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A Thought About the St. Louis Rams: Bradford's Effect on the Defense

Earlier this week, Chase Stuart at pro-football-reference.com wrote about Sam Bradford’s rookie season being incredibly overrated. He raised some good points about Bradford getting credited for things, and primary among them is that the improvement the Rams showed in 2010 were primarily because the defense, and particularly the pass defense, improved so much. I’ll also say that this doesn’t mean I, or Chase, believe that Bradford is a bust or will not be a good quarterback. As is the tendency, though, with quarterbacks, there is too much praise when we see a team improve and it appears at cursory glance that the difference is a new quarterback.

So, what I looked at for this is other teams where the defensive points allowed improved dramatically from one year to the next. The Rams last year went from next to last in 2009, 31st in points allowed, to 12th in the league. I found all teams since 1978 who improved at least 15 spots in their points allowed ranking in the league. I then went deeper into those teams, and isolated two different types. The first, we’ll call the “Bradford effects”, which found all teams that had a different QB (who had never been the main starter for that franchise prior) during the dramatic improvement season, and that same new QB was also the starter a year later. The second, we’ll call the “Manning effects”, since he shows up 3 times on the list, and this is for all teams that had a dramatic improvement from one year to the next, and the same QB was the starter before, during, and after the points allowed improvement.

Obviously, we don’t think Peyton Manning has an impact on his defenses–he’s played with good ones and bad ones and everything in between during his career. Same with Marino and Elway and Brady and Montana and all the other guys that show up on this list. If a team dramatically improves during the middle of a QB’s career, we are less likely to attribute that to the quarterback.

That’s not necessarily true of teams that have massive improvements in points allowed when a new quarterback. Us spreadsheet types just don’t get that the new quarterback must have imbued the team with moxie, momentum, confidence and a sense of purpose, causing the defenders to strive to play better for the new general. So, when a team like the Rams show large improvement, even if the “numbers” don’t show it was because of the offense or the quarterback, it’s because of those traits. 20 different cases fall within the “Bradford effects”, and interestingly, many of them in the last 4 years, including Flacco, Ryan, Sanchez, and Orton (that’s right, just 12 months ago, Orton had come in and totally turned around the Broncos defense because Cutler was such a non-leader).

By looking at what each of these types of dramatic improvements in points allowed did in the third season, I’m looking to see if there is any lasting effect to the new QB’s moxie or leadership. If the QB played some role in the defensive improvement, we should expect the “Bradford Effects” types to show less regression the next season than the “Manning Effects” types.

I’ve delayed long enough.

The answer, of course, is no. The spreadsheets failed to detect moxie and momentum the following season.

The Bradford Effects teams were ranked 24.8 in points allowed the year before they arrived, jumped to an average ranking of 6.8 in their first season, and regressed to a ranking of 15.5 in the following season.

The Manning Effects teams were ranked 22.1 in points allowed in the first season, jumped to a ranking of 4.3 in points allowed in the dramatic improvement season, and regressed to a ranking of 13.3 in points allowed the third season.

Both groups gave up half of their improvement in the third season. So, it doesn’t appear we should expect the Rams’ defense to hold its value better than Chicago, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay, three teams who showed dramatic defensive improvement in 2010 with the same QB as the year before. Because defenses are more inconsistent, our average expectation for the Rams should be that they are better than two years ago, but worse than last year, and will finish somewhere around 21st in points allowed in 2011.

I’m going to make some predictions about the Rams and Sam Bradford. First, Bradford will play better in 2011, in his second season, and his numbers will also improve as he’ll have a slightly better receiving group. Second, the defense will regress in 2011 after making such a large jump, and the result will be close to a wash, if not a slight overall decline for St. Louis. Third, if the Rams fail to make a big leap this year, or God forbid, go 6-10, national writers will wonder why Bradford has stagnated. Fourth, this time next year, Chase Stuart or I will be writing about how those writers ignored the defense again in assessing his season.

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[photo via Getty]

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