If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, you know what has already begun: a whispering campaign by the Eagles to denigrate Sam Bradford, to paint him as a pansy too weak to withstand a challenge from Carson Wentz.
This is nothing but an appeal to the lowest common denominator among this city’s sports fans, a questioning of a quarterback’s manhood, and it’s issuing directly from One NovaCare Way. Late Monday afternoon, Dave Spadaro of PhiladelphiaEagles.com appeared on Comcast SportsNet’s Philly Sports Talk and, in his role as message man for the franchise’s front office, said, “There’s competition in the NFL. It’s a big-boy league. Nobody’s given a job.” The implication was obvious: that Bradford is a feed-me-burp-me-change-me type for reportedly requesting a trade, that he can’t abide having to vie to be the Eagles’ starting quarterback with a rookie in Wentz and a career backup in Chase Daniel. Those themes have flown on the wind for days now, landing in social-media and talk-radio interactions, framed in ridiculing words: Bradford is a sissy. Bradford is afraid to compete. Bradford needs to man up.
So this is how we define toughness in Philadelphia now—not by whether an athlete displays it in its genuine form, but by whether he kowtows to the tired narrative that it’s a privilege to play here and anyone who doesn’t act accordingly is a wimp who can’t handle the pressure. It doesn’t make Bradford weak that he can recognize when he’s staring at a stacked deck. The notion that the Eagles would give up a net three draft picks to select Wentz with the No. 2 overall pick, then not play Wentz because Bradford had managed to persuade them that he was indeed the better long-term option, is nonsense on stilts. It would be one thing if the Eagles were to draft Wentz or another quarterback with the 13th overall pick (which they traded to Miami) or even with the eighth overall pick (which they traded to Cleveland). It’s another thing to surrender so many assets—players and picks, in both deals, who might help Bradford in the here and now—for the sake of his successor and the franchise’s prospective savior. The Eagles are going to play Wentz, and soon, and everyone knows it, especially Bradford. He’s making a business decision here, nothing more, and even if you disagree with what he’s doing, there’s no cause to question his physical and mental toughness because of it. It’s cheap, and it’s unfair.
Now, if you want to argue that Wentz or Daniel or the corner grocer would be a better starting quarterback in 2016 than Bradford, you’re free to, and you can make a compelling case. But the Eagles themselves can’t make that argument, because—three weeks before working out Wentz in late March, apparently falling in love with him, and apparently rearranging their entire draft strategy to get him—they signed Bradford to a contract worth $22 million in guaranteed money. They paid him not like a one-year caretaker, but like a quality starter whom they might decide to have stay a while.
That chance for stability with a single team is gone, and to Bradford, that chance was everything. He has a history that demonstrates clearly what he has been willing to endure for the opportunity to establish himself, once and for all, as a franchise quarterback. “He’s had about every form of adversity you could,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. In 2009, as a junior at Oklahoma, Bradford sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder, returned to the lineup three weeks later, sprained it again, and underwent surgery. In October 2013, while with the St. Louis Rams, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. After 10 months of rehabilitation, he returned to the Rams, only to sustain a hit during a preseason game that tore his left ACL again. After contemplating stepping away from football forever, after another year of rehabilitation, he started nine games for the Eagles before suffering a concussion and spraining his left AC joint. He returned to the lineup three weeks later and started the final five games of the Eagles’ season, taking a beating behind a leaky offensive line, throwing to receivers who led the NFL in dropped passes.
Thanks to the first contract he signed, Bradford made all those returns to the Rams and the Eagles having already assured himself of $78 million in earnings, whether he ever played a single snap in the NFL. He could have walked away from the sport at any time and cost himself no comfort at all, and given the grueling nature of those repeated injuries and their aftermaths, who would have blamed him if he had? Only someone who didn’t understand, or chose to ignore, what it took for Bradford, after going down time after time, to keep getting back up.
“The first thing an athlete in this situation has to overcome is the fear of re-injury, and depending on the level of trauma and how the injury occurred, there may be actual post-traumatic stress,” said Andrew Wolanin, a sports psychologist who has treated professional and collegiate athletes and who has conducted research into the psychological effects of injuries on athletes. “A person can have flashbacks at certain parts of the field. They can re-experience the injury from a memory standpoint. The next thing is being able to trust their body again and not have to think about the injury.
“The proof is in the pudding, which is what he was able to do on the field, which was compete at a high level.”
Wolanin wasn’t suggesting that Bradford was a great quarterback for the Eagles in 2015. No one would suggest such a thing, though Bradford did play better as the season went on. Wolanin was suggesting that the NFL represents football at its apex, that it represents the sport at its most demanding and debilitating, and that Bradford showed that he could put his past behind him and stand there in the pocket week after week. So no matter how much money he’s made, no matter what you think of him as a quarterback, no matter how the Eagles or anyone else tries to taint him on his way out of town, just remember something: Not now, not ever, don’t say Sam Bradford isn’t tough.