By Bryan Burwell
June 25, 2010
In an athletic generation cluttered with heat-seeking, attention-grabbing, chest-bumping, "me-first" egotists, Marc Bulger was an emotional misfit who managed to find his quiet niche amidst the overwhelming clatter. Never a fire-and-brimstone screamer, Bulger has traveled through his entire pro football life like he was walking on a soft cover of fresh snow.
Bulger was the soft-spoken kid Marshall Faulk dubbed "Mr. Perma-smile," the unflappable young quarterback who always flashed a pleasant grin as he rose to surprising prominence eight seasons ago when the Rams were seeking a healthier arm to replace battered and bruised Super Bowl hero Kurt Warner.
He was only 25 years old then, probably too young to fully comprehend what he was in for. Bulger just thought he was getting a chance to live out his athletic dream when Mike Martz handed him the job five games into the 2002 season.
It didn't take long to realize his joy ride was actually Mission Impossible. He was the unfortunate man brought in to replace The Man.
In sports, there can be no task more unenviable than following in the footsteps of a fan favorite. No matter how hard he tried, Bulger never could escape the sin of not being Warner. He could never satisfy the legions of Warner lovers who refused to embrace him. Now, a wiser 33-year-old with his own set of physical and emotional bruises as a veteran NFL QB, Bulger is leaving St. Louis as quietly as he arrived, on the verge of signing to play the role of veteran backup to Baltimore Ravens' rising star Joe Flacco.
As always with Bulger, he leaves St. Louis with little fanfare and without the proper appreciation.
He has not talked to any local media since he slipped away quietly onto injured reserve in late December. He was released by the Rams in April, and patiently waited for the right circumstance before settling on the Ravens this week. The deal probably will be completed on Monday or Tuesday, after Bulger returns from a quiet family vacation.
This is how it always goes with Bulger. Shhhhhhhh. Don't say much.
The nine-year veteran finished his tenure with the Rams first in franchise history in completions (1,969), second in passing yards (22,814), completion percentage (62.1) and passer rating (84.4), and third in touchdown passes (122) and attempts (3,171). He has 27 games with 300 yards or more passing, went to the Pro Bowl and the playoffs twice, but could never get the Rams back to the Super Bowl.
But I will always remember him as the young kid who walked into the Rams' huddle eight years ago and was labeled a calming influence on the veteran offense that was struggling under an obviously injured Warner, who had become a shell of himself with serial concussions and injuries to his throwing hand. Bulger didn't holler, he didn't rant or rave. He just threw bullets, won his first five games as a starter, took over for Warner a year later, led the Rams to a 12-4 record and an NFC West title and went to his first Pro Bowl.
By 2003, most rational people could see that Martz was on to something with the kid.
But rational people were in the minority when it came to Bulger, and that's a shame. He was a very good NFL quarterback until he suffered the same fate as Warner — taking too many mind-numbing, body-crunching hits in a Martz offense that placed a premium on leaving the QB unprotected in order to cash in on big-play opportunities.
So while Bulger ended up winning 18 of his first 24 games, the price he paid over the next five seasons was severe: missing 21 games due to injuries as he got pounded behind a porous offensive line. But because he did not deliver the Rams to the Super Bowl, the Warner lovers had little use for him, and that is a shame too, because Bulger wasn't the reason this team couldn't win games.
He was stuck in an organization on the decline, and that wasn't his fault.
Now he gets a chance to finish out his career as a well-paid insurance policy for a championship-caliber team in Baltimore behind Flacco. This is the perfect place for him to finish out his career, with a Super Bowl contender that doesn't require him to sacrifice his body to make big plays downfield.
I will also remember Bulger for something else that he doesn't get nearly enough credit for. Bulger was the ultimate tough guy.
Every Sunday, I used to watch this guy after games drag his body back to his locker stall. A few years ago, I saw him with his shirt off after one particular game, and I swear there was the most hideous purple and reddish contusion on his back the likes of which I'd never seen in an NFL locker room. Bulger was a poster boy for the darker side of the game, and he accepted this with little or no complaint.
Bulger played constantly with battered ribs and so many back and neck injuries that he often struggled to breathe properly during and after games. He lived in a world one filled with ice packs and pain killers. He lived in a world where the obligation to play was blurred constantly by the inability to know if you are being a brave teammate who is willing to play with a little pain or a damned fool who sacrificed too much by playing injured, but did it anyway for the good of the team, or the fear of losing his job.
That's the Marc Bulger his detractors never talked about, and that's a damned shame, too.