STLtoday - Revived Bulger has been showing more leadership under Haslett

Revived Bulger has been showing more leadership under Haslett
By Bernie Miklasz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
10/19/2008

The Rams' offense has scored only four touchdowns in five games, the fewest in the NFL. Back in the "Greatest Show on Turf" days, four TDs used to be considered a good first-half workout for the boys. They would score touchdowns without breaking a sweat.

These days the malaise is extreme. The Rams rank 31st in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, and score only 12 points per game. In a span of a few short years, we've seen the league's best offense decline into one of the NFL's worst attacks.

Most of the playmakers are gone, have slowed (Torry Holt) or provide negligible impact (Steven Jackson). The offensive line is mediocre much of the time. It's no wonder that new offensive coordinator Al Saunders is struggling to reset the switches on a burned-out fuse box.

It's easy to see the signs of a systematic crash; the deterioration of the Rams offense can't be pinned on any one player, factor, or coach. But don't tell the fans that.

Quarterback Marc Bulger has the pleasure of getting smacked around two days a week. He's battered on Sundays, then gets beaten up a second time on the Monday sports-talk shows and Internet forums.

Bulger is no innocent victim. He has to play much better if the Rams have any chance of rising out of this mess. And Bulger must prove that he's capable of fighting through this decline phase.

Actually, I get a little weary of hearing NFL pundits declare how Bulger really is one of the league's most accurate throwers, one of the more underrated quarterbacks. That was true from 2003 to 2006, when Bulger posted some terrific numbers. After the '06 season the Rams rushed in to give Bulger a $65 million contract that included $27 million in guarantees. (Sigh.)

But since the beginning of the 2007 season, here is where Bulger ranks among the league's QBs in several key categories, with the numbers courtesy of STATS LLC: 28th in completion percentage; 31st in touchdown-interception ratio; 30th in passer rating; 33rd in yards per passing attempt; 31st in yards per completion.

Bulger hasn't received much help from his surrounding cast or blockers, and it is difficult for him to transcend all of the problems. But the top quarterbacks can elevate the play of their teammates, and to this point Bulger has been incapable of doing that.

As the Rams prepared to face the Dallas Cowboys at the Edward Jones Dome, new head coach Jim Haslett has ordered up increased playing time for young wide receivers Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton and Derek Stanley.

The Rams' speed has been upgraded, and Bulger should have some downfield playmaking opportunities against a young Dallas secondary.

But beware: The Cowboys are sixth in the league with 15 sacks, and they can punish quarterbacks with wicked shots.

This is another test for Bulger. Is it possible for Bulger to revive his career, and his team? Or has he been left damaged by too many hits to his body, too many blows to his confidence?

How do you rebuild a veteran QB?

Haslett certainly is trying. Haslett — knowing that Bulger had a pitiable relationship with deposed head coach Scott Linehan — has made the quarterback a personal project since taking over Sept. 29.

While reinstalling Bulger as the starter following Linehan's one-game benching, Haslett directly challenged Bulger to become a more engaged leader, a more vigorous presence, and to quit moping on the sidelines.

Bulger is responding.

He addressed the team on the Friday before the Redskins game. He played the game with more energy, and tried to resist the pass rush.

After the Rams upset the Redskins 19-17, Bulger climbed on a chair in the locker room to boost teammates with another speech.

This is most unusual for the low-key Bulger.

"He's been great about talking to the team, and I saw him working the sidelines during Sunday's game. He was very active that way," Haslett said. "This has been a real transition for Marc. When Marc took over for Kurt Warner, he was kind of the odd man in. He was the young pup taking over. And this offense had a lot of veterans at the time. It's the reverse now. He's the veteran. And he really needs to take control of the team with all these young guys around him. And I thought he did a nice job of stepping up to the plate last week. There were a lot of things I liked. I thought he was by far the best on the sideline that I've seen from him."

Now that he has been given some faster receivers and the attention of a head coach who genuinely wants to connect with him, Bulger has a chance to rally. The cloud may be lifting. But the Dallas pass rush is capable of bringing Bulger right down again.