Bulger's impact may catch up to his stats
BY DAN POMPEI
THE SPORTING NEWS
Wednesday, Nov. 15 2006
If Marc Bulger were any further under the radar, he would be beneath the
planet's upper and lower mantles, somewhere near the earth's outer core.
He gets noticed as much as beige walls. Talked about as frequently as a deep,
dark secret. Gets as much exposure as feet in the winter.
Bulger doesn't look or act like a big-time quarterback when he's not under
center. He's a 2000 sixth-round pick who was cut by three teams (once by the
Rams). He lights up a scoreboard but not the locker room.
It's easy to forget Bulger was once the Pro Bowl's most outstanding player. And
that he has thrown for as many yards in a Rams uniform as Kurt Warner did.
There's something different about Bulger this season, and it is underscored by
this incredible statistic: He has thrown one interception for every 165
attempts. In Bulger's career before this season, he had thrown one interception
for every 29.8 attempts. So it would be fair to say he has acclimated quite
well to new coach Scott Linehan's offense.
Though the numbers argue he has been one of the finest passers in the NFL, his
impact on the team does not make the same argument. The Rams have dropped four
straight games, and their loss to the Seahawks on Sunday just about ended their
hopes of winning the NFC West.
So are the Rams better served by the Bulger who is obsessed with avoiding
interceptions than they were by the Bulger who was obsessed with scoring
Bulger can't be blamed for the Rams' losses. But he also can't be credited with
making them win. Bulger's regular-season winning percentage under former coach
Mike Martz (not including games Martz missed last season) was .682. His winning
percentage under Linehan is .444.
The Rams' record (4-5) and Bulger's passer rating (98.0) are incongruous. The
league's other top-rated passers -- Peyton Manning, Damon Huard, Donovan
McNabb, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees -- all play on teams with winning records.
It's unfair to pin a winning percentage on a quarterback alone, and it's too
early to make any sweeping conclusions about the Rams' changes. But this much
is certain: Bulger has played at a high level in both systems -- which might
say more about him than the offenses.
"He can pretty much play in any offense and excel in it," Rams receiver Isaac
When Linehan told him the risk was not worth the reward, Bulger adapted his
game. And it's a good thing because this Rams team isn't good enough to
There are three components to Bulger's ability to keep balls away from
defenders. First, his decision making has been keen. Second, he has been very
accurate. In fact, coordinator Greg Olson says Bulger has been as accurate as
any passer he has been around. Third, lady luck has been a friend.
Bulger has found the fine line between Martyball and Martzyball. "He's not
putting the ball in harm's way, but he's not playing it cautious," Linehan
says. "He likes to stick that dig in there, hit the deep posts and attack the
vertical spots of the field vs. zone without any hesitation. He recognizes
people will sometimes play pretty soft coverage and check down. He's doing a
great job of that."
Steven Jackson is the ideal check-down target because he gets nine yards after
the catch on average, according to STATS LLC. Through the first half of the
season, that was the fifth-highest average in the league -- and only two
players had more total yards after the catch.
There are those who say Bulger is checking down too much and not going for the
jugular the way he did in the good old Martz days. "He's not afraid to drop it
down all day," Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu says. "He found the open
man almost every time. You can't criticize him for checking too quickly. He
knows what he has and what he doesn't."
There is no doubt Bulger has become a more cautious ball distributor under
Linehan, but it's not like he has become the quarterbacking version of Rush
Limbaugh. Bulger has produced 37 pass plays of 20 yards or more -- the
second-highest total in the NFL.
Another way Bulger has been able to reduce the risk of interceptions is by
changing plays. In Martz's offense, Bulger rarely was allowed to audible at the
line. Now, he is encouraged to make a change if he doesn't feel the play called
will match up well against the defensive look.
Not many people have noticed, but Bulger is growing as a quarterback in his
sixth NFL season. Eventually, it's going to show up in the Rams' record