Is Sam Bradford suddenly … better?

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When we last visited Sam Bradford‘s performance as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, it wasn’t at all clear that the decision to trade Nick Foles for him was correct. Chip Kelly recently doubled down on Bradford’s performance, declaring he saw improvement on a weekly basis that got Kelly excited. What might Kelly be seeing, and what context can we add to Bradford’s performance?

The Contrast with Sanchez

One thing we’ve seen lately that we didn’t see earlier in the season was the Eagles’ 2015 offense with another quarterback. Mark Sanchez started two games and finished a third as Bradford suffered a shoulder injury and a concussion. While playing half the season in 2014, Sanchez was, on the whole, roughly as good as Foles was. In his playing time this season, Sanchez has been a significant downgrade from Bradford. Table 1 shows the statistical details, using adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) and Football Outsiders’ metric DVOA.

Table 1. Mark Sanchez vs. Main Starters, 2014-15

Year QB DVOA ANY/A
2014 Foles 1.8% 5.93
Sanchez -1.4% 6.18
2015 Bradford -11.3% 5.50
Sanchez -43.8% 4.62

Two specific areas stand out as major issues for Sanchez. First, he has continued the trend from most his career of throwing interceptions at a rate above the league-average while Bradford has taken better care of the football. Sanchez’s interception rate is 4.4 percent, compared to Bradford’s 2.8 percent.

Second, the Eagles’ offensive line has been much more problematic for Sanchez in pass protection. His adjusted sack rate, as calculated by Football Outsiders, is 9.0 percent, the seventh-highest rate of the 40 passers with at least 100 dropbacks this season. Bradford’s, by contrast, is just 4.9 percent, the tenth-best rate in the same group, even though he started both games the Eagles played without Jason Peters. Quarterbacks can do a lot to control this number, as Denver’s similarly contrasting numbers with Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning and many other examples show, and Bradford is helping the line in a way Sanchez is not.

This contrast suggests that even though Bradford’s production is down from what Foles did in 2014, this could be the result of broader offensive issues which Bradford is doing well to mask.

Bradford Is Playing Better

Bradford’s numbers since returning from injuryare better than the ones he had earlier in the season. His DVOA earlier was -17.9 percent. Since then, it is 2.5 percent, better than the league average. His game against the Bills was his worst in the last four contests; on a per-play basis, it would have been his third-best performance in the first seven games.

One other thing Bradford is not doing is running. He has just one actual rushing attempt in the past couple games, while most of his nominal carries have been aborted snaps or kneeldowns. This is important, because he was not an effective runner when the Eagles tried to use him as one in the option game.

Finding the Range Downfield

The biggest development in Bradford’s game of late has been the deep pass. His performance on short throws has been roughly the same as it was earlier in the season, with a DVOA of -1.9 percent compared to -0.2 percent over the first seven games. If anything, he has been less consistently productive on them, posting a success rate of 39 percent compared to 47 percent earlier. Only throwing fewer interceptions has saved the numbers from being worse.

Where Bradford has improved the most has been on deep throws. This was where the great Foles-led offense of 2013 made most of its hay, and it was a big struggle for Bradford earlier in the season. He had the sixth-worst success rate of the 32 passers with the most deep attempts earlier in the season. Over the past six weeks, he has the second-best success rate, 60 percent, and the third-best DVOA among the 32 passers with the most deep attempts.

The easy response is to say that this is a fluke due to a small sample size, the product of a limited number of games and passes. What makes Bradford’s performance so encouraging, though, is he has been doing it at multiple levels. His numbers are better on throws 11-15 yards downfield, 16-20 yards downfield, and even that 21-25 yard area where he did not have a single completion on 18 attempts in the first seven games, while he has continued to enjoy success on very deep throws like his 53-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor last week.

Going Forward

The numbers suggest Kelly was not just blowing smoke, that Sam Bradford has been playing better of late and may well be doing much better than Nick Foles would have done for the 2015 Eagles. Kelly still has a problem, though: the Eagles are still a below-average offense. Looking just at the last four games Bradford has played, they are 20th in DVOA and just 17th in passing DVOA. Even if Bradford is in fact the answer, Philadelphia still has offensive problems to address.

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL