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Thread: The ball's in Bulger's court
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
"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
"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."
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
"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
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
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."
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