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Sam Bradford’s pivotal season with Arizona Cardinals begins

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2018, file photo, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Sam Bradford (9) throws during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, in Arlington, Texas. Bradford completed his first seven passes in the preseason before having a couple dropped in the third game against Dallas but really hasn't amped up the passing game yet. ``I feel good right now," he said. ``My body's in a good place and I think now we'll see the benefits of the plan we had throughout OTAs and throughout the spring.'' (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Football season is finally here. Not offseason workouts or training camp or preseason games or anything else like that. No, it’s here for real. The first official game of the 2018 NFL campaign is on Thursday night.

The Arizona Cardinals will kick things off on Sunday, at home in freshly renamed State Farm Stadium, against Washington. The Redskins aren’t an easy team to beat, by any means. Especially in the opening week of the season, when Adrian Peterson will be at his healthiest and most dangerous. But, if you’re looking at the schedule and circling off games the Cards probably need to win if they’re serious about making a push for a playoff spot, well, this is one of them.

That’s right – the season hasn’t even started yet, and Arizona’s facing a pretty important game.

There are plenty of pivotal moments throughout the NFL year, and this entire season is a pretty pivotal one for the Cardinals organization as they transition from the era of Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer to Steve Wilks, Sam Bradford and eventually Josh Rosen.

Wilks will presumably be here for awhile. By most accounts, he’s already stamped his identity on the team. And Rosen would have to just completely melt down in unforeseen ways to not have the reigns handed to him in 2019.

Things aren’t quite so certain for Bradford, though.

Yes, he’s been paid well and all that. But in terms of where his career goes beyond this, the 2018 season is monumental. When healthy, he’s a top-tier quarterback in today’s NFL. But that “when healthy” tag is more permanently affixed to his name than just about anyone else in football.

“I hope that one day maybe you guys will stop using that phrase or stop asking those questions,” he acknowledged after Wednesday’s practice. “But I think, at this point, I understand it and realize it just kind of comes with it.”

Of course, the only way to stop the questions and shake the label is to actually stay on the field. Which is not entirely under Bradford’s control. Fair or not though, that’s the reality of the situation.

“You realize that you’ve put in the work,” Bradford explained. “I know that I’ve put in all of the work possible. You know, I’ve done everything in my power to get my body in the position that it is now, and I think that’s comforting. I think you find comfort in that, knowing that is the case and that, regardless of if something does happen or not, there’s nothing I can do. And I think that helps you kind of push past injuries out of your head.”

After attempting just 43 passes last year – and playing in just 38 of a possible 64 games since 2013 – Bradford has worked extensively this offseason to get his troublesome knee as close to stable as possible. And he’s worked in tandem with the Cardinals this summer to minimize his risk during camp and the preseason. So far, it’s working.

“I know that, right now, it does feel as good as it has felt in a long time,” he said. “I’ve done everything in my power to put myself in this position. If something happens and I get injured, or if something happens and it doesn’t hold up, I’m going to hold my head high knowing I put my body and myself in the best position to succeed. And I think that’s all you can do, and that’s really what I’ve told myself throughout this process.”

That really is all he and the Cards can do. Anybody in the NFL can get hurt on any play, but Bradford has had more than his fair share of missed time in his career. And if he were absent for an extended part of this season, it would put his career at a major crossroads.

It would likely derail the quiet optimism that’s been growing around this Arizona team as well. Not to mention they’d have to rush Rosen along faster than they want to.

If Bradford can stay healthy though – and there’s that phrase again – there’s reason for that quiet optimism that’s been percolating around camp. And he’s already winning his new teammates over, as evidenced by the fact that he was voted one of the Cardinals’ captains for 2018.

“Just the respect that we have for him here in this locker room,” fellow captain Antoine Bethea pointed to, when describing why the players chose Bradford. “Another veteran, been in the league a long time, been playing some great ball. Just what he’s done since the short time that he’s been in just speaks volumes. High character guy, and we respect that.”

Of course, the best opportunity to win teammates and fans over begins this Sunday. Win actual games, and people will push the injury-prone label to the back of their minds. They might still hold their collective breath every time Bradford gets hit, but it doesn’t always have to be the first thing everyone thinks of when they see No. 9 trot onto the field. And David Johnson has confidence Bradford can do exactly that.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to – I have some friends that played with him on the Vikings – they all said that his accuracy is definitely top of the line.”

That accuracy is something that guys on the Cardinals have been talking about for a while now. And it will serve him well as he looks to take command of his new team this weekend.

“Sam is great,” Johnson smiled. “Very smart. Very good veteran quarterback. He’s always telling guys what to do, he’s always conducting the offense really well. He knows the offense, he knows the scheme, he knows how to control the offense and the defense so I’m very excited about what Sam can do.”

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