A look back at Sam Bradford just before the trade

Sam-Bradford-Vikings-throwing
A photo of the real Sam Bradford throwing the football during warms up before the game against the Houston Texans on October 9, 2016.

This is the Sam Bradford story never told. This is what could have been in Philadelphia in 2016, what Bradford thought would become of his seventh NFL season.

On Aug. 31, Bradford finished lifting weights and retreated to a small lounge at the Eagles' practice facility with his lunch, where he explained why this year would be different from the other ones in his NFL career.

On that day, Bradford likely wouldn't have been surprised to learn he would win the first four games he started, completing more than 70 percent of his passes and throwing six touchdown passes without an interception. But he certainly would have been surprised that he's doing it in a Minnesota Vikings uniform.

"I just feel probably more comfortable than I have in the past several years," Bradford told the Inquirer that day. "And so I just think going into Year 7, I feel like I've seen a lot football. I've been a part of a lot of football. I feel my overall comfort level in the huddle, on the field, is probably at an all-time high compared to where it's been in the past."

Bradford overflowed with optimism that afternoon. He explained that he could finally enjoy good health, how he fit into the scheme that Doug Pederson introduced, why the last seven games of 2015 should have offered encouragement, and how stability away from football would help him in on the field.

He felt at ease in the Philadelphia area, mastering the route from his South Jersey home to the team's facility. He developed meaningful relationships with teammates. And he was a newlywed who looked forward to returning to a wife and two dogs each evening.

After injury and upheaval during the previous three years, Bradford sounded blissful. It was pointed out that the Eagles disrupted the harmony by drafting Carson Wentz and leaving his future uncertain.

"If that's the worst that happens to me," Bradford said, "I think I'll be all right."

The Eagles traded Bradford three days later.

No underdog

On the eve of the first preseason game, Bradford read a story from the Bible that he used to digest before every college game at Oklahoma: David and Goliath.

It was the first game of the year - a time for renewal, Bradford figured - and the passage evoked memories. For spiritual reasons, Bradford identifies with David. Plus, as he mentioned, "Goliath gets slayed."

But throughout his career, he's always been viewed as a Goliath-type figure. He won the Heisman Trophy, became the No. 1 overall pick, and signed the biggest contract ever offered to a rookie. Few people walking the earth throw a football as well as Bradford.

Yet Bradford did not win popularity contests in Philadelphia during the spring and summer. His return to the Eagles wasn't met with unanimous approval from fans. There had been a public clamoring for Wentz to play ever since the draft. Bradford's two-week absence from offseason workouts didn't help sway undecided voters. During the public practices and the first preseason game, Wentz appeared to be the star attraction. Even Bradford's own peers in the NFL publicly criticized the quarterback.

When it was suggested that perhaps he was the underdog entering this season, Bradford shook his head.

"I don't think, in any way, that I'm an underdog," Bradford said.

The reason those factors didn't weigh on Bradford is because of his utter disregard for any discourse about how he plays or his standing in the NFL. At Oklahoma, friends nicknamed Bradford "Big Easy" because of an easygoing nature.

It's not ignorance. He hears about it when Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett says in a radio interview that "this guy right here definitely sets a bad tone of what a player should be" or when Washington cornerback Josh Norman says in a magazine interview, "Have you ever once been one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the league? . . . I can't wait to play him twice a year." But Bradford's shrug is the default response, because he has become apathetic to anyone else's opinion.

"I feel like the people who are paying attention to it are the people who need the validation of the praise, and they feel like they need the motivation of the criticism," Bradford said. "I feel like I'm self-motivated. My expectations for myself are really high. If I'm playing well, I don't need to hear it from anyone else. I really don't care."

So what irks Bradford? It's not an opposing player deriding him or a talk-radio caller criticizing him or an analyst scrutinizing him. It's a third-down incompletion.

"Not playing up to the level that I expect myself to play at," Bradford said. "Missing throws. All the things that I control are the things that really upset me."

During the summer, Bradford didn't think he missed many throws. He felt stronger than any point of his career since 2013, when he had 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions before tearing his ACL in the seventh game. A full offseason convinced him of the benefits of his improved health.

He also was encouraged by his last seven games in 2015, when he completed 68.2 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions and a passer rating of 97.0. Bradford believes statistics can be deceiving, but game film can reveal whether he makes the right decisions. He thought the system that Pederson brought to Philadelphia accentuated his strengths - accuracy, timing, and decision-making.

"I felt like those last couple weeks last year, I was playing pretty well," Bradford said. "I think I played really well this training camp. And I think just being efficient. Being better on third down. Being better in the red zone. Just putting this team, every week, giving us a chance to win. That's your job as a quarterback. That's what I expect myself to do."

In four games this season, Bradford is 29 of 41 for 285 yards and two touchdowns on third downs. He's 10 of 14 with four touchdowns in the red zone. And Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who coached Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers, told reporters this week that Bradford's vision "is as good as [that of] any QB I've ever coached."

"I think when those things add up and you're doing those things well," Bradford said, "you look at the tape and say, 'I'm playing a very high level right now.' "

Temporary comfort

Bradford offered someone from Philadelphia a hypothetical: Imagine taking a job in Nebraska or Oklahoma or some place you've never lived before.

"I'm sure your first couple of months there, you try to figure out, what's my routine? How do I get to work? Where do I eat? Who are my coworkers? Who do I relate to? Who do you think you can actually have relationships with? How do you actually build those relationships? How do you work on those relationships?" Bradford said. "There are just so many things that go into it. And I think it takes a while."

Compound that with also recovering from two major knee injuries during a one-year span, and all under the daily scrutiny of passionate fans invested in your success. All the money and publicity could cloud the reality that Bradford was but another millennial moving to a new city and undergoing a major life transition.

During the summer, Bradford remarked how much different his second year in Philadelphia already seemed. It was easier for him to talk to and relate with his teammates, including tight end Zach Ertz and wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who broke through Bradford's privacy and spent a week at his offseason home. Bradford developed a better understanding of the area where he lived, with something as simple as the ride to work becoming second nature. And his home life had never been better after he got married in July.

"It's just nice to be able to go home regardless of what happened in this building - whether I had a great day, whether I had a bad day - I know that I walk into a home with a wife and two dogs who love me regardless," Bradford said. "I know that for those couple of hours that night, I can completely get away from everything and just be myself."

All of those factors made Bradford believe that this year would be different from the previous six years, and that he was at a place where his talent, health, and opportunity would finally intersect.

During a casual conversation later that afternoon, Bradford was asked if he heard about his quarterback contemporary in Minnesota. Just one day earlier, Teddy Bridgewater suffered a significant knee injury. Bradford caught the news but didn't know the details. When told of the severity, he offered sympathy.

He didn't know that the injury would change the story of his season. What he thought would occur in Philadelphia is happening in Minnesota instead.

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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