As a rookie with St. Louis in 2010, Sam Bradford could not tolerate imperfection. An incompletion during practice so irritated Bradford that he wanted the play taken out of the plan for that week's game. He "freaked out," unsettled by the prospect that the incompletion would fester all week.
Time begets perspective, and Bradford's had enough time to think. He's had to accept imperfection during a career that's been rerouted and reset. Once a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick, he has not appeared in the postseason during his five NFL years and has had as many knee surgeries as full, 16-game seasons. On Monday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Eagles quarterback will play his first regular-season game in 694 days.
Spend two years rehabbing and an incompletion doesn't seem so daunting anymore.
"Now it's like, 'Who cares?' It happens," Bradford told The Inquirer in a recent interview. "Everything is not going to be perfect. You have to be able say, 'That play wasn't perfect, but I'm going to come back and have a good play the next play.' "
This type of thinking goes beyond one play in practice and permeates into his everyday philosophy. He chuckles at the memory of his younger self. All he has now is the next play, the next game, the next season. If the last five years taught him anything, it's to stop thinking so much.
"I feel like now I learned, just keep it simple," Bradford said. "As a rookie, when I first came into the league, I wanted to solve every problem. I wanted to have every answer. I wanted to always be a step ahead. I wanted to be all these things. And almost, in a way, you start to overthink things. You overanalyze things. . . . But you just have to go out and play football. It's nothing new."
Bradford's first year with the Eagles seems to offer a second chance after he failed to live up to expectations in St. Louis. But Bradford does not view it that way.
"Not really, to be honest," Bradford said. "I just look at it like this is the opportunity in front of me. I think if you look at it as a second chance, you're still almost somewhat in the past. Whereas to me, I'm here now, I'm excited about the opportunity in front of me, and I'm going to make the most of it."
It's clear the Eagles have a more-evolved version of Bradford - if not with his physical tools, then certainly his mental approach. He's always been mature, but he now has more life experience. Pat Shurmur, the Eagles' offensive coordinator who was in charge of the Rams' offense in 2010, remembers that rookie quarterback who wanted the incompletion eradicated from the game plan and sees the changes in Bradford now.
"Being a perfectionist like he is, he would want to run plays that had a perfect chance of succeeding," Shurmur said. ". . . I think he has more perspective because of the experience he has."
Shurmur said the adjustment for Bradford was going from college, where his receivers always seemed to be open, to the NFL, where "open" is a more nuanced concept.
Bradford has moved past the idea that there's a perfect pass and a perfect play - "that's just not realistic," he said - and his counter is the "keep it simple" mantra that he repeated.
He gave an example of a play with four receivers running vertical routes. If those receivers aren't open, he can check the ball down to the running back. It's not the optimum result, but it sustains a drive. This excites him. There will be another down, another opportunity.
"Small things like that," Bradford said. "Every play doesn't have to be a touchdown. Every play doesn't have to be perfect."
Long road back
After Bradford tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee for a second time last August, the idea of another year of rehabilitation seemed nauseating. It wasn't that he contemplated retirement as much as he dreaded the recovery.
"When I had to really get serious," Bradford said, "it really wasn't a decision."
He decided he would play again. He also had a different perspective on the rehab.
Bradford said he was not prepared for the "ups and downs of the rehab process" after the first injury. Similar to his rookie experience, he wanted perfection. And just like his rookie season, he learned there was no such thing.
"I expected everything to come fast and natural," Bradford said, "and that's not how it is."
He was unconcerned in the spring, when the Eagles limited his workload. He was encouraged earlier in the summer, when he did not miss a training camp practice. The frustration came when Chip Kelly kept Bradford out of the preseason opener. He did play in the second and third games, proving his readiness.
Bradford said he has already "hit the last step," so the opener on Monday is not another test of his knee. But since it's his first regular-season game since November 2013, he can better appreciate being on the field.
"I just enjoy things a little bit more," Bradford said. "I take time to enjoy the small things there and have fun. Because you never know when it's going to be taken away from you."
Bradford will be the third starting quarterback in Kelly's three years in Philadelphia. Kelly admitted this summer that he wants a quarterback the Eagles can "hang our hat on and build the rest of the team around," which makes him like every coach who doesn't have one.
Bradford was supposed to be the franchise quarterback in St. Louis. The Eagles need him to belatedly fill that role at age 27. Bradford does not take on that responsibility, in part because it's a designation that's never come from his mouth or his bosses.
"To be honest, I have never once heard that term in our building, in a quarterback meeting, in a team meeting, in an offensive meeting," Bradford said. "That's something [reporters] talk about, and you guys have your meaning and your definition of it. But inside this building, that term doesn't exist."
Even the buzz in the region seems lost on Bradford. He's happy to be in Philadelphia, but don't expect Bradford to organize a cheesesteak tour. He moved from Oklahoma City to St. Louis, and now St. Louis to the Philadelphia area. He must adjust to new living arrangements, but he's here to play quarterback. Bradford knows the route from his Haddonfield home to the NovaCare Complex. He does not need much else.
"I'm pretty simple - I pretty much go from home to work back home every day," Bradford said. "It's not like I'm out on the town checking everything out."
Bradford's concern is about maximizing the next play. And if it's an incompletion, he'll move on to the next one. Bradford might be the Eagles' next franchise quarterback, but that does nothing to help him. He was the can't-miss prospect who missed, and after two injuries and five years, he doesn't expect to be perfect. He just wants to make the most of whatever skills he has in however long he has to use them.
"I mean, that's all you can control," Bradford said. "Right?"