Monday, January 10, 2005

By Nick Wagoner
Staff Writer

SEATTLE - As Ramsí quarterback Marc Bulger strolled out of Rams Park last week; he carried with him more than just the teamís MVP award and captainís trophy.

Resting squarely on Bulgerís shoulders, well, right shoulder to be exact, sat the weight of the pressure from St. Louis fans everywhere. Pressure to play well, pressure to throw well and, most of all, pressure to win. That stress has been there from the first day of Bulgerís reign as the teamís quarterback.

After leading the Rams to the playoffs for the second straight season, Bulger was now being asked to get his first win where it counts most; the playoffs.

So, how does Bulger handle the expectations? The same way he handles all pressure. With the cool, calm demeanor of a guy who has nothing to prove to anyone.

Bulger isnít concerned with validating his career or his position among the leagueís elite quarterbacks. He just wants to do what he always wants to do.

ďI donít care about one playoff win or just saying I get one,Ē Bulger said last week. ďMy goal is to win the Super Bowl and it is every year. Thatís all Iíll ever play for. Just so I donít have to deal with the question or whatever, I could care less about that. Youíre going to deal with questions every year whether itís postseason or whether you can stay healthy or whether youíre throwing too many interceptions. There is always going to be something, but I think everyone on our team, thatís why we play, to win the Super Bowl.Ē

The Rams took their first step toward reaching that goal Saturday when Bulger led them to a 27-20 win against Seattle at Qwest Field. In the process, Bulger might have eliminated any lingering demons and doubts from last yearís playoff loss to Carolina.

Bulger was as cool and collected as it gets, throwing for 313 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Seahawks. He was, as usual, at his best at the most important times. On the final two drives, Bulger was five-of-seven for 80 yards, resulting in 10 points.

Those 10 points won the game for St. Louis. Humble as usual after the game, Bulgerís tune had not changed.

"I don't care," Bulger said. "Like I told you, it's not about me winning a playoff game. As long as I played as well as good as I could have, then I wouldn't care. Thereís so many factors that go into a quarterback winning games that itís not him winning games. Itís not him losing games, but so be it. Itís not about that."

Growing up in Pittsburgh, where he attended the same high school as Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Bulger got to see his hero battle the same questions about validating a career by winning the big one.
As a quarterback, Bulger will indeed, always face questions about his playoff record. Some of the best quarterbacks in history have been measured by what they do in the NFLís second season and Bulger wonít be any different.
Take the example of Marino, who had probably the most prolific career any quarterback has had. In spite of all of his astonishing statistics, Marino will always be remembered as the guy who never won the Super Bowl.
John Elway was destined for the same fate until he won a pair of Super Bowls to close out his career in style.
Still, Bulger isnít worried about punching any sort of validation ticket.
ďI think to a certain extent, for everyone else, they do (use it as validation),Ē Bulger said. ďLook at someone like Peyton Manning, who takes a lot of criticism for that. Thereís a lot of NFL players who know he is just as good during the playoffs as he is during the regular season, so I donít need for myself. If it validates me for everyone else, thatís fine. I prepare the same and Iím going to approach it the same.Ē
That approach has paid off handsomely for a quarterback who faced the unenviable task of replacing a local legend such as Kurt Warner. Filling the shoes of a player who went from grocery bagger to Super Bowl and NFL MVP is not an easy task for anyone.
But Bulger has taken everything in stride from the day he was named the starter in St. Louis. It was no surprise his teammates voted him the teamís MVP this season for his efforts.
Bulger threw for 3,964 yards and 21 touchdowns on his way to a 93.7 passer rating. Keep in mind that Bulger won the Pro Bowl MVP award for his performance there last season, but there is no doubt that he is playing better than he has in his short career.
So, what is the biggest difference between the two seasons? Coach Mike Martz said the game has seemed to slow down for Bulger this season.
ďHeís the guy you want on your team with the game on the line,Ē Martz said. ďIf you want somebody in the foxhole with you, itís him. If you want somebody to take a last shot at the buzzer to win a game you want it to be Marc. You want that guy in the game. Thatís his personality. Itís one of the things that makes him different and unique from most every other quarterback. Heís very special in that respect.Ē
Bulger doesnít necessarily buy into the game slowing down for him idea, but he has a comparison of his own.
ďItís a good analogy, but I think itís just more you recognize things so much quicker,Ē Bulger said. ďWhen youíre walking to the line you know why the safeties are cheatingÖYou see their disguise before they do. Itís like driving your car home. You can do it almost blindfolded once you have done it so many times. When itís your first time and youíre lost, youíre unsure about yourself. Now that I have a pretty good understanding of the offense, it just makes recognizing defenses a lot easier.Ē
Bulgerís ability to recognize defenses may have gone unappreciated for most of this season, but it certainly came to light when he sprained his right shoulder against San Francisco on Dec. 5.
St. Louis was 6-6 heading into a pair of road trips against Carolina and Arizona. With Bulger out, the team struggled more than it had all season, losing to the Panthers and Cardinals.
Those losses appeared poised to keep the Rams out of the playoffs, but Bulgerís return saved the season. He led St. Louis to wins against Philadelphia and the Jets to claim an 8-8 record and the No. 5 seed in the NFC Playoffs.
Now, he has taken the next step, a playoff win. He has plenty more to accomplish and he isnít worried about any of his remaining detractors.
Bulger didnít make the Pro Bowl this season, perhaps because he wasnít healthy for those games, but he isnít worried about outside opinions.
ďI won't be the judge of that,Ē Bulger said. ďThat's for the fans to decide. My teammates obviously think I'm all right, so that's all that matters.Ē
After Saturday, Bulgerís teammates probably donít think he is all right. They most likely think heís better.