Nigel Bradham has finally found himself in his third year as an outside linebacker for the Bills. But if things had turned out differently last Sunday, he might have found himself deep in Doug Marrone’s doghouse.
Fortunately, the Jets were an offensive train wreck in a 43-23 loss. Geno Smith tossed three interceptions in the first 10 minutes, which made Bradham’s three boneheaded plays seem like misdemeanors by comparison.
Bradham hit the personal-foul trifecta: A taunting penalty after Smith’s first interception; a roughing the passer for smacking Michael Vick in the helmet; and a facemask call. The first personal foul pushed the Bills out of field-goal range. The other two preceded short touchdowns by the Jets.
Oh, he was also flagged for being offsides on a punt. That’s four penalties in one game.
No one was talking about Bradham leading his team in tackles for the second straight game, or forcing a fumble. The young guy who missed the opener for a marijuana offense was acting like a knucklehead, making bad choices again.
“Some of the calls were questionable,” Bradham said Tuesday. “The call on Vick where they said my hands hit his head? We felt like I had all arm. Yeah, Vick and I were walking and talking about the play after it happened.
“But it’s just part of the game,” he said. “I’m just fortunate that it didn’t affect us, and we were having a tremendous day so it wasn’t a big issue.”
Coach Doug Marrone wasn’t pleased about the taunting call; he told Bradham so in graphic detail. Bradham wasn’t looking to duck responsibility for that one.
“No, no, no,” he said with a smile. “I was probably taunting. Yeah, I was taunting. OK, so that was on me. Coach talked to me about it. He said he likes my aggression. But I’ve got to be smart in those situations, and I know that.”
Bradham said he got caught up in the heat of the moment. It’s understandable, when you consider that the Bills’ defense had worked itself into a lather over a perceived lack of national respect.
“It was brought to our attention in the locker room five minutes before the game that we were underdogs,” said linebacker Jerry Hughes. “We definitely took it personally, so we wanted to go out and send a message.”
The defense sent an emphatic message, humiliating Smith in the first 10 minutes. Bradham got carried away in the moment, as players are known to do. In a way, his taunting episode was an emotional expression of the entire team’s resentment at being a historic underdog against a 1-6 foe.
“Defensively, I can say that for sure,” Bradham said. “We feed off each other, and it gets everybody going to play harder and harder. We all get each other motivated to keep going harder every play and play with passion every play.
“I saw it as kind of a statement,” he said. “That whole week, all you heard about was the Jets defense, Jets defense, Jets defense. It was like, ‘How come nobody ever talks about our defense? Not only that, it was us and the Jets, the rivalry.”
There’s a thin line between aggression and foolishness. In the violent world of NFL, the line is even finer. But you have to channel that passion in a constructive way. On a typical day, three personal fouls might cost your team a playoff spot.
Marrone feels Bradham and Sammy Watkins, who lost a touchdown by celebrating early, will learn from their blunders against the Jets. He doesn’t want them to lose that emotional edge, either.
One rough afternoon doesn’t change the fact that Bradham has arrived as a player this season. He fell out favor and lost his job to Arthur Moats a year ago. The pot arrest in September added to the embarrassment, though the judge dismissed the charge with the provision that he stay out of trouble.
This season, Bradham was determined to become a more accountable pro and compensate for the loss of his friend and fellow linebacker, Kiko Alonso. His play has a been a statement in its own right.
Bradham has been a force at outside linebacker. He missed the opener on his one-game suspension. A knee injury put him out for the second half of the Houston game (when he was having a career day) and all of the Detroit game. Still, he has 51 tackles, second on the team to rookie Preston Brown.
“He’s playing at an extremely high level,” Marrone said. “It’s really been a 180 for him from last year to this year. I’ve seen it off the field, too, in how he’s reacting. He’s been a pleasant surprise. I’m happy for him because he really put the work in. I didn’t know which way he was going to go.”
At 6-2, 241 pounds, Bradham has ideal size and speed for an outside linebacker. He came off the field on passing downs earlier in his career, but he’s developed into a reliable, three-down ’backer who rarely leaves the field. He’s probably been the Bills’ most improved player this season.
“I’m cool with being quiet, an under-the radar type guy,” said Bradham, who played at Florida State. “I’ve been that way my whole career. Other than high school.”
Bradham was considered the top high school linebacker in the nation at Wakulla High in Crawfordville, Fla. He had a solid career at Florida State, but lasted until the fourth round (105th pick) of the 2012 draft.
Crawfordville is a small town of around 3,700 souls. Bradham said he’s the only one who has ever made it to the NFL.
“Yeah, it’s real small,” he said. “It’s a two- or three-stoplights small type of town. So for me to have an opportunity, they all look at me kind of like, well, I am the role model.”
He felt he let the home folks down when he got arrested for having marijuana in his car, and when he lost his starting job last year.
“Yeah, yeah. It was more so embarrassing, I think, for my family,” he said. “I think it disappointed my mother. My hometown, too, because I’m the only guy who made it this far. It’s a big responsibility. But I can handle it.”