Bradford, Rams could take a step back in 2011

St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford hands the football off to running back Steven Jackson in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on November 21, 2010. Atlanta defeated St. Louis 34-17. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

The Rams make an easy choice for NFC West champions this year, don’t they? They’re like the Almond Joy in a candy bowl that’s also hosting Tootsie Rolls, Spice Drops, and those black and orange-wrapped pieces of awfulness that people hand out at Halloween.

Coconut? Yeah, I can deal with coconut.

But while most media members are predicting the Rams to win their division this year, I actually envision them taking a step back. In fact, I think 8-8 would be quite an accomplishment for a team that is definitely on the rise but has some major hurdles to overcome to make the postseason.

Have you checked out the Rams’ schedule this year? It’s freaking brutal. They open up at home against everyone’s chic pick the Eagles before heading to New York to play the Giants in Week 2. They come back to St. Louis for two home games and while one of those contests is a Week 4 matchup with the Redskins, the other is a Week 3 tilt against the Ravens.

After they come back from their BYE in Week 5, the Rams travel to Green Bay and Dallas before hosting the Saints in Week 8. So in six of their first seven games they play the entire NFC East, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the team that won it all in 2009 and might be poised to do it again in 2011.

Thanks, schedule makers!

Another problem, of course, is the dreaded sophomore jinx for Sam Bradford. In all honesty, I think it’s foolish to believe that all young players are destined for failure in their second seasons, as if life always warns us when we’re about to fall on hard times. But while the jinx itself is a rather juvenile way of looking at the situation, there is something to a quarterback struggling in his second year. The playbook expands, responsibility grows, and now defensive coordinators have 16 or so games to dissect your weaknesses. It’s not a jinx – it’s maturation.

Bradford had an impressive rookie campaign and I do believe he’ll only get better. But I’m willing to bet he’ll suffer through different kinds of hurdles than he did as a rookie, especially seeing as how he must learn a new offensive system under Josh McDaniels and as expectations continue to rise. (Keep in mind that this is a team that many people believe is a playoff contender, circumstances like a weak division be damned.)

There are plenty of reasons why some observers have fallen in love with the Rams. The spotlight is on Bradford, but this team has also built an impressive-looking defensive line and acquired one of the most productive safeties in the NFL this offseason in Quintin Mikell. The Rams vastly upgraded the right guard position with the signing of free agent Harvey Dahl (who replaces the highly ineffective Adam Goldberg), and gave Bradford another weapon in Mike Sims-Walker.

But the schedule stinks, Bradford will suffer more growing pains in his second year and it’ll be interesting to see how long Steven Jackson continues to rumble on as the Rams wear him down to the treads. Outside linebacker, depth in the secondary, and uncertainty at the wide receiver position are three other causes for concern heading into the season.

So who will win the West? My guess would be the Cardinals, although I don’t write that with much conviction. I just have a hunch it won’t be Bradford and the Rams.

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