One of the greatest things in the game of football is being able to look back throughout the history the league and see the progression, or regression, of players over time. It can be fascinating to see a gradual shift in a players production, as he became more experienced and adapts to the speed and flow of the NFL. Past production is regularly used to gauge current players, attempting to project their successes or failures in the future based off of the numbers of a past player in a similar situation. The most commonly referred to player is likely Peyton Manning, who has set the precedent that a poor performance as a rookie does not necessarily mean failure in the long run.
However, a one-season comparison may not be a true representation of that players abilities. “Year 3″ is typically the mark that is held to the quarterback position, with most claiming that by the third year in the league, the player should have a feel for the speed of the game and be able to truly demonstrate their abilities as a player. Clearly, that number is not a fair measure for all quarterback in all situation. However, it does seem like a fair way to compare two particular divisional rivals in the NFC West, considering it is technically Sam Bradford’s third year in the NFL. With the recent “success” of Alex Smith, in the 2011 season and on into this year, the 49er Faithful have begun to jaw about the apparent “superiority” of their first rounder. So, with that in mind, lets take a look at the first three seasons of each player’s career.
In 2004, the San Francisco 49ers finished the season with a 2-14 record, which led to the firing of head coach Dennis Erickson and handing the ‘9ers the first overall pick in the 2005 draft. With that pick, the team took a shot on Utah’s, 6’4 tall, 212 lbs. All-American, Alex Smith, passing on the future MVP of the NFL, Aaron Rodgers. Smith came in as an understudy to Tim Rattay, but got his first taste of the field in Week 4 against the Arizona Cardinals. He would get his first career start against the Indianapolis Colts in the following game, where he threw 4 interception and was sacked 5 times in the 28-3 loss. The 49ers would end the year with a 4-12 record, passing for only 1,898 yards throughout the entire season and scoring only 239 points.
Alex Smith: 84 of 165 passing (50.9%) for 875 yards, 1 TD, 11 INT, being sacked on 14.9% of drop backs and ending with a 40.9 QB Rating. 2-5 record as the starter
After finishing 1-15 in 2009 under Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams drafted Sam Bradford out of the University of Oklahoma with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, passing on Ndamukong Suh in favor of a potential franchise quarterback. For the true diehards, 2009 was also the extremely sad year that the St. Louis Rams released Pisa Tinoisamoa, Orlando Pace, and Torry Holt. Bradford was thrown to the dogs in Week 1 of the 2010 regular season, after having “earned” the starting job in the offseason and throughout the pre-season. Bradford opened the season with a last second loss to the Arizona Cardinals, although he did manage to throw his first career touchdown to Laurent Robinson in that game. The season would pick up from there, winning 7 games before heading to Seattle to play for the NFC West division title. The Rams would go on to lose that game, but did improve their record by 6 win over the previous season. Bradford would go on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Bradford: 354 of 590 passing (60.0%) for 3512 yards, 18 TD, 15 INT, being sack on 5.4% of passing attempts and ending with a 76.5 QB Rating.
The 2006 season marked the first full year for Alex Smith as the starter, which would actually be one of only two years that he would start all 16 games in his career. Smith would see the first of many changes at offensive coordinator, with Mike McCarthy leaving for the head coaching gig in Green Bay. Norv Turner would step in as the new coordinator, with Mike Nolan as the head coach, both helping to acquire Larry Allen from the Dallas Cowboys, Antonio Bryant from the Browns, and taking Vernon Davis with the 49ers’ 1st round pick in the draft. Smith would finish the season with a 7-9 record, good for 3rd in the NFC West and outside of the playoffs, but with a 3 win improvement from the previous year.
Smith: 257 of 442 passing (58.1%) for 2890 yards, 16 TD, 16 INT, with a 74.8 QB Rating
For Bradford and the St. Louis Rams, 2011 was the ultimate in sophomore disappoints, although more so from a team standpoint than the individual play of the young quarterback. After taking Robert Quinn with the 14th overall pick, the Rams spend the next three choices on offensive “talent,” in the form of Lance Kendricks (2nd round), Austin Pettis (3rd), and Greg Salas (4th), while nabbing Mark Clayton from the Baltimore Ravens by trading their 6th rounder. Like Alex Smith, Bradford would get another change at the offensive coordinator spot, with Josh McDaniels replacing offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur, who left for the head coaching slot in Cleveland. However, unlike Smith, Bradford was forced to attempt to install McDaniel’s complex offensive system without the benefit of an offseason, courtesy of the NFL lockout. Worse, the Rams lost a record number of players during the season, most of them being placed on IR early in the year. Those players included the top three wide receivers (Amendola, Salas, Clayton), the fullback (Miller), both starting tackles and the the left guard (Smith, Saffold, Bell), and the top 4 cornerbacks (Bartell, Fletcher, Murphy, Harris). To top that off, Steven Jackson suffered a soft tissue injury on the opening play of the Week 1 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, ailing him for nearly half of the season. The cherry on top of the 2011 cake was the injury to Sam Bradford in Week 7 against the Dallas Cowboys. Although Bradford did attempt to play in 5 more games during the season, his year likely should have been cut off after Week 8, which it likely would have, had the head coach not been fight for his job and Bradford not been stubborn enough to attempt to play.
Bradford: 191 of 357 (53.5%) for 2164 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, being sacks 36 times in 10 games (which is 2 more than in the entire 2010 season) and posting a 70.5 QB Rating. 1-9 record as a “starter”
The third year of Alex Smith’s career was oddly reminiscent of Bradford’s sophomore campaign in terms several ways. Smith was tasked with, yet, another change at offensive coordinator, with Norv Turner skating off to San Diego for the head coach job during the season. The coaching staff did attempt to bolster the team, picking up Darrell Jackson from Seattle at wide out and signing Nate Clemens to an $80M contract at CB. They also drafted future Pro Bowlers, Joe Staley and Patrick Willis, both in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft. On September 30, against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith suffered a grade-three separation in his shoulder, with the initial diagnosis being that surgery would not be required. The sack by Seahawks’ DE Rocky Bernard would force Smith to miss the next three games before returning to the 49ers’ starting lineup on October 28. Smith would later get thrown onto IR in early December, after starting only 7 games during the regular season.
Smith: 94 of 193 passing (48.7%) for 914 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, with a 57.2 QB Rating. 2-5 record as a starter
The current 2012 season is Bradford “junior” year, so they final result is yet to be determined. However, more than enough season has passed for him to evaluated, at least in some capacity. After the depressing 2011 season, the St. Louis Rams cleaned house, both in the locker room and in the front office. Stan Kroenke brought in a new GM, Les Snead from Atlanta, hired Jeff Fisher as the new head coach after firing Steve Spaguolo, and pulled Marty Schottenheimer from the Jets as the new Offensive Coordinator, the third in three years for Bradford. They also cut off the lose ends on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, with only 4 players on the defense having started for the Rams last season (Dahl, Mikell, Long, and Laurinaitis) and only 7 on the offensive side of the ball (Kendricks, Saffold, Dahl, Gibson, Amendola, Jackson, and, of course, Bradford). They snagged some big names in free agency, including Cortland Finnegan, Scott Wells, and Kendall Langford, and drafted Brockers (1st), Jenkins (2nd), and Givens (4th), all of which are now starters. The St. Louis Rams are currently behind six teams in the NFC fighting for a single wildcard spot in the playoffs, although they are only two games back on the “highest” contender for the spot. They have gone 3-0-1 in the NFC West, and fittingly take on the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday, ironically with Alex Smith being benched in favor of a rookie, Colin Kaepernick.
Bradford (at this point): 210 of 349 (60.2%) for 2447 yards, 14 TD, 9 INT, with an 84.1 QB Rating on the season. 4-6-1 record with 5 games remaining
Total statistics in first three years
Smith: 435 of 800 passing (54.4%) for 4679 yards, 19 TD, 31 INT, with a 63.5 QB Rating. 11-19 as a starter
Bradford: 755 of 1296 passing (58.3%) for 8123 yards, 38 TD, 30 INT, with a 76.9 QB Rating. 12-24-1 as a starter