The standards for judging the quality of a quarterback's play are forever shifting and changing, forever ricocheting from statistics to Super Bowls to win-loss records to the intangible sense of whether you'd want him to have the ball when a game is on the line. So it shouldn't be surprising that Sam Bradford's brief tenure with the Eagles has been so difficult to evaluate.
He has not put up the pinball-like numbers that one might have expected, before the season began, from a quarterback in Chip Kelly's system. He has not stayed healthy, missing two games with a concussion and a shoulder injury. He had been, through his first seven games, something he had not been throughout his career before joining the Eagles: turnover-prone.
Yet for all the rightful complaints about Bradford then and the caution over the small sample size of his play since, here is what he's done over his last three games, all since the Eagles' bye week: 58 completions in 85 attempts for a 68.2 completion percentage, 651 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions. And here is what Bradford did Sunday in the Eagles' 35-28 victory over the Patriots, in a game in which the statistics (14-for-24, 120 yards) suggested that he was ordinary at best: four vital third-down completions, two for touchdowns and two for first downs. Without even one of those throws, the Eagles lose Sunday, and isn't that the best way to judge a quarterback, whether he makes the right play in a big moment?
"That's kind of hard to say," Bradford said. "The great quarterbacks are the ones who do it on a consistent basis, regardless of whether it's a big play. They're all big plays. But to be able to execute in some of those critical situations, it's good to see."
Amid the craziness of Sunday's game, the first of those completions was the one that's most easily forgotten: a 20-yarder to Jordan Matthews on third-and-10 in the second quarter. It extended the drive that culminated in the Eagles' first touchdown and Bradford's second key third-down throw: his five-yard touchdown to Zach Ertz.
The third and fourth came in the fourth quarter, and they were Bradford's finest moments of the night: rolling right on third-and-2 and threading a perfect throw to Matthews for a 10-yard touchdown, hanging in the pocket on third-and-11 during the Eagles' next-to-last possession, when they needed a first down to keep Brady and the Patriots off the field, and finding Riley Cooper for 14 yards.
"He came up clutch for us - really won us the game there," tackle Lane Johnson said.
If Johnson's praise of Bradford seems excessive, take care to understand its context. When Bradford left that Nov. 15 game against the Dolphins because of that hellacious hit from linebacker Chris McCain, the Eagles led by three points. They eventually lost, 20-19, their last chance for salvaging a victory stolen from them by Mark Sanchez's indefensible decision to try to hit Miles Austin on a crossing route in the end zone. The pass was intercepted, and with Sanchez as their starter, the Eagles lost their next two games by a combined 59 points.
Though there's no way to prove that Sanchez's interception brought on a collective psychological sag among his teammates, a here-we-go-again-with-this-guy kind of feeling, the theory isn't implausible. In fact, it was Kelly himself who, through his late-game play-calling Sunday, lent it credence. Look at that Eagles possession with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots down seven, with everyone in Philadelphia uneasy until Bradford hits Cooper.
On first down, Kelly calls for Bradford to roll to his right and gives him a choice: throw the ball if someone is clearly open; otherwise, keep it. Bradford runs for no gain, forcing New England to use its second timeout. On second down, a handoff to Darren Sproles lost a yard, and the Patriots used their final timeout. Third-and-11, Brady standing on the opposite sideline, a big lead having shrunk to a one-score game - ask yourself if Kelly would have had Sanchez throw the ball in that situation.
No way, no how.
But he demanded Bradford's best in that moment, and he got it.
"When you have a smart quarterback," Kelly said, "you trust him that he can do that."
There will be questions galore in the weeks to come about Bradford's future with the Eagles. Will they try to re-sign him? Does he want to return? (He did not come to them of his own free will, after all. He was traded here.) What would a contract extension cost? What is he worth?
Those answers will come in time, only after everyone sees what Sam Bradford does over these next four weeks, whether he continues to be the quarterback he was Sunday.
"I felt like I made the plays when they had to be made," he said.
For the Eagles' long-term future, that sounds like something they could live with, and might have to. For one game that no one expected them to win, it was everything.