DAN BICKLEY

For now, the Cardinals embrace the present with Sam Bradford

Jul 30, 2018, 7:23 AM | Updated: 11:04 am
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford (9) throws during the first day of NFL football training...
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford (9) throws during the first day of NFL football training camp, Saturday, July 28, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
(AP Photo/Matt York)

Training camp begins with an early revelation. There is no quarterback competition between Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen.

The battle is between a veteran quarterback and his damaged knee.

There was no official announcement from the Arizona Cardinals over the weekend. This is not breaking news. This is just the logical assumption after Bradford sat out Friday’s running test, while his teammates burned through a series of 40- and 60-yard sprints. And then he aced the eye test on Saturday, throwing darts and looking decisive, rarely missing his target or failing to hit receivers in stride.

It was a reminder that Bradford has an elite arm and isn’t going to lose a job on the outcome of passing drills. He seems to be as familiar with the offense as the big-brained rookie.

The offseason belonged to Rosen, who wowed grizzled veterans with his poise and intellect. Bradford surely heard the rave reviews pouring down on his competitor, a rookie who capitalized on Arizona’s plan to nurse their veteran quarterback through minicamp.

Now it is Bradford’s turn to shine, and the story has already come full circle, where the incumbent is hearing effusive praise from Rosen.

“He’s a really, really good quarterback,” Rosen said. “And I think people are sleeping on him.”

The Cardinals understand the shifting landscape. Rosen is the future, a conversation piece, a polarizing player that creates local and national interest. While the team has already named Bradford as their starting quarterback, they have done nothing to discourage their rookie from believing that he’s competing for the No. 1 job, even if they’re likely feeding a delusion.

Instead, they are prepping Rosen as a starter so he can inherit the job if and when necessary.

Rosen’s development is clearly a top priority in Arizona and must be served with a coherent, long-term plan. But there is no training manual for grooming rookie quarterbacks. Do the Cardinals benefit from a year on the sidelines? Or should elite prospects jump into the fray before they start thinking too much?

This much is certain:

If Rosen is ready to be the team’s starting quarterback next season, the Cardinals will be in an enviable position. They’ll have over $90 million in cap space to assemble their next Super Bowl contender. They can build transcendent depth around Rosen because they’ll have a franchise quarterback playing on a rookie contract.

The Seahawks once enjoyed that blessing with a young Russell Wilson, learning how affordable quarterbacks make winning significantly easier in the NFL.

But the Cardinals must also serve the present. This could be the final season in Larry Fitzgerald’s Hall of Fame career. The addition of Tre Boston changes the complexion of the secondary. The offensive line features a great mix of personalities. There are no signs of resignation or rebuilding efforts just yet.

If Bradford stays healthy throughout camp, he will win the job with his experience and accuracy. That conclusion seemed clear less than two hours into the team’s first practice, and the veterans in the room will expect nothing less.

Granted, it’s early. But there are some compelling changes in Glendale, a new approach that feels nothing like a rebuilding effort and seems to be coming at the perfect time.

The team stretches before practice. Calisthenics are set to music. The coaching staff is much younger. Their average age of 44.5 shaves about 10 years off the 2017 staff, an aged crew that featured one coach in his 80s and two in their 70s. The energy is much improved and so is the attention to detail, addressing a fatal flaw spawned from the final years under Bruce Arians.

Too often, the previous staff was badly fooled on game days, wondering how a great week of practice resulted in lackluster performances on Sunday. Maybe their eyes deceived them. Maybe something got lost along the way, as a team that failed to match the preparedness, intensity and doggedness of the opponent.

Or maybe the accountability that was too often a one-way street in the past – a culture where players were publicly criticized and coaches too easily absolved – ran its course inside the locker room.

Either way, the 2018 Cardinals are off to a good start. There is a new voice and a new belief inside team headquarters. There’s a fresh hope that this team can be surprisingly competitive in the NFC West, a franchise that entered the offseason with zero quarterbacks on its roster and has already dealt with its share of internal adversity.

That’s why Bradford will be the team’s starting quarterback come September. He has something that Rosen can’t learn and can’t prove until the real games begin. He will give the team no other choice and no reason to rush head-first into the future.

Until his knee proves otherwise.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com.  Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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For now, the Cardinals embrace the present with Sam Bradford