SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Just halfway through his first NFL season, Sam Bradford already resembles the franchise savior Alex Smith never became.
Both quarterbacks are No. 1 overall draft picks, Smith going to San Francisco five seasons before the rookie Bradford went to St. Louis. Both joined terrible teams – the 49ers were 2-14 before Smith’s arrival, and the Rams won just six games in the past three seasons before picking Bradford.
But while Bradford immediately has become one of the league’s most dynamic offensive rookies in leading the Rams (4-4) to an unlikely share of the NFC West lead with Seattle, Smith is spending his sixth consecutive season with a new offensive coordinator and another bout with injuries that are likely to keep him out of the franchises’ 122nd meeting Sunday at Candlestick Park.
Bradford is aware of the various factors that put him in position to shine where Smith has faded with the 49ers (2-6), yet he still wants more out of the second half of his first season – starting with the Rams’ first division title since 2003.
“To be honest, not really,” Bradford said when asked if his 1,674-yard, 11-touchdown half-season has exceeded his expectations.
“I think coming in here into this training camp, we had the expectations for this team set a lot higher than most people would have expected,” Bradford added. “We’re still shooting for those. We’re a long way from being the team we want to be. We have to make a lot of improvements and get better each week.”
Bradford went to a franchise restocked by the draft and led by respected coach Steve Spagnuolo, while Smith joined a team that hasn’t really been out of turmoil for more than a few months since owner John York fired coach Steve Mariucci early in 2003.
The quarterbacks have more common ground than their similar situations: Bradford even spoke with Smith about their mutual shoulder woes last year, when injuries forced Bradford to miss most of his final season at Oklahoma. Bradford wanted Smith’s opinion before undergoing surgery.
“He was definitely influential in my decision-making process in what I was going through,” Bradford said.
Smith’s separated left shoulder is likely to keep him out Sunday, so backup Troy Smith is almost certain to join Bradford in a meeting of Heisman Trophy winners when both teams return from their off weeks.
The 49ers should be fully recovered two weeks after their excursion to London, where Troy Smith led them to their second victory in three games at Wembley after an 0-5 start. The minimal surge has sparked encouraging thoughts among fans and owner Jed York, who brashly predicted last month that his winless team would make the playoffs.
“The most important thing, like in every year, is November and December,” Niners coach Mike Singletary said.
After two weeks to immerse himself in new offensive coordinator Mike Johnson’s version of the playbook, Troy Smith is eager to show what he has learned.
“We will do some things, hopefully, that will be eyebrow-raising for you,” Smith said. “They do an incredible job of game-planning. St. Louis has a team defensively, they do a lot of things. It’s going to cause for a lot of humbling yourself, putting yourself into situations as an offense where everybody has to communicate and be on the same page. That’s the way we’re preparing.”
The Rams have won four of six to join the slumping Seahawks atop the decidedly mediocre NFC West, a division San Francisco was widely expected to win before its horrific start to the season. Yet the Rams still haven’t won an NFC West game on the road since November 2007, and have lost four straight to San Francisco.
Spagnuolo knows all about the accumulated skill on the Niners’ roster from years of high draft picks, particularly on a playmaking defense led by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis.
“We are not in any way going to be blindfolded by the record,” Spagnuolo said. “There is a lot of talent on this team.”
The Rams haven’t won on the road yet this season, but will have to learn quickly with four of their next five away from St. Louis. Bradford doesn’t think his experience in big-time pressure situations at Oklahoma will do much to prepare him for the pressures of NFL road games.
“It’s by far one of the better defenses we’ll see,” said Bradford, who turned 23 on Monday. “Their front seven is very good. They get a lot of push up front. They’re extremely experienced, too. They understand how to play the game and the scheme they’re in. We’re going to have to be very good if we want to put points on the board.”
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