Would you rather run the Rams or the Colts?

An interesting meme is making the rounds that the Rams have the pole position in the race to hire a new GM. The reasons being cited are:

  1. The Rams already have a franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, and
  2. The Rams have an enormous amount of salary cap space to work with.

The source seems to be this Peter King article from last week, though as usual the attribution gets stripped out as the story is repeated. Of the two, King puts way more emphasis on Sam Bradford’s upside and assumes the Rams would trade down in the draft. And with the salary cap projected to grow very little over the next two years, the Rams with all their cap space would be in great shape to land three or four stud free agents.

Just one problem: Both points are wrong. Maybe that’s two problems. Actually, it’s more than two because the Rams have bigger headaches than just their roster.

Bradford Isn’t That Good

Sam Bradford. First overall pick in 2010. Second-most passing yards for a true rookie in league history, behind only Peyton Manning. Sounds like a good guy to put your faith in, right?

Chase Stuart at Pro Football Reference says no. Actually, his words are “incredibly overrated”. While Bradford didn’t manage to top Peyton’s record for rookie passing yards, he did set a new record for rooking passing attempts. That made his net yards per pass attempt (NY/A) in 2010 look rather pedestrian.

Net yards per pass attempt is a simple formula: (Passing yards – Sack yards) / (Pass attemps + Sacks). Pro Football Reference prefers it as their single best stat for predicting future QB performance. So for kicks, let’s use it to compare Bradford’s rookie season with other recent QBs picked at number one overall. Not all of them played in their first year so we’ll compare the first years in which they started a majority of games in a season and sort the list by NY/A.

Quarterback Year Drafted Year Started NY/A League Rank
Cam Newton 2011 2011 6.9 10th
Peyton Manning 1998 1998 6.1 12th
Eli Manning 2004 2005 6.1 14th
Michael Vick 2001 2002 6.0 18th
Carson Palmer 2003 2004 5.9 20th
Alex Smith 2005 2006 5.6 22nd
JaMarcus Russell 2007 2008 5.5 30th
Matt Stafford 2009 2009 5.2 28th
Sam Bradford 2010 2010 5.2 31st
Tim Couch 1999 1999 4.6 34th
David Carr 2002 2002 4.2 35th

In this context Bradford’s rookie season looks… underwhelming. He wasn’t Tim Couch bad but neither was he Eli Manning good. He compares well to Matt Stafford’s rookie season but Stafford battled knee and shoulder injuries for most of his first year while Bradford was healthy. This year a healthy Stafford was very solid while Bradford on his gimpy ankle was much, much worse.

So even if, as King suggests, Bradford “returns to 2010 form”, that gives the Rams… a QB almost as good as JaMarcus Russell? Are you really sold on this guy as your franchise QB of the future?

Not that you have many options to get rid of Bradford. According to Howard Balzer, the Rams still owe him a ton of money. Cutting him costs $14.4 million in dead money and trading him means finding someone to take on $20 million guaranteed in 2012 and 2013. Ouch. Which brings us to the next fallacy…

There’s Not That Much Money

In October, Turf Show Times landed a great interview with Rams VP of Football Ops Kevin Demoff that lays out the Rams’ salary cap situation. Short version: 2012 is still going to be tight on cap space thanks to the large rookie contracts paid to high draft picks in 2008-2010. With all current contracts and signing projected draft picks the Rams expect to be about $10 million under the cap. Not bad, but not really enough to snag even one of Peter King’s dream free agents (Mario Williams? Seriously?).

Things look better in 2013 when roughly $40-45 million in cap room opens up. Then again, that’s mostly because a bunch of young, core players are coming off their rookie contracts. A good chunk of that money disappears if you want to re-sign or replace those guys.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the Colts aren’t exactly in cap hell. If we count expiring contracts as free money then the Colts have a ton of players coming off the books next year, including Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem, Anthony Gonzalez, and Jamaal Anderson. Those guys alone totalled over $20 million in 2011 cap charges. Of course some of them will get re-signed but conventional wisdom says most won’t. More money opens up in 2013 when Dwight Freeney and Kerry Collins (ugh) roll off too.

Let’s also address some elephants in the room: Peyton Manning counts for $17 million in 2012. Dallas Clark counts for $8 million. Gary Bracket, $5 million. If you tell me all three of those guys will be back next year, you’re lying.

But of course being a General Manager isn’t just about finding the right players. At some level you’re involved in every aspect of team business, and that includes…

Stadium Drama Ahead

The Edward Jones Dome kind of sucks. It wasn’t designed by a team, it was designed by a city to lure in a team. As such it’s sterile, uninspired, and lacking in amenities that teams have come to expect in the last decade. It doesn’t support enough luxury suites. It’s not really good enough to host a Super Bowl. It the team doesn’t get a new stadium, everybody suspects they might just move to Los Angeles. Does any of this sound familiar to Indy fans?

Unfortunately for the Rams, the comparisons go downhill from there. Jim Irsay managed to finesse a sweetheart deal on a brand new stadium during the height of the housing boom with relatively little public outcry. Stan Kroenke is also a savvy businessman who has the love of his state but he faces much bigger hurdles than those Irsay jumped, mainly a city with a much weaker appetite for publicly financed construction.

In 1995, the St. Louis Cardinals started lobbying for a new ballpark. They didn’t get their wish until 2002, and they only got it by agreeing to pay 90% of the costs through private financing. Seriously. St. Louis would only cowboy up about $36 million to build a new park for the Cards but the city of Indy and state of Indiana shelled out $620 million to build Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts couldn’t have prayed for better timing on their stadium deal. In June of 2005, when Marion county and the surrounding counties were voting on the %1 sales tax hike to fund the Luke, the Pacers had just said a tearful goodbye to Reggie Miller after a season that started so well was wrecked by the Malice at the Palace brawl. Meanwhile the Colts were riding high after a 2004 season that saw Peyton break the touchdown record and win his second straight MVP. Today the Rams are coming off their fifth straight sub-.500 season while the Cardinals just won another World Series. Nobody in St. Louis is raising taxes to buy the Rams a new house.

TL;DR

None of this is to say that the Rams GM is a crappy job. But the Rams are no better than the Colts in terms of talent or finances and they’re facing a nasty stadium fight in the next few years. A GM candidate who can’t see that is someone I wouldn’t want running the Colts anyway.

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