QUARTERBACKS ARE rarely able to escape their numbers, so you probably won't hear much talk about Sam Bradford around the coffee machine today. His quarterback rating was 77.4. He threw as many touchdowns as interceptions. He completed 23 of 38 passes for 247 yards.
But the guy was phenomenal, and that's been something of a trend here lately. In fact, it might be the most underreported story line surrounding this Eagles team. Bradford is playing his position at a very high level right now, higher than he has at any point in his NFL career, and his performance in the Eagles' 23-20 win over the Bills yesterday was just the latest example. He has looked like a guy who was absolutely worth a second-round pick. He has looked like a guy who will absolutely be worth a contract extension whenever it is that this bizarre season eventually ends. And, who knows, if the Eagles can find a way to get him a playmaker or two out wide, he might even put up the numbers to match.
The play that offered the best look at Bradford's development as a passer this season was his 53-yard touchdown strike to Nelson Agholor in the second quarter. Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus had beaten right guard Matt Tobin on an inside move at the snap, but Bradford calmly slid up in the collapsing pocket and kept his eyes downfield long enough to spot Agholor getting behind defensive back Corey Graham on a post route. The ensuing pass was like most of the other ones he threw.
"He really put the ball on guys today," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said after his team improved to 6-7 and remained in control of its playoff destiny with three games to play.
Once again, the majority of the breakdowns came during the part of the process where somebody other than Bradford is needed to secure the ball and make a play. Aside from a 41-yard catch-and-rumble by Zach Ertz, which featured an impressive display of hard runinng, and Agholor's touchdown grab, which required him to simply raise his hands above his head, the Eagles were unable to take advantage of the pocket presence and accuracy their quarterback displayed on a day when the offensive line did a solid job of keeping the Bills' pass rush in check.
Rex Ryan's lack of respect for the Eagles' ability to create separation between defensive backs was glaring. The Bills spent most of the game with both of their safeties lining up within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage: that's known as a "zero" look - as in, cornerbacks must defend their assignments with zero deep help - and it is incredibly rare for a team to show it as much as Buffalo did on Sunday.
"You can't allow people to do that," Bradford said. "If people are going to play that style of defense, you have to be able to go over the top of them."
The Eagles took several shots, although only Agholor was able to make a play.
After spending most of the season swearing that his pass catchers were doing a heckuva job, Kelly gave a grudging nod to mainstream thinking last week when he released wide receiver Miles Austin in the run-up to the Eagles' upset win over the Patriots. But it wasn't necessarily a case of addition by subtraction. Sammy Watkins has more talent than a lot of teams' best receivers, but it was still jarring to watch him rotate possessions with Riley Cooper and Josh Huff yesterday. With all due respect to Seyi Ajirotutu, who has been a big reason for the Eagles' outstanding punt coverage this season, imagine if Bradford had somebody with a little more speed running deep down the seam late in the second quarter. Same goes for his first throw of the game, which was initially ruled a stumbling, 42-yard catch by Riley Cooper before replay showed the ball hitting the ground. Agholor and Jordan Matthews both had catchable balls with inside position on their coverage on key third-down plays. Both resulted in incompletions.
Still, when a quarterback is as precise as Bradford was Sunday, a team is bound to make a play or two, and that's as good a reason as any to think that this Eagles season might yet extend beyond the regular season. The most noticeable improvement is Bradford's footwork in the pocket and his awareness of all of the moving parts around him. He is poised, confident and comfortable, mechanically and mentally.
"He's getting more and more comfortable with his lower body," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "That's really where it starts when you throw the football. It starts in your toes and works all the way up to your fingertips."
On the season, Bradford is completing 63 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 6.7 yards-per-attempt average. Like we said at the top, the numbers aren't the story. Although there are two we should acknowledge. In the last eight games Bradford started and finished, the Eagles are 6-2.