(Sports Network) - A pair of new quarterback eras will begin at the Edward Jones Dome on Sunday afternoon, when Sam Bradford leads the St. Louis Rams into battle against Derek Anderson and the Arizona Cardinals.
To be sure, while Bradford carries a disadvantage in terms of experience into his first NFL game, the common perception is that he'll be the better of these two quarterback combatants somewhere down the line.
The No. 1 overall pick in the April draft, Bradford enjoyed a star-studded career at the University of Oklahoma that included a Heisman Trophy in 2008. Bradford threw for 4,721 yards with 50 touchdowns and just eight interceptions during that, his sophomore season, but was plagued by shoulder injuries in 2009 and saw the field in only two contests.
Still, the Rams made him the top overall choice when they were on the clock the night of April 22nd, and a fine performance in the 2010 preseason seemed to indicate that the long-suffering franchise made a rare correct move. Bradford completed 33-of-55 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns without an interception during the warm-up period, with his play and a sprained thumb suffered by would-be starter A.J. Feeley helping the rookie climb atop the depth chart.
Bradford is attempting to prop up the fortunes of a moribund franchise that has gone a shocking 6-42 over the past three seasons combined, including an all- time organizational nadir of 1-15 last season. The lone win to date in the tenure of second-year head man Steve Spagnuolo came last Nov. 1st, when the Rams were 17-10 winners at the Detroit Lions.
St. Louis dropped its final eight games following that singular triumph, and has lost 13 consecutive contests at the Edward Jones Dome since defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 19, 2008.
Against that backdrop, everything must look peachy in the world of the Arizona Cardinals.
At the same time, Ken Whisenhunt's club enters 2010 needing to dispel the perception that the team is on the decline after winning the last two NFC West titles. Anderson's appearance behind center for the team's opener has been offered up as exhibit A in the case for the Cardinals falling back to the pack.
Following the winter retirement of Kurt Warner, who'd spent five years mainly as the starter in Arizona, the team handed the No. 1 job to former first-round pick Matt Leinart. The March 9th signing of Anderson, who washed out in Cleveland after a surprise Pro Bowl year (2007), followed by two dismal ones, was viewed primarily at the time as a low-risk, low-return insurance policy for Leinart.
Surprisingly, the Cardinals opted to cash in that policy late in the preseason, as Whisenhunt demoted and eventually cut the former No. 10 overall pick Leinart. With rookies Max Hall (BYU) and John Skelton (Fordham) the only other QBs on the roster, Anderson won the job by default, and will now have to win over the Cardinals fans and teammates that might have lingering skepticism about his abilities.
In addition to Warner, Arizona will be minus former mainstays such as wideout Anquan Boldin (now with the Ravens), linebacker Karlos Dansby (Dolphins) and safety Antrel Rolle (Giants) as they begin the 2010 campaign.
The all-time regular season series between the Cardinals and Rams is knotted, 30-30-2, with Arizona evening the series by virtue of seven consecutive wins. The Cardinals completed their third consecutive home-and-home sweep of the Rams last year, taking a 21-13 decision in their former home of St. Louis in Week 11, and completing the sweep with a 31-10 win at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 16. The Rams' most recent victory in the series was a 16-14 win at Arizona during the 2006 season, and they are 0-5 against the Cardinals at home since last beating them within friendly confines in 2004.
With a win on Sunday, the Cardinals will lead the series with the Rams, which dates back to 1937, for the first time since 1965.
The Rams won the only postseason meeting between the two, with the then-Los Angeles-based franchise pulling out a 35-23 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in a 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Whisenhunt is 6-0 against the Rams as a head coach, while St. Louis' Spagnuolo is 0-2 versus both Whisenhunt and Arizona as a head man.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
As he starts his first meaningful game as a Cardinal, Anderson (888 yards, 3 TD, 10 INT with Cleveland) will be attempting to re-ignite the flame that saw him post a 10-5 record with 3,787 yards, 29 TDs and 19 touchdowns back in 2007. Since that Pro Bowl year with the Browns, Anderson is 6-10 as a starter with 12 touchdowns, 18 picks, and a laughable 48.0 completion percentage. To his advantage, the Oregon State product will be throwing to a much finer fleet of receivers than he had at his disposal in Cleveland. Larry Fitzgerald (97 receptions, 13 TD) is expected to start despite a preseason knee sprain, and Steve Breaston (55 receptions, 3 TD) and Early Doucet (17 receptions, 1 TD) will be among those attempting to step into the void left by Boldin's absence on the other side of the field. Arizona was just 28th in NFL rushing offense a year ago, but will attempt to achieve more balance and find more touches for running backs Tim Hightower (598 rushing yards, 8 TD, 63 receptions) and Beanie Wells (793 rushing yards, 7 TD). Hightower is expected to get the start on Sunday, with Wells trying to fight through knee problems. The evolution of the run game should be aided by the presence of new left guard and nine-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca. Right tackle Brandon Keith is another fresh starting face up front.
Though most of the Week 1 media focus will be on Bradford's performance, the Rams' development in 2010 will hinge greatly on the progress of a defense that was 27th against the run and 25th versus the pass last season. With former top pass rusher Leonard Little now in apparent retirement, the effort to get to Anderson will rest primarily with former first-round pick Chris Long (43 tackles, 5 sacks) and holdover James Hall (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks). Long, the second pick in the 2008 Draft, has just nine sacks in two NFL seasons. The play of that crew will have implications for a secondary led by safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (73 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack). Atogwe will likely be asked to help out with Fitzgerald, as neither Ron Bartell (66 tackles) nor fellow starting corner Bradley Fletcher (23 tackles) looks like a candidate to hold the Pro Bowler down on a solo basis. The run-stopping group will be looking for a couple of newcomers - tackle Fred Robbins (25 tackles, 2 sacks with the Giants) and outside linebacker Na'il Diggs (35 tackles with the Panthers), to mesh with a couple of ex-backups - tackle Gary Gibson (11 tackles) and linebacker Larry Grant (15 tackles, 1 sack). The mainstay in that corps is middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (120 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT), who led the team in stops as a rookie a year ago.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford is a bright young prospect, but you could argue that he was working with better receivers during his sophomore year at Oklahoma than he will be as a member of the Rams. The projected wideout starters on Sunday are Laurent Robinson (13 receptions, 1 TD), who has 55 catches and two touchdowns in 24 career NFL games, and Danny Amendola (43 receptions, 1 TD), an overachieving former undrafted free agent who averaged just 7.6 yards per catch a year ago. The most esteemed member of the WR group is probably recently-acquired ex-Raven Mark Clayton (34 receptions, 2 TD with the Ravens), who has caught more than 50 balls in a season just once in his five-year NFL career. Tight end Billy Bajema (8 receptions) doesn't scare anyone as a pass-catcher either. In light of that situation, the Rams figure to feature a heavy dose of running back Steven Jackson (1416 rushing yards, 4 TD, 51 receptions). Jackson, quickly becoming the Floyd Little of his generation when comparing his individual exploits to team success, has posted five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The Rams are in better shape along the offensive line than they've been in some time, though the club will need second-round rookie left tackle Rodger Saffold (Indiana) to grow up in a hurry.
Like the Rams, the Cardinals are a team undergoing a notable transition on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football. Gone are high-profile playmakers like Dansby and Rolle, and in to take their place are big names like pass rusher Joey Porter and safety Kerry Rhodes. The 33-year-old Porter (41 tackles, 9 sacks with the Dolphins) was judged as being surplus to needs in Miami despite racking up 32 sacks in his three seasons there. He'll team again with veteran holdover Clark Haggans, formerly Porter's teammate for seven years with the Steelers (2000-06). On the back end, the ex-Jet Rhodes (62 tackles, 3 INT with New York) is viewed as only a minor downgrade from Rolle, and should be able to make plays while working alongside decorated safety Adrian Wilson (76 tackles, 5 INT, 2 sacks) and No. 1 cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (51 tackles, 6 INT). The other newcomer in the starting secondary is cornerback Greg Toler (8 tackles, 1 INT), who replaces the departed Bryant McFadden after appearing in 13 games as a reserve last year. Among those looking to hone in on Jackson are a pair of incoming inside linebackers, ex-Ram Paris Lenon (42 tackles with St. Louis) and second-round rookie Daryl Washington (TCU). The three-man line of Bryan Robinson (28 tackles, 1 sack) in the middle and Darnell Dockett (51 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT) and Calais Campbell (46 tackles, 7 sacks) on the ends returns intact.
The Cardinals have gone from a popular team among fantasy enthusiasts to a shaky one, with Anderson's presence behind center having everything to do with that fact. Fitzgerald will be a Week 1 starter in most leagues, even coming off the knee problem, but there isn't anyone else here that's a lead-pipe cinch. Kicker Jay Feely is a decent option, Hightower might be worth considering as a flex play, and if you're feeling adventurous, you might start the Cardinals defense against a rookie QB.
On the St. Louis side, Jackson always seems to contribute something, even if he didn't score a touchdown until his eighth game of 2009. Other than that, if you're counting on any Rams to get you through Week 1, you could be in some trouble.
The Cardinals and Rams have occupied opposite ends of the NFC West standings in each of the past two years, but the events of the offseason would seem to have the organizations creeping closer toward one another. By their Dec. 5th meeting in Glendale, if Bradford has begun his maturation as an NFL quarterback and Anderson has done the face-plant many are expecting of him, the two clubs might indeed be equals. But for now, you have to give the visiting Cardinals the edge. Even if Anderson fails to recapture his magic of 2007, he should still be better in start number 35 of his career than Bradford will be in start number one. There is enough residue of the Cardinals' back-to-back division titles present for Arizona to work toward a win, while there is still too much uncertainty present within a Rams team that has racked up as many starting quarterbacks (6) as wins since 2007.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 25, Rams 19