five years, learning and changing systems regularly, competing for the starting job (against Shaun Hill at one point), while generally not being liked by the 49ers faithful.

Things turned around for Smith when former QB Jim Harbaugh was named head coach.  The 49ers roster had been improving gradually with good draft picks, and starting that year, Smith's 6th, he has been very solid, if not a flashy play-maker, for the past five years.   Having the upgrade and stability of the team and coaching around him- both in SF and in Kansas City under Andy Reid- Smith made a huge jump in his ANY/A over his first 5 years.

Bradford could easily do the same.   If Bradford had the same increase in ANY/A as Smith did, he'd be in elite company.   If Bradford had the same increase Smith did from year 5 to 6, he'd most likely be among the top 10 QBs in the league this year, with a 6.37 ANY/A.

OK, that's great.  But really, how good does Bradford need to be for the Vikings to win a Championship?

Well, that's a good question.  Using recent history as a guide, here's what I came up with.

The last four teams to make it to the Super Bowl with a top 5 (in points allowed/game) defense were Denver last year, Seattle the previous two years, and San Francisco the year before.  On average, the QB ANY/A for those teams averaged 6.55.  If you exclude Denver last year as something of an anomaly (Peyton Manning had the worst ANY/A in the league last year, and Osweiler wasn't good either), then the number increases to 7.02.

So, assuming the Vikings will once again have a top 5 defense- as they did last year- the Vikings would need their QB(s) to average somewhere between 6.55 and 7.02 in ANY/A to make it to the Super Bowl this year, if that trend holds.

You'll be happy to know that after one game, the Vikings average  ANY/A is 7.15.  Although the defense is currently tied for only 9th best in points allowed.  We'll see how the season unfolds.

One last interesting fact about QBs drafted #1 overall in the Super Bowl era:  nearly half (9/20) have been to the Super Bowl.  Most of those more than once.  Of those that haven't, 3 have been playing 5 years or less, and one more is still in his 20s.   Overall, of the 100 quarterbacks that have played in all the Super Bowls, 24 of them were drafted #1 overall.

Conclusion

Is Bradford likely to be better as a Viking?  Looking at Alex Smith as the best (and very compelling) comparison, the answer is clearly yes.  He may have to do a little better than Smith to get the Vikings to the Super Bowl, but it's not unrealistic either.