ST. LOUIS — Hospitalized for back surgery in early April, Steven Jackson telephoned the player the St. Louis Rams were poised to take with the first pick of the draft.
On the other end of the line, Sam Bradford told the Pro Bowl running back that his shoulder was ready for the NFL.
"I gave him a call to see if he was OK," Jackson said. "He reassured me that he felt like his shoulder was stronger than ever and he was ready to lead the team, ready to make an impression on us and help us get back to winning ways."
Words to lean on.
Look where the Rams are now. They're 4-4 headed into the bye week and legitimate playoff contenders in the lightweight NFC West, ranking as one of the league's biggest surprises considering they totaled six wins the previous three seasons during the franchise's descent into the abyss.
They've been solid on both sides of the ball. Enjoying themselves, too.
Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, son of a former professional wrestler known as Animal, busted out WWE moves in last week's victory over the Carolina Panthers. After his first interception of the year foiled a flea-flicker on the first play from scrimmage, he emulated Ric Flair. After a sack later in the game, he made a series of gestures followed by a he-man pose that aped Hulk Hogan.
"I kind of stepped my swagger up," Laurinaitis said. "You look at the Madden game and the swagger's so low, maybe they'll bump me up. Before it was a meatball flex, so you've got to liven it up a little bit."
The Rams wore 1999 throwback uniforms on Sunday to honor Isaac Bruce, a member of the Greatest Show on Turf whose No. 80 jersey was retired in a pre-game ceremony. Safety O.J. Atogwe paid tribute after nearly scoring on a clinching interception late in the game, breaking into a vintage bob 'n weave end zone celebration with cornerback Ron Bartell.
Nobody seemed to mind the penalty for illegal demonstration.
In the hours before Rams management decided not to make a waiver claim on Randy Moss on Wednesday, jokers assigned a vacant locker stall to the malcontent wide receiver by taping a sheet of paper with "MOSS" on top.
Well, most of them are having fun.
Bradford, among the midseason front-runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year, has yet to be spotted around town enjoying his oversized contract. Instead, he spends most waking hours at Rams Park getting extra tutoring.
Before the quarterback departed for his first trip home since training camp, coaches loaded his laptop with 49ers defensive video to give him a head start for next week's game at San Francisco.
In his last three games, Bradford has thrown five touchdown passes with no interceptions. Against the Panthers he had a 112 passer rating, keeping the chains moving with short accurate passing combined with Jackson's punishing carries.
"There's still a lot of things that I have to work on," Bradford said. "I have to become a much better player than I am today, but I think the fact that I've made progress from Week 1 is a positive sign.
"If I can continue that, I think good things will happen."
What does he need to work on?
"Oh, everything," the No. 1 pick said.
Coaches continually must remind themselves that Bradford is a rookie who missed most of his final college season at Oklahoma.
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