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    The ball's in Bulger's court

    BY JIM THOMAS
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    Friday, Aug. 27 2004

    For a split second, it had the nightmare feel of Rodney Harrison crashing into
    the knee of Trent Green five Augusts ago in the Dome.

    This time, Marc Bulger was writhing in pain on the practice field at Western
    Illinois University, holding his right (throwing) arm after getting the worst
    of a collision that also involved offensive tackle Greg Randall and defensive
    end Leonard Little.

    Within minutes, it was apparent that Bulger was OK. But at first, no one knew
    for sure. The lasting memory of that incident wasn't the collision, or the
    apparent injury. It was of how quiet it got on the practice field. The anxious
    glances toward Bulger as he was examined by the medical staff. The nervous
    shuffling by teammates.

    The silence was immediate, and total. Except, that is, for wide receiver Torry
    Holt.

    "Who did it? Who did it?" he said. And you couldn't really tell if Holt was
    joking. The entire scene was a telling indicator of how the Rams feel about
    their starting quarterback.

    "I think they have a great deal of respect for him," coach Mike Martz said. "I
    think his humility is something that is noticeable for them. And then, of
    course, the other part of it is performance. In really difficult situations, he
    has come in and performed very well."

    Perhaps the most difficult situation is about to unfold for Bulger. For the
    first time since 1998, the Rams are beginning a football season without Kurt
    Warner as their starting quarterback. The same Kurt Warner who won two
    regular-season MVP awards, as well as being named the most valuable player of
    Super Bowl XXXIV against Tennessee five seasons ago. The same Warner who still
    has the highest career passer rating in league history (97.2), despite
    struggling the past two seasons.

    It's a tough act to follow. No one has ever put up the kind of numbers Warner
    posted over a three-year period between 1999-2001.

    It would be understandable if a part of Bulger always felt pressured to measure
    up to Warner. Understandable, but not necessary.

    "I'd be disappointed in Marc if he ever felt that way," Martz said. "He
    certainly doesn't need to do that. He's Marc. He needs to have his own respect
    for who he is, and what he's capable of doing for this football team. Nobody's
    going to ask him to be an MVP. All he's got to do is come out and move this
    team and win like he's done in the past."

    Win he has. Bulger's 18-4 regular-season record makes him the most successful
    active quarterback in the NFL (with a minimum of 10 starts), with an .818
    winning percentage.

    "He has a certain presence about him, whether it's with this team, or over in
    the Pro Bowl," Martz said. "The guy just finds a way to win. He just does. And
    you can't put a name on it. It's a mixture of great leadership, and just a feel
    for playing the game, and a toughness."


    Comeback kid

    Last season, the victories didn't always come in ideal circumstances, or in
    games where Bulger - or the team around him - was effective from start to
    finish. The Baltimore, Chicago, and second Arizona games from November are
    prime examples. To say that Martz was surprised by some of Bulger's comeback
    victories would be an understatement.

    "He is a really remarkable comeback kid," Martz said. "He just finds a way to
    get it done."

    And it's not as if Martz could have predicted this in 2000, when studying
    Bulger prior to the draft, or during that one week later in that year when
    Bulger was on the Rams practice squad.

    "Here's what was special about him," Martz said. "He had just terrific skill.
    He's very accurate. A very humble guy. After that, superficially we thought he
    had talent and possibilities. The part that you never know about anybody is how
    well they'll play. You don't know that until you put them in a game.

    "So to say that we knew this all along - there's just no way. But when he got
    his opportunity, he made the most of it. And that's what this league is about."

    Of course, the one comeback that never materialized came in the most important
    game so far of Bulger's NFL career - the 29-23 double-overtime playoff loss to
    Carolina last Jan. 10.

    You can make the case that Martz took that game out of Bulger's hands. That,
    concerned in part by protection issues in the red zone, Martz went conservative
    at the end of regulation. The Rams had a first down at the Carolina 38 with
    more than two minutes remaining in regulation. But the Rams ran only three
    plays the rest of the way, running out the clock before Jeff Wilkins kicked a
    game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation. It looked like a lack of
    confidence in Bulger by Martz.

    Suffice it to say that game is a blemish - a three-interception blemish - on
    what otherwise is a largely spotless record.

    "Marc was impressive last season, and then he got in the playoff game and threw
    the picks," said former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw. "It was
    a good learning experience. So now you pick up from there, cut out your
    mistakes, and go forward. He'll play better this year."


    Honing his craft

    Ask Bulger what he needs to work on, and the answer is everything.

    "You always want to get more touchdowns, less interceptions, and a higher
    completion percentage," said Bulger, who threw as many touchdowns as
    interceptions last season, 22. "So if you pick one, you have to pick them all.
    There's always going to be room for improvement."

    But ask Martz to compare the Bulger of today with the Bulger of a year ago, and
    he says, "It's not close. It's just not even close. He's still behind in some
    areas, in the decision-making process of where we want him to be. But he's
    light years ahead of where he was."

    In 2002, when Bulger was pressed into action following injuries to Warner and
    Jamie Martin, Martz dumbed down the offense. But those days are gone. When it
    comes to formulating a game-plan during the season, or installing an offense
    during training camp, Martz has thrown the book at him.

    "I don't worry about anything with him now," Martz said. "He has shown an
    intuitiveness on some things during practice that makes you think that this guy
    really has a terrific feel for what you're trying to accomplish."

    There's no doubt that Bulger sees the big picture better. The biggest jump in
    knowledge came once he got to start those six games in '02. But he's still
    learning.

    "I'll never completely know this offense," Bulger said. "Only Coach Martz will.
    It's his offense, and it keeps evolving, and adapting and changing all the
    time. I think that's the way he wants it. Because then guys can't say, 'Hey, I
    got it.' He really gets upset when guys say they've got it. So I'll never say
    I've got it."

    Because once you think you've got it, there's a tendency to start freelancing.
    Warner started free-lancing during the 2002 preseason, and that was a
    contributing factor to his eventual departure.

    Bulger doesn't freelance - at least he hasn't to this point. He can be stubborn
    occasionally. But he remains humble, and brutally honest in self-assessment. In
    many ways he's like former Rams quarterback Green in temperament and
    personality.

    On the field, Bulger sometimes gets the ball out too quick. Just as patience
    can be a virtue for running backs trying to follow the blockers, the same holds
    true for quarterbacks letting patterns unfold and hitting receivers in stride.

    "It's real important in our offense to put the ball where you want it every
    time, and let the guys run," Bulger said. "Obviously, you're not going to do
    that every practice."

    Or every game.

    "But if you do that more often than not, then you're going well," Bulger said.
    "But it's never good enough."

    Bulger also says he is seeing the field better, something Warner excelled at
    during his heyday.

    "It's definitely slowed down a little bit," Bulger said. "I can concentrate
    more on what the defense is doing, and trying to exploit them, rather than just
    worrying about where my guys are going to be, and where my second read is
    coming. It's a little bit easier now."

    And that's the next level - being able to read defenses quickly, dissect
    blitzes and attack weaknesses.

    "He's playing at an extremely high level right now," Martz said. "If he played
    like this all year long, I think we'd all be excited. His biggest deal at this
    point is just not having any valleys. Just go ahead and level off and continue
    to be consistent, and play at this high level that he's at."

    Which is easier said than done, of course.


    Marc's the man

    Since the start of training camp, hardly a day goes by where Bulger or one of
    his teammates isn't asked about this now being Bulger's team. Has Bulger
    changed now that he's the guy? Does he have to change? And quite simply - can
    he do it? Is he up to the challenge?

    "How many games has he lost - three or four?" defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson
    asked reporters.

    Four is the correct answer in terms of regular-season defeats.

    "So c'mon," Jackson replied. "You think anybody's worried about that?"

    Many teammates are almost amused by the "Marc's team" line of questioning. In
    their mind, it has been his team for a while.

    "I have 100 percent confidence in Marc," safety Aeneas Williams said. "But it
    was the same last year. The one thing, being asked about the Kurt and Marc
    situation - Marc has been starting for the past two years almost.

    "I saw him last year. Saw what he did last year. And he's only going to get
    better. Sometimes his demeanor may throw people off. He's a laid-back guy.
    Won't show you the excitement. Won't rip down a tree before a game."

    The emotion appears the same, whether Bulger is starting, or backing up, in a
    big game, or a not-so-big game. He's what Rams general manager Charley Armey
    calls a flat-liner, which isn't a bad thing for a quarterback, particularly a
    quarterback in a sophisticated offense.

    "Maybe Marc internalizes it differently," Williams said. "But in terms of
    outward appearance, it just doesn't seem that it was ever a big deal to him.
    When he was called upon to start, he was ready. When he was called upon to back
    up, he was ready to back up. So I just don't see a stress level with him."

    Which begged the question, has Williams ever seen Bulger excited?

    "Maybe going in Walgreens (in Macomb)," Williams said, laughing heartily. "I
    just remember seeing him smile. It's kind of like when you see your teammates
    out - you're not used to seeing them in a grocery story or something - you get
    a big smile. So I did see some excitement there."

    Wonder what he was buying.

    "It's training camp," Williams said. "So he was probably getting toothpaste or
    shaving stuff, something like that."


  2. #2
    adarian_too's Avatar
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    Re: The ball's in Bulger's court

    Quote Originally Posted by RamWraith
    BY JIM THOMAS
    Of the Post-Dispatch
    Friday, Aug. 27 2004

    "I'll never completely know this offense," Bulger said. "Only Coach Martz will.
    It's his offense, and it keeps evolving, and adapting and changing all the
    time. I think that's the way he wants it. Because then guys can't say, 'Hey, I
    got it.' He really gets upset when guys say they've got it. So I'll never say
    I've got it."
    Don't try and tell me that more football can't be accomplished with less Martzian playbook.

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