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Marked man: Rams' O-line injuries imperiling QB, season
By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY
ST. LOUIS Where does one find the most tender ribs in a Midwest city known for them?
At a tailgate party hosted by rabid St. Louis Rams fans?
Those tender ribs belong to Rams quarterback Marc Bulger. The gritty, two-time Pro Bowler continues to play despite broken ribs and a badly bruised leg courtesy of several wicked hits absorbed during season-opening losses to the Carolina Panthers, San Francisco ***** and Tampa Bay Buccaneers behind an injury-depleted offensive line.
Like a determined boxer, Bulger keeps pulling himself off the turf in a bid to lift his team -- even when he endured six sacks and at least a dozen hits from the ***** in Week 2. Bulger somehow managed to throw for 368 yards and a touchdown that day only to have Jeff Wilkins' 56-yard, game-winning field-goal attempt bounce off the crossbar in a 17-16 defeat.
Bulger's ribs were initially bruised thanks to a Week 1 hit from hulking Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. Seven days later, ***** rookie linebacker Patrick Willis delivered a vicious second-quarter shot that required pain-killing medication for Bulger to play on.
"When the average fan sees a big hit on television, we go, 'Ooh! That had to hurt,' and then we move on," says R.J. Gonser, one of Bulger's CAA Management representatives. "I saw Marc late that evening after the ***** game. He literally could not walk. His entire leg was purple. And his ribs were broken.
"When you're an NFL quarterback, you're taking shots every week, and there's nothing you can do to rehab (the ribs) until the season's over. Yet Marc doesn't even miss a practice."
Brian Baldinger worked the Rams-***** game for the Fox network. The NFL analyst might as well have been calling a pay-per-view fight.
"Marc was gutty really gutty," Baldinger says. "He got hit just about everywhere on his body."
But Bulger, 30, returned to the practice field last week to get ready for Tampa Bay. He embodies the mentally tough resilience second-year coach Scott Linehan is trying to infuse in the Rams, who have been blindsided by injuries where they could least afford them.
A campaign that began with bright playoff expectations is suddenly on the ropes, along with a battered quarterback. The season-ending loss of perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Pace to a shoulder injury in Week 1 was compounded by preseason injuries to two other offensive linemen, veteran reserve tackle Todd Steussie and starting right guard Richie Incognito. Starting left guard Mark Setterstrom is also gone for the year after tearing a knee ligament during the Rams' 24-3 defeat in Tampa last Sunday. The injuries have forced Linehan to continually reconfigure the line.
When protected and given time, Bulger is as accurate and productive as any quarterback not named Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Carson Palmer. Bulger, 36-27 as a starter in his career, threw for 4,301 yards, 24 touchdowns and just eight interceptions in 2006.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: NFL | St. Louis | Pro Bowl | San Francisco ***** | St. Louis Rams | Marc Bulger | Scott Linehan | Steven Jackson | Orlando Pace | Jim Corbett | Brian Baldinger
But as the 2007 season nears the quarter-pole, Bulger has just two touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 69.8 rating.
Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly -- who, like Bulger, hails from western Pennsylvania -- admires Bulger's dogged resolve, nicely illustrated by his completion of a two-handed chest pass to running back Steven Jackson a beat before the ***** pass rush converged yet again on the quarterback two weeks ago.
"The thing I always see from Marc is his toughness and the way he goes through his progressions," Kelly says. "I've seen Marc get battered. But I don't ever hear him complaining.
"I see how he stands in and looks for a big play. He has every intangible you want to be a top-notch quarterback."
What Bulger doesn't have is the prototypical measurables of a franchise field general. He's a lean, 6-3, 212 pounds. In public, he might be mistaken for a weekend warrior rather than one of the NFL's elite passers.
"If you looked at him without his pads on, you'd go, 'This guy's a bad-a** quarterback?' " Rams receiver Drew Bennett says, smiling. "Yeah, he is.
"Marc's not on the TV commercials or on the Times Square billboards like some other quarterbacks. He's more of a homebody. But he does things just as well as those other top quarterbacks."
"Marc would rather be behind the camera than in front of one," he says. "He's not dating any supermodels. He doesn't have any big national television commercials. But the guy's a quiet assassin. When he smiles, you half expect to see two fangs sticking out like a vampire ready to suck some blood.
"He's a competitor."
Former NFL quarterback and CBS analyst Boomer Esiason calls Bulger, "the most under-appreciated player in the league."
The player most under siege is more like it.
The plan was for St. Louis to run a balanced, ball-control offense keyed by the pounding running of Jackson, a Pro Bowler who's shown steady improvement each year since entering the league in 2004. That figured to open opportunities for Bulger to spread the ball to age-defying receivers Isaac Bruce, 34, and Torry Holt, 31, who received new complements in the offseason with Bennett and tight end Randy McMichael joining the team.
But playing behind a tattered line, Jackson is averaging 50 fewer total yards per game than he did last year when he paced the league with 2,334 yards from scrimmage. Worse, he'll miss St. Louis' next game and perhaps more after partially tearing a groin muscle in the loss to the Buccaneers.
Linehan is a highly respected offensive mind and player's coach who believes in the character of his team. He just never counted on it being so severely tested so early.
"He doesn't get too flustered or too low," safety Corey Chavous says of Linehan. "That helped last year when we had a bad stretch. It allowed us to bounce back.
"Coach Linehan is a person of strong character who conveys his will to our team."
But Linehan's team will be tested with a trip to Dallas looming after its 0-3 start.
"You can have the greatest football player in one position, but if we are not doing things, all 11, it still doesn't work, not in football," Linehan says. "We are certainly not getting it done, and we have to find out ways and work on the solutions to anything that needs to be improved, and there is a lot that needs to improve."
His quarterback agrees while shouldering his share of the blame.
"Trying only gets you so far, and maybe in high school and grade school it works. But in the NFL, no one wants to hear about that," Bulger said after the loss in Tampa. "It's about productivity and no one is getting it done.
"It's my job to get us in the end zone and there's no need to blame play-calling or players. If you want to blame someone, blame me, because as the quarterback, it's my job to get us in, and I'm not doing it."
The $65-million question in St. Louis is whether or not the face of the franchise can avoid becoming its costliest casualty.
Bulger received financial confirmation of his arrival as one of the game's elite quarterbacks July 27 when he signed a six-year, $65-million extension, including $27.5 million in guaranteed bonus money.
But Bulger hasn't been able to live up to his hefty price tag yet, often unable to get beyond his primary read while toiling behind his battered wall of blockers.
Tackle Alex Barron flipped from the right side into Pace's spot and has received help from McMichael and the backs chip-blocking opposing pass rushers. But guard Milford Brown was left to fend for himself in his shift to fill Barron's void at right tackle against San Francisco.
And The ***** had a feeding frenzy.
Only center Brett Romberg will be in his customary position Sunday in Dallas.
Without the 325-pound Pace, nicknamed "Big O," protecting Bulger's blind side, the once high-powered Rams are sputtering with a decidedly low-octane, lower-case "o."
"Every team has a couple of positions where you just can't afford to lose a guy," NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth says. "Orlando Pace is that guy for the Rams."
With Bulger and his receivers firing on all cylinders and Jackson churning out chunks of yards a year ago, the Rams averaged 23 points per game last season.
This year, they're producing fewer than 11 points per contest.
"What's making it even more challenging is we lost Todd Steussie in the last preseason game," Linehan says. "He started 15 games for us last year, and he was our left tackle when we played our best football down the stretch."
Then there is this daunting statistic: Since the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format in 1990, only three teams that have started 0-3 have reached the playoffs, none since Buffalo in 1998.
And things could get worse before they get better. Five of St. Louis' next seven games are on the road.
But Bulger, for one, isn't looking for excuses.
"We're not going to sit here and complain and point at what's going on. There's no time for that," he says. "We're on our butt right now, and we have to get up and get ready for Dallas. Simple as that.
"We have to come closer as a team, because we're going to get a lot of scrutiny, and it's deserved. We're not doing our job right now and it's our job to come together as a team and find a way to win."
Linehan largely held Jackson out of the preseason in a bid to preserve him for the long run, a strategy that has not worked.
Both men said the precautionary gambit didn't factor into Jackson's uncharacteristic back-to-back fumbles against the Panthers on opening day. But there's no denying the fumbles changed a game the Rams led 13-7 while driving for more points and contributed to their 27-13 loss.
Jackson, who fumbled just twice in 346 carries last season, stands accountable.
"You can't give a testimony without going through a test," he says. "I didn't intend for my season to start off like this, but since it did, I will not back down.
"It's humbling. But I had a lot of support from my teammates."
Yet Jackson lost something else his temper during the loss to the *****.
Jackson ranted in the direction of Linehan while coming off the field and had to be restrained by running backs coach Wayne Moses after Bulger threw incomplete to Bennett on third down on the game's penultimate possession.
Jackson later apologized to teammates, saying he was frustrated by another failed drive.
"I just saw him come off the field irate," Baldinger says. "Steven's not a me-me guy.
"Guys who think they can make a difference get frustrated like that."
Jackson's frustration is bound to build as he watches from the sidelines. Rookie Brian Leonard will replace him in the lineup, but he's not the impact player that Jackson is.
And with Jackson out indefinitely, the pressure on the line to protect Bulger only increases while the quarterback himself will have to do even more to salvage the season.
"Marc has the trust and belief in all of the guys who step in," Jackson said before his injury. "He always has that cool, calm about him."
That cool will be tested now.
Despite being a high-profile NFL quarterback, Bulger's not one to crave the limelight. He doesn't seek the celebrity perks of his position, even after gaining financial vindication following his self-made rise; he was taken by the Saints in the sixth round of the 2000 draft and later cut before latching on in St. Louis.
"Sure, I've done a couple of small things," Bulger says. "But the Hollywood things, the game shows and reality TV shows, why do it? Some guys put themselves out there, and then they play bad and they wonder why.
"My only goal now is to win a Super Bowl.
"My first year, I got to go to the Super Bowl and saw how much it meant to guys who played in the game, even though they lost. I can only imagine what winning one would mean."
After Bulger was rewarded this summer, he threw a party at a downtown sports bar for his teammates and coaches.
Bulger's dad, Jim, was quarterback Joe Theismann's backup at Notre Dame from 1970-71. Jim Bulger is 6-5, 215 pounds and nicknamed "Bullet" for his penchant to break his receivers' fingers with his rifle arm.
Bulger's sisters, Katie and Meg, were recruited to play basketball at West Virginia, where Marc quarterbacked the Mountaineers for four years.
"The nicest thing is being able to take care of my family," Bulger says. "Just to be able to bring your whole family on vacation to Myrtle Beach or out here for the Fourth of July or to be able to hold a Make-A-Wish event for kids, those things are important."
Bulger didn't let his broken ribs or gimpy leg keep him from joining his parents and 13 teammates at his Sept. 17 Make-A-Wish dinner, which raised $120,000 for kids suffering from life-threatening illnesses the night after his fierce beating at the hands of the *****.
"Marc said, 'I'm worried about some sore ribs when these kids and their families are worried about living and dying,' " Gonser says.
Bulger is now putting the final touches on his own foundation, which will be dedicated to men and women in uniform. It won't be limited to military personnel and will be inclusive of police officers and fire fighters. Jim Bulger's dad was a Pittsburgh police officer for 33 years.
Bulger is more likely to watch a 24-hour news channel than ESPN, because he and his family know so many Pittsburgh-area families whose sons and daughters have been killed or wounded in Iraq.
"Marc was involved with the Wounded Warriors in Pittsburgh, and his heart went out to them," his dad says. "He feels privileged he's in the situation he is, and these people are very courageous, and he's able to do what he does because of their sacrifice.
"He'll probably be mad at me. But at the Pro Bowl in February, Marc golfed with three Marines, who (had previously served) in Iraq.
"Afterward, they went out to a sports bar and, on his way out, Marc gave the bartender $1,000 for anything those guys and their friends wanted and asked the guy not to say anything until he was gone. That's the kind of guy Marc is."
As important as it is to Bulger to pay homage to the real heroes of the world, he also likes to honor his western Pennsylvania quarterback compatriots with his play and steel-town toughness.
"Jim Kelly mentioned me when he talked about western Pennsylvania quarterbacks in the book on Johnny U. (Unitas), which was really cool," Bulger says. "To be mentioned along with those guys is pretty cool."
But without better protection this season, Bulger will be fighting an uphill battle, like Sisyphus futilely pushing that boulder up the hill.
But Bulger isn't panicking. After all, he's used to this, having played behind 23 different line combinations during his five-season starting tenure though never behind a line quite this porous or beleaguered and not without a bona fide running game.
"I hope they get that cohesion," Jim Bulger says. "Because I can't see Marc lasting many more games."
Sonofa..! Thats gonna leave a mark!
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