Ex-coach Heupel talked Sam Bradford out of quitting

Josh Heupel, now offensive coordinator at Utah State, was Sam Bradford's QB coach at Oklahoma. SUE OGROCKI / AP
Josh Heupel, now offensive coordinator at Utah State, was Sam Bradford's QB coach at Oklahoma. SUE OGROCKI / AP
Posted: March 31, 2015

Josh Heupel had watched the surreal scene on TV last August - the quarterback he'd helped coach to a Heisman Trophy hopping on his right leg, leaving his left leg to dangle in the air at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.

Sam Bradford had locked his left knee as Browns defensive end Armonty Bryant hit him in the pocket during a preseason game, and if Heupel couldn't see the terror on Bradford's face in that moment, he could hear the resignation in his voice when he called Bradford a few days later.

The kid had torn his left ACL for the second time in nine months. The kid was thinking about quitting football. The kid needed to remember who he was.

So Heupel, who had been Bradford's quarterback coach at Oklahoma, delivered a pep talk that made this wild Eagles offseason possible. As Bradford had confessed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December, that second ACL tear had done more than wipe out his fifth season with the Rams. After winning the Heisman in 2008, after the Rams had selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft, Bradford had begun doubting his future in the NFL.

"I didn't want to come back," he'd told the Post-Dispatch, and the reason that he didn't follow through on his thoughts about retiring, that he was still available for the Eagles to acquire in that blockbuster trade for Nick Foles, was that Heupel persuaded him to stick it out.

"It was one of those moments where, after all the time and energy and passion that he poured into rehabilitating himself in the first injury, you feel like you're snakebitten," Heupel said in a phone interview. "You don't know when, if, or how your body is going to respond and what your next opportunity is. You're really just in a lot of limbo. Sometimes, I think, just having a voice from an outside perspective is something that can be valuable."

Heupel is now the offensive coordinator at Utah State, and he took a break from a Saturday morning film-study session to make it clear he understood the panic that's sure to set in around here with Bradford's admission.

It's risky enough that Chip Kelly would bet on Bradford and his injury history: a right shoulder that required surgery while he was at Oklahoma, that tear-prone ligament in his left knee. But unless all those conspiracy theories about Bradford's being a commodity in a Marcus Mariota trade are true, Kelly has found a franchise quarterback who less than a year ago contemplated walking away from football.

Bradford's crisis of confidence will be nothing but fodder for those who believe that Kelly would have been better off sticking with Foles. Yeah, Nick's been hurt a lot, too, but at least he never thought about giving up.

Those injuries are real concerns, and it will be months before Bradford can start the process of proving he can stay healthy for a full season. Nevertheless, Heupel insisted that he has rarely encountered a player as competitive as Bradford, that Bradford's disappointment over the second ACL injury ran so deep because he had wanted so badly to come back and prove himself.

"When a player goes through a big letdown, it's natural to be down," said Heupel, who quarterbacked OU to a national title in 2000. "I just tried to reach out to him and say, 'Hey, I still see this in you as a person and a player. I think the best is yet to come for you. You've got to get yourself healthy and get yourself back on the field and get yourself in the right environment with the right people and the right supporting cast around you, and there's no doubt in my mind you'll achieve the things you're capable of achieving and want to achieve.'

"Nothing changed for him from a guy who was the number-one overall draft pick as far as who or what he is as a person and a competitor, and ultimately that's why there's no doubt in my mind he's going to reach the pinnacle of success."

When Heupel learned of the trade, he said, he grew excited both for the fresh start the Eagles afforded Bradford and for the possibilities of what Bradford might do in Kelly's offense. The Sooners had run a similar system to Kelly's: up-tempo, plays called by hand signals, "no verbiage," Heupel said. It had played to Bradford's strengths, to his facile mind and his accurate arm. Bradford had completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown 86 touchdowns over the 2007 and 2008 seasons for Oklahoma. Until that first ACL injury had ended his 2013 season with the Rams after seven games, his accuracy percentage - the figure that Pro Football Focus uses to determine just how precise a quarterback really is with the football - had been 74.7, the seventh-best in the NFL.

"If he's 100 percent healthy," Heupel said, "he'll be able to perform at an elite level."

There will be no bigger question for Chip Kelly and the Eagles this season, but at least they will have the opportunity to answer it. That surreal scene in Cleveland played out just seven months ago, but at least Josh Heupel picked up his phone and kept saying all the right things until Sam Bradford believed in Sam Bradford again.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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