DAN BICKLEY

Cardinals’ low expectations nationally show no confidence in Sam Bradford

Aug 8, 2018, 6:55 AM | Updated: 12:32 pm

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford warms up during NFL football training camp Saturday, Aug...

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford warms up during NFL football training camp Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Diehard Arizona Cardinals fans are feeling a new optimism. They’re also feeling very alone.

Is our NFL team ready to shock the football community? Or are we being foolish?

Locally, you’ve heard nothing but rave reviews of the new coaching staff and the comprehensive leadership provided by new head coach Steve Wilks. Josh Rosen was the breakout star of NFL minicamp, as witnessed by Patrick Peterson, who said the rookie “blew my mind.” Sam Bradford took the stage in training camp and has looked stellar in training camp.

It got real when Larry Fitzgerald strongly advised fans to bet the over in Las Vegas, where the Cardinals are on the board at 5.5 wins in 2018. Where a winning team makes for a very nice Christmas in Arizona.

So what are we missing?

Entering training camp, the Cardinals were stuck near the bottom, ranked as high as 21st and as low as 27th in national power rankings. They just tied for 29th on another national website, below the lowly Browns. Earlier in the week, NFL.com pegged them at No. 26.

The forecast is curious. If Bradford can stay healthy, he will bring a lot to the party. He doesn’t flex his brain in public, but he is extremely intelligent. He can compensate for what the new center, Mason Cole, doesn’t know and doesn’t see. He’s famously accurate with his passes, conducting practices when the ball doesn’t hit the ground. Just like Kurt Warner once did.

The Cardinals have babied Bradford. He didn’t participate in the team’s initial running test that christened training camp. But ever since, he’s looked quick, confident and decisive. The ball comes out of his hands quickly, hinting at one of the pillar philosophies supporting Mike McCoy’s new offense. A strategy designed to keep Bradford on the playing field.

After Tuesday’s practice, the veteran quarterback told reporters he feels “good.” It was an interesting choice of words. It also reflected who Bradford is, understated, motivated, scarred and probably a little scared.

He has beaten the NFL at the money game but proven very little in the ones that matter, the ones they play on Sunday. The assemblage of power rankings disrespect his ability as a quarterback, unless they assume he’s going down quick in 2018.

Imagine possessing that kind of talent and inspiring that kind of doubt, the kind you can’t control. How do you trust your knee when nobody else does?

Bradford has shown complete faith in the health procedures he now follows, never once confirming the opinion of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who called the knee “degenerative” following the 2017 season. Maybe Bradford is fighting a losing battle. Or maybe the head coach is right, and a loose-lipped friend to avoid.

Either way, the Cardinals have interesting decisions ahead, a team that had zero quarterbacks on their roster in the middle of March.

Do they play Bradford deep into preseason games? He says he wants the action and the chance to regain rhythm. He hasn’t played in a NFL game since Oct. 2017, after he lit up the Saints in Week 1 only to watch his body recoil and rebel. He says it represents his darkest moment in football, and his internal fire is one of the best storylines of the upcoming season.

“Everybody is pleased with his performance,” Wilks said. “And more important, the strength in his knee.”

Bradford says he’s eagerly looking forward to next week, when the Cardinals will pare down their playbook, focusing on what they do well and what they do fast. That’s when an offense develops its identity, a process that excites Bradford. It would also seem to indicate an abbreviated showing in the preseason debut, and Wilks confirmed that Bradford will be among three players who will be heavily protected in the preseason debut, along with Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson.

After that, it’s time to take off the training wheels. It’s better for the Cardinals to know early in training camp if Bradford’s knee can hold up to stress, duress and contact. He’s had enough rest and rehab, and it’s time to see what he’s capable of shouldering in 2018. And whether the national experts have this team all wrong.

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