By Bernie Miklasz
Of the Post-Dispatch
Thursday, Jan. 06 2005

The best thing that ever happened to Marc Bulger was getting injured. When
Bulger went down with a shoulder injury, and Chris Chandler took over for two
starts, we saw what life without Bulger was really like.

And it was quite ugly. The offense crashed. The Rams were stranded. The team
was in a crisis. Quick, sound the bugle call ... or the Bulger call.

Bulger returned, with the Rams needing to sweep their final two regular-season
games to inch their way into the NFC playoffs. In victories over the Eagles and
Jets, Bulger completed 74.2 percent of his passes for 675 yards and four
touchdowns. Save for one poor red-zone interception against the Jets, Bulger
performed brilliantly.

"He's played marvelously this year," wide receiver Isaac Bruce said.

Still, as the Rams prepare to barrel into Seattle for Saturday's first-round
playoff game, Bulger is in a tough spot. Critics will always hold it against
him because he replaced Kurt Warner. Others will insist that Warner is still
better than Bulger. (He isn't.) And though skeptics will concede that Bulger is
the right man for now, they won't fully be converted until Bulger books the
Rams into a Super Bowl.

That's what Warner did. Fair or not, it's the standard for quarterbacks in St.
Louis. Bulger is the first to be held to it. And it didn't help that Bulger
flunked his first test, last January, getting intercepted three times (with no
touchdowns) in the overtime playoff loss at home to Carolina. With a chance to
go for a winning touchdown in the final minute of the fourth quarter, coach
Mike Martz feared another interception and settled for a tying field goal.

In the aftermath, Martz thought about going back to Warner as the starter. He
thought about trading for prospect Drew Henson, who ended up in Dallas. But
after reviewing the 2003 season, Martz came to the conclusion that Bulger was
close to being the QB that Martz needed for this offense. Martz invested a new
contract in Bulger and released Warner.

So far, it's paying off. Bulger improved this season in completion percentage,
yards per passing attempt, touchdown-interception ratio and passer efficiency
rating. He connected on more deep throws. Teammates voted him the Rams MVP.

"I've been a lot more consistent this year," Bulger said Wednesday at Rams
Park. "I've learned a lot from last year ... as long as I didn't repeat the
same mistakes this year I thought that I would be better, and fortunately I
haven't."

Ah, but questions remain ...

Can Bulger play QB outside the bubble? Is he protected by the sealed-in,
quarterback-friendly environment at The Edward Jones Dome? You could make a
case. Bulger is 19-3 as a starter in home games, but only 7-8 as a starter on
the road. In that respect, Bulger merely reflects the team. The Rams' home-road
disparity is substantial. Then again, Bulger's most stirring performance of the
season came at Seattle, when he completed 10 of 15 passes for 205 yards and
three touchdowns after the Rams fell behind 27-10. He led them to a remarkable
overtime win over the Seahawks.

Can Bulger elevate his game in the NFL's meanest season? I don't buy the
argument that a QB needs to win a Super Bowl to validate his greatness. To cite
a few examples: Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton didn't win Super
Bowls; Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson did. Still, if Bulger has
another shaky playoff performance, he will lose credibility.

"I don't care about one playoff win or just saying I get one," Bulger said. "My
goal is to win the Super Bowl and it is every year. That's all I'll ever play
for. Just so I don't have to deal with the question or whatever, I could care
less about that. You're going to deal with questions every year ... there is
always going to be something."

Bulger can play it down. But until he wins in the playoffs, he won't win the
town over.