Monday, April 26, 2010

The Heat Is On

Several years ago, I was watching ESPN, and a World Series highlights show came on.

The subject of the program was the 1985 World Series, which matched two cross–state rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, in what came to be known as the I–70 Series (an homage to the interstate that connects to the two cities).

I remember that World Series quite well. My best friend has always been a Cardinals fan, and I was working at the time with a woman who went to college at the University of Missouri, which is about halfway between those two cities along I–70. As long as I could remember, there had been a rivalry between St. Louis and Kansas City, but this was the first time it had spilled over into sports.

Appropriately, the song that was used as the theme for the show was "The Heat Is On," Glenn Frey's huge hit that was featured in the soundtrack for "Beverly Hills Cop," one of the most popular films of 1984.

Anyway, that tune popped into my mind when I was thinking about the St. Louis Rams' first pick in last week's NFL draft.

If you're a football fan, you probably already know that the Rams took Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford (who won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt sophomore in 2008) as the first overall pick. Bradford didn't play much last year. He had a shoulder injury that kept him on the sidelines for most of the season.

Consequently, the Rams had to act on the assumption that the numbers Bradford posted in his Heisman–winning season were the true indicators of his talent, which (presumably) remain valid.

No doubt the Rams need someone who can revive the offense that was once known as the Greatest Show on Turf. An NFL team that averages only 10.9 points per game, as the Rams did last season, can hardly be said to be living up to that kind of billing.

The Sporting News thinks the Rams were one of half a dozen teams that improved themselves in the draft, but writer Dennis Dillon acknowledges that, while "Bradford could develop into a franchise quarterback ... he probably won't step in as the starter immediately."

I suppose that's true. A decade ago, when Kurt Warner and the Rams were putting up 500–plus points a year, St. Louis seemed to have embraced football in a way that the city never really did when the Cardinals played there.

If the enthusiasm level had remained where it was then, Bradford would be in for a lot of pressure right away. But the Rams have won only six games in the last three seasons, and St. Louis' sports fans seem to have revived their passions for baseball and hockey. It's hard to imagine anyone except hard–core football fans expecting much from him.

It might be different for Bradford if he had gone to a franchise in his neck of the woods, like Dallas or Houston or the world champion New Orleans Saints. Football fans are devoted everywhere, but there is a special intensity to that devotion in Southern cities, which undoubtedly brings quite a bit of pressure.

Dillon may be right when he says Bradford isn't likely to face the pressure of being a starter for the Rams right away, but you've got to pity whoever gets that assignment this fall. Last year's starting quarterback Marc Bulger, 33, was released by the Rams a few weeks ago; statistically, that would have made 28–year–old Kyle Boller his logical replacement, but Boller signed with Oakland in mid–April.

That leaves only 24–year–old Keith Null with any playing experience for the Rams, and his performance last season was a mixed bag at best. He did complete more than 60% of his passes, but he was intercepted three times as often as he completed passes for touchdowns, and, although he was the third–string signal caller, he had nearly 30% of the team's 44 sacks.

The other candidates for the starting job are 32–year–old journeyman A.J. Feeley, who signed a contract with the Rams in March, and two guys who, like Bradford, haven't taken their first snaps as pros.

In all honesty, I think Bradford may have lucked into the perfect situation for him, but, even though it looks like that right now, it's unpredictable. Bradford and his coaches need to be sensitive to signals that the Rams' fan base is growing restless.

The Rams are 6–42 in the last three seasons. How long will it be before St. Louis' eternally patient sports fans (they've been loyally pulling for their hockey team since it was founded in 1967 with no Stanley Cup to show for it) start demanding to get some bang for the bucks that will be committed to Bradford?

My guess is, not long.

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