Underrated doesn't begin to describe Rams' Bulger
By DARRIN BEENE
January 5, 2005

You won't hear the St. Louis Rams Marc Bulger mentioned in a discussion of the National Football League's best quarterbacks. Maybe you should.

Although a bum shoulder hampered him this season, Bulger comes into Saturday's first-round playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks armed with some of the league's top statistics. But more than numbers, what proved Bulger's worth to the St. Louis Rams offense were the two games he didn't play.

A sack by the San Francisco *****' Bryant Young on Dec. 5 sprained Bulger's right shoulder. The injury sidelined him for the next two games against Carolina and Arizona and forced the Rams to play 39-year-old Chris Chandler.

Without Bulger, the Rams lost both games - scoring just one offensive touchdown in the process - to put their playoff hopes on life support with a 6-8 record.

St. Louis needed to beat Philadelphia and the New York Jets in the final two games of the season to have any chance at making the postseason. They did it with Bulger leading the way.

He completed 20-of-27 passes and threw for 225 yards and a touchdown against the coasting Eagles. On Sunday, in a must-win game, Bulger scorched the Jets for 450 yards and three touchdowns in the overtime victory.

"I think he's playing really, really well," St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz said Wednesday. "I couldn't imagine he would be at this point at the beginning of the year."

Bulger was coming off a 2003 season that earned him a Pro Bowl berth and ended with a three-interception performance against eventual NFC champion Carolina in his first playoff start. Then, in this year's first game, Bulger hurt his right shoulder, an injury that continues to nag him.

"It's still not 100 percent, but who's feeling 100 percent right now?" Bulger said. "I think it's just going to be one of those things until I get some rest in the offseason. But it's definitely good enough to play."

And when Bulger has played, he's been more than good enough. He set career highs in completion percentage (66.2 percent) and yardage (3,964) this year.

Both of those numbers rank among the elite in the NFC (third in yardage and completion percentage) and NFL (sixth in both categories). His 93.7 quarterback rating is fourth in the NFC, ahead of his Saturday counterpart, Matt Hasselbeck's 83.1, and eighth in the NFL.

Bulger has also cut his interceptions from 2003, dropping from 22 to 14.

Here's the topper. Bulger has done all of this behind a makeshift offensive line. The Rams had to place starting tackle Kyle Turley on injured reserve with a back injury and center Dave Wohlabaugh retired because of a hip injury.

Four different players start at left guard and two at right tackle.

"We've probably went to a little bit of a rebuilding process just during the year with Kyle Turley getting hurt and Dave Wohlabaugh missing, but we've found some good young linemen," Bulger said.

"They are finally starting to come into their own. ... I think we're at the point where we're ready to go again and be explosive."

Martz said he thought Bulger reached a new level of understanding against Green Bay on Nov. 29. Although the Rams lost to the Packers, 45-17, Bulger passed for 448 yards.

"Nobody really knew it, but his shoulder has been bothering him all year. He finally got going pretty good against Green Bay and was recovering and really played well," Martz said.

"From that point on, he's been so calm and poised and he just sees things so well. Nothing seems to rattle him and everything has kind of slowed down."

Bulger said his comfort level with the Rams' offense between this season and last year is like "night and day."

"I learned a great deal last year, game management-wise and just becoming a football player. I think it's shown this year," he said.

Others have noticed, too.

"He makes good decisions and he's an accurate passer," Seahawks defensive end Chike Okeafor said.

"He's got the right tools around him to help him flourish and he's been taking full advantage of that."

Because of those tools - the Rams have game-breaking receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt and the multipurpose Marshall Faulk - Bulger's contributions are often undervalued.

That claim loses validity when you consider the Rams are 26-10 in games the 27-year-old Bulger has started the last three years, and 1-11 in the others.

"Clearly when he is not in their lineup as he was hurt and missed a few games, their team changed dramatically," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said.

"So he is very much a key to what they do."