EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - For the first time in three years, Sam Bradford had walked off the field after his final game of an NFL season, and he kept walking - through a tunnel to the visitors' locker room at MetLife Stadium, from the locker room to a news conference area, from behind that podium back to his locker. The room had quieted some by then, his teammates dressing quickly to board the Eagles' team bus and begin their offseasons, and Bradford paused before leaving to consider a question that, for all the tumult of these last four months, he never allowed to define him or his career.
He had seen his last two seasons with the St. Louis Rams wiped out when he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in November 2013, then tore it again 10 months later. He had withstood his ugly weeks in September and October, when his timing was off and his throws were uncertain from all that time away. He had returned to play after sitting out two games with a concussion and a shoulder injury. And here, in sum, was what he had done: He had thrown for 3,725 yards and 19 touchdowns, had set the Eagles' single-season record for completion percentage (65.0), and had the other men in the locker room pleading publicly to owner Jeffrey Lurie and team vice president Howie Roseman to make sure Bradford didn't get away. He had proved something to them. Had he proved something to himself, too?
"Obviously, I missed those two games," Bradford said Sunday, after the Eagles' 35-30 victory over the Giants. "But I think I showed I can take hits and get back up again. Deep down, I knew I could."
This was the brightest ray of light, maybe the only one, to shine through from this dark and dissatisfying Eagles season. There have been worse Eagles teams than 2015's, than a group that needed a meaningless win here Sunday just to finish 7-9, but from the firing of Chip Kelly to the disintegration of Bill Davis' defense, from the misspent money on DeMarco Murray to the misspent money on Byron Maxwell, there haven't been many seasons that were more disappointing.
Yet from the outset of training camp, one of the primary questions that the Eagles needed to answer was whether Bradford had the ability and the staying power to be the franchise's long-term starting quarterback. He answered that question. He can.
Once Bradford re-acclimated himself to the rigors and speed of a single NFL game and a full NFL season, once the Eagles' bye week gave him a chance to refine his fundamentals, he became a quarterback capable of justifying the blockbuster trade Kelly made, and the big chance Kelly took, to bring him here. His excellent game Sunday - 30 for 38, 320 yards, two touchdowns, a fluky interception on a tipped pass - continued the upward arc his performances had been tracing since early November. Over his final seven starts, Bradford completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 1,959 yards, 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 97.2 passer rating - with a fraying offensive line, with receivers who treated the football as if it were a wet, well-used bar of Irish Spring.
"What you're seeing from Sam in the last part of this year is more of what he is," interim head coach Pat Shurmur said. "You have two season-ending injuries, and these are like big-time car wrecks. It takes a while to come back from that."
More than the mere statistics, though, Bradford won over his teammates through his guts and toughness. Those aren't qualities that come up often in discussions about Bradford, but they should. They should be at the forefront of any conversation about him. For no matter how conditioned football fans may be to players' returning from severe injury, no matter how many people take those grueling rehabilitations and recoveries for granted, it wasn't lost on the other Eagles what Bradford had to go through - twice - just to suit up in Atlanta on Sept. 14 and against the Giants on Sunday.
"He had just about every form of adversity you could as a quarterback, coming into a new situation, new players, new offense, new head coach, new city, hasn't played football in two years," center Jason Kelce said. "It was a bit optimistic to expect him to play the way he's playing now at the beginning of the year."
The irony of Bradford's growth, of course, is that it puts the Eagles in such a difficult position, with such a delicate process to go through to determine his future with the team. He becomes a free agent now, and the Eagles don't have a head coach. So how do Lurie, Roseman, and Tom Donahoe handle this? Do they do everything they can to keep Bradford and make his retention a condition of hiring a coach? Do they let the new hire decide whom his quarterback should be? What will it take to re-sign Bradford to a multiyear contract? Should they franchise-tag him for 2016 and hope for the best?
"If we can retain Sam Bradford, that is the most important position on the field - on offense, defense, special teams, anything," Kelce said. "If we can retain a guy like that, that would be huge for our ball club, regardless of who the head coach is."
From Kelce to Shurmur, from Zach Ertz to Jordan Matthews, that was the consensus in the locker room late Sunday afternoon: Whatever else happens, keep Sam. Keep him here. He had earned that praise, that respect. Sam Bradford had walked off the damn field again, finally, and it's on Lurie and Roseman now to make sure that the best part of a bad season doesn't go to waste.