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Bradford the key in Eagles' 2-game win streak

Back in September, an old coach answered his phone and remembered a few film-study sessions in St. Louis with a young quarterback.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford (7) runs off the field after defeating the Buffalo Bills 23-20 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford (7) runs off the field after defeating the Buffalo Bills 23-20 at Lincoln Financial Field.Read more(James Lang/USA Today)

Back in September, an old coach answered his phone and remembered a few film-study sessions in St. Louis with a young quarterback.

Everyone was still wondering then what the Eagles had and would have in Sam Bradford, whether his struggles were merely rust from two years away from football or a sign that the Eagles had erred in trading for him, and Marty Schottenheimer wished that everyone would just calm down.

He had gotten to know Bradford a bit from 2012 through 2014, when Schottenheimer's son, Brian, was the Rams' offensive coordinator. For all the mocking made at Schottenheimer's expense over his failure to reach the Super Bowl with some talented teams, he had coached and won games with some fine quarterbacks: Bernie Kosar, Rich Gannon, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers. He had seen success at the position. He had picked Bradford's brain and sized up his character. And no matter how lost Bradford had looked with the Eagles early on, Schottenheimer insisted: The kid is 28. The kid has the skills and the smarts. The kid will be fine.

"The worst thing in the world you can do to any player, particularly a quarterback, is to rush to judgment," Schottenheimer said. "If you do that, you're going to be wrong more often than you're right."

Only now, in the wake of the Eagles' 23-20 victory Sunday over the Bills, are people beginning to understand the wisdom of what Schottenheimer was getting at, of the need for patience and prudence when it came to evaluating Bradford. The Eagles' resurgence - their back-to-back wins to keep themselves in the playoff race - has coincided with Bradford's return to the lineup from a shoulder injury and a concussion, and only now are we beginning to see who Bradford can be.

They had burped up that game to the Dolphins last month after Bradford left with a lead, and they'd given up 90 points over those humiliating losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit. And if you believe that, with their season in the balance, the Eagles would have rallied to beat New England and Buffalo with the spasmodic Mark Sanchez at quarterback, well, you keep telling yourself that. Bradford hasn't been the only difference, but he's been a damn big one.

"We had to endure some weeks without him," wide receiver Josh Huff said. "But it's great having him back there. The last two weeks, he's just set the tone for us in the locker room."

This was the refrain out of Bradford's teammates late Sunday afternoon: that he's become more open, that he has recognized the power and effect that a normally soft-spoken quarterback wields when he speaks out about the importance of playing with precision and emotion.

"Sam likes to lead by example, but sometimes we want to hear from our leader," linebacker Brandon Graham said. "And now we're hearing from him and, man, you just see a total different change. You know he's out of his comfort zone and he's giving you everything he's got, so you can only respect that."

Bradford acknowledged that he has indeed tried to be more vocal lately. But whatever leadership he might be providing would be useless if his play were at the same level it had been in September and October, when he threw 10 interceptions and seemed so unsure of himself. More than anything, the Eagles' bye week, in early November, helped him. It gave him time to hone his fundamentals, particularly his footwork and rhythm in the pocket, and it gave him a chance to apply those lessons immediately - unlike in St. Louis, when that twice-torn left anterior cruciate ligament kept him off the field for most of 2013 and all of 2014.

"I do feel better out there, more comfortable out there, more confident in what we're doing," Bradford said. "As a quarterback, when you're confident and just able to let things rip, that's when you play your best."

He was excellent Sunday: 23 for 38 for 247 yards and a touchdown, numbers that would have been better had his teammates not dropped at least three passes and had the officials correctly determined that an interception by Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin was actually incomplete. His costliest mistake, his only one, really, was that brain-lock sack he took in the fourth quarter, just before the two-minute warning, and as egregious as that error was, consider this: It could have been worse. Bradford could have thrown a game-changing interception, as his backup has been prone to do.

Those debates and comparisons - Bradford or Sanchez? Sanchez or Bradford? - seem pretty ridiculous now. After all those questions about what kind of quarterback Bradford would be here, whether his star-crossed tenure with the Rams was the result of bad circumstances or his flaws, here is where he stands: In his four games since the bye, he has completed 68 percent of his passes for 898 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. And when he starts and finishes a game this season, the Eagles are 6-4.

"Tell you what," Schottenheimer said, "there was nothing about him I didn't like, other than when you're dealing with young players, [their development] doesn't go as fast as you'd like. That's exactly what I think it is. The spotlight on that position is so dramatic that there's no way of knowing until it happens one way or another."

Maybe, finally, it's happening for Sam Bradford. And not a moment too soon for the Eagles.