St. Louis Rams' quarterback Marc Bulger ready for first full year as starter
R.B. FALLSTROM Canadian Press
Friday, September 10, 2004
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Marc Bulger is 18-4 as the St. Louis Rams' quarterback, he has a new four-year contract and he was the Pro Bowl MVP.

Still, a new experience lies ahead. Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals will be his first opening-day start. Bulger stepped in for Kurt Warner in both 2002 and 2003, and last year he seized the job for good after only one week. And there's been no hint of controversy in the pre-season, not with 38-year-old Chris Chandler a safe choice as the backup.

So, he doesn't think it's that big of a deal. This has been his team for a while.

"I play the way I do regardless of whether I played the series before or the season before, and I'm not going to change that," Bulger said. "I never change the way I play."

Bulger wasn't overworked in the pre-season, throwing only 36 passes in four games - fewer than both Chandler (44) and third-string Jeff Smoker (42). Now, the wraps come off for Bulger and for tailback Marshall Faulk, who totalled 14 carries.

"Our game plans are pretty minimal in the pre-season," Bulger said. "Now, coach Martz can get real creative, and that's what's really fun about this offence.

"It's always a lot more exciting once it counts, especially when you know you have a good team."

The Rams won the NFC West with a 12-4 record and are expected to contend again despite questions on both lines. They're a double-digit favourite to get off to a good start against the Cardinals, 4-12 last year.

"I'm looking forward to setting the tone for the season," wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. "We want to make sure nobody surprises us."

The biggest areas of concern for the Rams heading into the opener are integrating tackle Orlando Pace into an offensive line that's been a trouble area all summer, and finding a replacement for departed defensive end Grant Wistrom.

Pace had only four practices to prepare for the opener after waiting until Sunday to agree to a one-year, $7.02-million contract as the team's franchise player. He's a five-time Pro Bowl player, and reported 18 pounds below last year's playing weight, although in the early going he might have some football conditioning issues.

"You never worry about Orlando, he's going to do his job," Bulger said. "He obviously came back in good shape and that's why all throughout camp it wasn't really an issue, for the players at least."

Bryce Fisher, a seventh-round draft pick in 1999 by the Bills, is a low-profile replacement for Wistrom.

"I've got a lot of work to do, but I really feel like the coaches at least know what they have in me," Fisher said. "They know I'm going to play hard and know my assignments."

The emergence of first-round pick Steven Jackson, who led the NFL in rushing in the pre-season, eases worries about the durability of Faulk. Faulk missed 11 games due to injuries the last two years and is entering his 11th season.

"I don't have to show I'm healthy or prove anything, because I cannot be healthy and go through the whole year and have a decent year, and everybody will think everything is fine," Faulk said. "The need I feel is to be here and to play every game to give my team the best opportunity to win."

New Cardinals coach Dennis Green promises to build a contender quickly, even though Arizona has averaged five wins the last five seasons. He led the Vikings to eight post-season berths in 10 seasons from 1992-2001.

"I don't like losing, I'll tell you that," Green said. "We're going to do everything we can to have a winning team right from the start."

It'll be an uphill battle, considering the Cardinals scored the fewest points and allowed the most in the NFL last season.

Defensive tackle Wendell Bryant is suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

Emmitt Smith, entering his 15th season, is the feature back due to a season-ending injury to Marcel Shipp.

Inexperienced Josh McCown, 1-2 as the starting quarterback at the end of last season, is the unquestioned No. 1 now.

Smith is the NFL's career leading rusher with 17,418 yards, but last year he had only 256, with a 2.8-yard average.

Green has cleaned house, replacing nearly half the roster from last year. Players have been impressed with the attention to detail.

"He wants everything done at a high level and he wants everything to be precise," McCown said. "He makes sure everybody is on top of everybody.

"That alone just tightens the screws around here."