Wednesday, April 2, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
In the cold, cruel world that is the National Football League, memories are short and selective and what you have done isn’t nearly as important as what you have done lately.
Nobody knows that better than Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. Bulger is the signal caller for a team coming off one of its most difficult seasons and as the leader and quarterback of that team, Bulger takes his share of the responsibility.
“You have to prove yourself every year,” Bulger said. “I am two years from the Pro Bowl but it might as well be 10.”
With that in mind, Bulger isn’t going to spend this offseason completely changing his approach, but there’s nary a player itching to get back to work more than Bulger.
For the first time in his career, Bulger has spent the bulk of his offseason in St. Louis and, more specifically, at Russell Training Center . Bulger wants to put the 2007 season as far into the rearview mirror as possible and with that he has found himself working out daily and spending as much time around the training facility as many of the coaches.
“I don’t know if it just comes with age,” Bulger said. “I am treating it more like this is my home and this is more than where I come to work. I have been coming in the last two months pretty much five days a week and it’s just a routine I have gotten in to. I feel like when you are younger you want to stay home with your friends, but now it’s kind of all rolled together and I just want to get as far away from last year and get this year going as I can.”
It’s not much of a surprise that Bulger wants to make 2007 a distant memory as quick as possible. He isn’t the only Ram that feels that way. The team finished 3-13 in 2007 and Bulger had his worst statistical season on the heels of what was probably his best as he finished with a career low passer rating of 70.3.
Bulger’s interceptions went from eight in 2006 to 15 in 2007 and his touchdowns dropped from 24 to 11. Compounding matters was the fact that Bulger was taking a beating on nearly every play.
Bulger suffered broken ribs in the second week against San Francisco and got a concussion from a blow to the head against Seattle in week 12. Those injuries cost him four games and the majority of a fifth.
With the offseason conditioning program under way, Bulger is happy to report he’s as healthy as he’s been in some time.
“I got an early start this year,” Bulger said. “I started in early February here. There’s nothing from the concussion and my ribs feel great and those were the only issues I had. I feel really good at this point, better than most years.”
With the obstacle of health out of the way, Bulger is taking full advantage of the opportunity to get his mind in shape. The Rams hired Al Saunders as offensive coordinator early in the offseason, a move that elated Bulger.
Saunders, of course, is well versed in the system passed down from Don Coryell through the years, a system Bulger is intimately familiar with from his time with Coryell disciple and former Rams head coach Mike Martz.
“A lot of stuff is coming back so it’s not completely new,” Bulger said. “The concepts will be the same, there’s some new verbiage but I am just re-teaching myself what I tried to de-program the last two years but it’s easier than if I would have had to go to the West Coast or something.”
While that familiarity will ease Bulger’s transition into yet another play caller (he’s taken plays from Martz, Steve Fairchild, Scott Linehan and Greg Olson in just the past three seasons alone), there is still plenty of work to be done.
Bulger spent three and a half hours meeting with Saunders and other members of the offensive staff Wednesday, just another normal day in the life of the quarterback.
"I think everyone is going to learn real quick that this offense from the stance of learning it is there are no shortcuts and there’s no easy way to learn it,” Bulger said. “You just have to do it. It’s important everyone understands how important this offseason is.”
Bulger clearly already has that understanding, but he believes there’s a certain element of getting back to basics involved for him as well. Bulger was an advocate of getting Saunders to St. Louis , calling him the No. 1 choice among the potential candidates the Rams were looking at.
Head coach Scott Linehan frequently conferred with Bulger on his knowledge of many of the candidates and Bulger said he was thrilled when Saunders became available and opted for St. Louis .
But just because Bulger is familiar with the basic tenets of Saunders’ system doesn’t mean he will be asked to handle it all himself.
The Rams brought in another pair of helping hands in the form of quarterbacks coach Terry Shea and veteran quarterback Trent Green. Green and Shea are both well versed in Saunders’ system and both will serve as important tutors in helping Bulger get back to the Pro Bowl level that earned him a monster contract last offseason.
Part of that tutoring will come in helping Bulger get back to the basics. Bulger calls Shea “really thorough” and says his new position coach is all about the details.
“There’s nothing from putting your hands under the center’s butt to how my stance needs to be the same every time, the cadence, inflection, nothing is taken for granted,” Bulger said. “Sometimes I think with older guys in the league you are worried about so many major things you forget some of the small things. I think he can help remind me and stay on me to get back to the good habits.”
One such habit that Bulger readily acknowledged got away from him in 2007 was proper footwork. Because of the plethora of injuries across the offensive line, Bulger frequently found himself under fire from opposing defenses.
After the concussion and the broken ribs, Bulger admitted following the season finale that he sometimes scuttled proper footwork in exchange for getting rid of the ball quicker.
“I was just doing the best I could to help the team win,” Bulger said. “My footwork was off and I thought maybe I could get rid of the ball quicker. Whether it was right or wrong, I don’t know but at the time I was just trying to do something. It’s April 1 and we are already working on that stuff and I have five months to get into it to get back to the point where when September comes around, I am just playing. I am not thinking about footwork anymore, it’s about reads and coverages and moving guys around.”
It was no coincidence that while Bulger’s been around town he has been more than happy to help when it comes to recruitment of free agents. He was around to chat with guard Jacob Bell before the Rams signed him and believes the offensive line can become a dominant unit if it can stay healthy in 2008.
And though Bulger wouldn’t say which player he’d like to see the Rams add in the draft, he did say he met Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long at the Super Bowl and that Long “looked pretty good to me.” Given the chance to leave the past behind, Bulger is looking forward, not back.
“I have to play better, we can all say that,” Bulger said. “I have to do a better job of preparing - mentally, physically, everything. There’s no reason to go back and beat ourselves up. We know how bad it was and we have to learn from last year but we are going to focus on this year.”
After all, a short memory is a necessity in the NFL.