Wednesday, October 25, 2006

By Nick Wagoner
Senior Writer

It was only two weeks into the season and Marc Bulger was already hearing the complaints.

Some said he wasn’t picking up the offense fast enough, some said the Rams quarterback wasn’t able to adjust to a system different than the only one he had ever known in the NFL. The Rams were 1-1 and the offense had scored a grand total of one touchdown.

What a difference a month makes. Following a bit of a slow start that included one game against Denver’s stingy defense, Bulger went on a four-game tear that has him finally getting the recognition he deserves among the best quarterbacks in the league.

In addition, his name has even been bandied about by national pundits when discussing not just the Pro Bowl, but the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Of course, the success of the offense comes as no surprise to Bulger, who reminded everyone ever so patiently that it was just a matter of time before he and the offense began to click,.

“I think I made that pretty clear,” Bulger said. “I didn’t mean to, but it kind of turned into that. We have too many guys that have played too long with too much talent in here. We have too many guys that I can’t screw it up that bad. If I can just get them the ball they are going to make something happen. I knew we wouldn’t be one of these teams that can’t move the ball for a first down. I knew things would start clicking eventually.”

Clicking might not do justice to the virtuoso quartet of games Bulger posted starting with the Sept. 24 game at Arizona. Although the Rams scored just 16 points in that game, it became clear that Bulger was about to find his groove.

Bulger was 21-of-31 for 309 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 110.8. The offense began to show what it could do that day, but it was just a preview of what was to come.

“It was probably sometime during the Arizona game where it started clicking a little bit,” Bulger said. “I think it has a lot to do with the coverage they are giving you or the breaks you get. There’s so much that goes into it, but sometime in the Arizona game I think we felt a lot more comfortable and got back to the way we used to do things.”

When Bulger talks about getting back to the way the Rams used to do things on offense, he means racking up yards and points and not operating a system similar to the previous one.

In fact, the reason it took him a couple of weeks to get rolling had everything to do with the reality that a brand new system and philosophy was being installed. In the old system, Bulger was asked to be a gunslinger, staring down defenses and flinging the ball into tight spots.

While Bulger succeeded in that system because of his pinpoint accuracy, it was an open invitation for turnovers and sacks. As easily as Bulger and the offense could make a big play, the opposing defense had the same opportunity.

Things have changed drastically from that outlook and now that Bulger is accustomed to it, the results are piling up. Coach Scott Linehan met with Bulger soon after his hiring. Armed with a list of things to work on, Linehan wanted to emphasize a few areas that would help the offense perform better.

Bulger was all ears when two of those topics turned to focusing on limiting turnovers and keeping Bulger in an upright position, something he hadn’t been able to do much of in recent seasons.

First and foremost, Linehan believes in ball control. The offense must take care of the ball and the defense must go get it. That was a far cry from an offense that asked Bulger to take shots down the field and essentially ignore checkdown opportunities to the running backs and tight ends.

“With the other offense, if there was a chance a guy would be open, they didn’t want me to check the ball down, they wanted me to throw it. That’s why we had some success but at the same time there is that risk that you are going to turn the ball over more.”

That is no longer the case in St. Louis.

“Scott made that an issue to take care of the ball,” Bulger said. “He hammered on us every day. He had 10 or 15 things he wanted us to do that might be different, but that was one of the one or two things he really wanted to take care of the football.”

Linehan’s handiwork has paid off. Bulger has thrown just one interception this season and set a franchise record for most consecutive attempts without one at 249.

The other oft-simmering issue with Bulger has been the number and severity of hard hits he has taken in the past two years. In those seasons, Bulger has suffered a shoulder injury that has cost him almost a third of the games played in that time.

Those injuries have cost him valuable playing time that would probably have placed him among the league’s elite, at least statistically. Linehan’s offense is far from conservative, but there was a premium placed on Bulger’s health. That means more multiple-tight end sets and schemes designed to keep Bulger on his feet.

So far, that philosophy has yielded a similar amount of sacks, but Bulger isn’t getting hit as often and the impact of the hits isn’t as severe.

“I think it’s definitely less,” Bulger said. “There would be a lot of balls I threw last year I would get hit after that wouldn’t count as a sack but a knockdown. We are probably throwing a little bit less, but I definitely feel better after the games this year.”

With Bulger finding his way in the pocket and not turning the ball over, he has been free to study and learn the intricacies of Linehan’s offense and focus his attention on getting the ball to his playmakers.

“The verbiage is a little different and the philosophy is a lot different,” Bulger said. “When you are coming from the old offense which encompasses everyone’s offense in the league…it would be a lot easier to go from that offense to this one than it would be from this one to that one.”

That might be why it took Bulger just a couple of weeks to get clicking like he can instead of the years it might take others to learn a new system. It’s also why Bulger is third in the league in passer rating, fourth in the league in yards and tied for fourth in the league in touchdowns.

“It was frustrating at first, but it took only one or two weeks into the regular season,” Bulger said. “I think in the big scheme of things that is not a long time, which is nice. Some offenses take a year or two. There is still a lot of season, but I think we have gotten into this system and guys are getting more comfortable with it.”

The always modest and humble Bulger does not care much about statistics other than his team’s record which would make it easy to underplay his meaning to the Rams. Make no mistake, though, Bulger is the man that makes it all go.

“You take a lot of things for granted that Marc does because he has such an even keel about himself; he goes about his business,” Linehan said. “He’s not one of those guys that are out in the front, he just does his job. He’s worked very hard at improving his game on a weekly basis, and he does it by how he approaches his job. He’s a true pro and knows he has a role on this team, but he also knows that he needs to be a quarterback in an offense that requires the quarterback to do a lot more things than just throw the ball. I gain more and more appreciation for the little things that he does.”

As Linehan continues to develop that admiration, so, too, can the rest of the league.