There’s hope for Sam Bradford and maybe the Eagles yet

For the record, the Eagles aren’t out of anything. People may not want to hear that right now, but it’s the truth. Even at 1-3, they’re only one game back of first place in the NFC East. We’ve seen this team start slow and finish strong before, in 2013 actually — on Chip Kelly’s watch — going 1-3 and 3-5, then rallying to win seven of their last eight and take the division. We’ve seen teams win nine or 10 in a season and go on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.

There’s too much wrong with the Eagles right now to say that’s anything more than a mere possibility, much in the same way that winning the lottery is a possibility. There are still an infinite number of paths this season can take. They just don’t all have the same probability.

One thing that we know for certain is the first four weeks were not a referendum on Sam Bradford. That may be the amount of time it’s taken for some fans and members of the media to reach their conclusions, many of whom were suggesting the quarterback might be in danger of being pulled the past couple weeks. But for what it’s worth, there’s been no indication from Kelly that Bradford has been in any danger of being benched, and the head coach’s faith was rewarded to some degree on Sunday.

Bradford played arguably his best game in an Eagles uniform in the 23-20 loss to Washington, completing 15 of 28 passes for 270 yards — an explosive 9.6 average per attempt — and three touchdowns. While you would like to see a 53.6 completion percentage rise, that figure was partially a product of Bradford's unleashing the deep ball, a lower-percentage pass. And while he overshot on a few, he also connected on his fair share.

It was progress, which is all you could ask for given the way Bradford started the season. Plus, he did it while under siege behind a patchwork offensive line, without much help from the running game, not to mention had a fourth touchdown pass called back on a penalty.

There was a lot to be pleased with by this performance, despite the losing effort. At the very least, it instilled some hope that Bradford and the Eagles may work out yet, if not how many envisioned this season, perhaps in the long run.

If the playoffs or Super Bowl are truly out of reach and the rest of this season is about nothing else, it will be about seeing whether Bradford can continue to develop and become the Eagles’ franchise quarterback.

Bradford has been less than stellar so far this season. He’s missed open receivers. He’s not always looked comfortable with the offense. He’s seemed unwilling to push the ball downfield or on the outside. He’s been inaccurate and erratic. At times, the offense looks plain off, and some of the responsibility for that inevitably falls on the signal-caller.

As usual, we probably set the bar too high to begin with. Training camp hype coupled with Bradford’s incredible preseason is partly to blame for lofty, almost unreasonable expectations.

It was hard not to get excited by what we saw — 13 for 15, 156 yards and three touchdowns on four series. It was all too easy to forget that Bradford had not played meaningful, professional football in nearly 23 months. He’s in a new offense, surrounded by all new players. The belief that Bradford was going to come out and light the world on fire was always misguided, especially once defenses started going full speed and coaches started game-planning with a full depth chart at their disposal. And after taking only 32 snaps during the preseason no less?

In a world where everything is at our fingertips and we are so used to instant gratification, it made sense Bradford would be an immediate success. The reality is, like any task that’s performed manually, Bradford needs repetition to grow in the offense, to get used to the speed of the game again, to feel comfortable in the pocket again, to trust his twice surgically repaired ACL — and to do all of that while being a mechanically sound football player.

There’s a lot going on here. We take for granted how easy Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees make playing quarterback look. No player has ever reached that point overnight.

Not everything that’s gone awry has been Bradford’s fault, either. Not even close.

The Eagles are tied for third in the NFL with nine dropped passes, which might be a generous tab. Two of Bradford’s four interceptions were dropped passes. Darren Sproles dropped an impeccably placed pass in Week 3 that would have gone for a 78-yard touchdown. How much better would the quarterback’s numbers look if his receivers could simply hold on to the ball?

Meanwhile, the Eagles are averaging a pathetic 3.1 yards per rushing attempt this season, and the ground attack hasn’t even been that effective, for lack of a better word. Out of 83 carries by running backs, a whopping 28 have gone for no gain or negative yards — just over one-third. Fifteen of those have come on first down. In other words, it’s fallen almost entirely on Bradford to keep the sticks moving, often in difficult 3rd-and-longs.

As if that weren’t enough, the Eagles are tied for 16th with 17 offensive penalties, and those are just the ones that have been accepted. Not only has that taken many positive plays away from Bradford, including the illegal formation that negated a touchdown on Sunday, but it’s also conspired to put the offense in more unmanageable down-and-distance situations.

Most telling is Bradford’s 1-3 record as a starter, which some would say along with his disappointing numbers is a reflection of his time with the St. Louis Rams. And while the quarterback’s erratic play has certainly contributed to the outcomes, Bradford wasn’t the one who missed chip-shot field goals in two separate games, kicks that might’ve made the difference.

So while Bradford certainly shoulders some of the blame for what’s happened here, it isn’t fair to cast him as the source or cause of the Eagles’ problems through four weeks.

In fact, there are plenty of things Bradford has done quite capably. He’s on the hook for only five turnovers through four games, and most of them weren’t even his fault — two of the interceptions and a fumble on an early snap. Prior to Sunday, he had been sacked only twice as well. He’s proven adept at avoiding negative plays, which has helped keep the Eagles in some ugly games.

The biggest issue with Bradford right now seems to be consistency. We’ve seen him look untouchable in spurts this season, make perfect throws or even play near flawless halves of football. He simply hasn’t been able to put it together for four quarters.

Again, there are many reasons for that. Some of it is him seemingly still getting used to playing again. Some of it has been his teammates letting him down.

If Bradford can continue building off of what he’s done right, the latter should take care of itself — either this team improves him, or Kelly must retool in the offseason. For the time being at least, there’s still hope for the quarterback.