|Monday, November 18
Updated: November 19, 3:52 PM ET
Bulger does, says all the right things
By Len Pasquarelli
ST. LOUIS -- As he took a knee to run out the final seconds of the St. Louis Rams' fifth straight victory late Monday night, quarterback Marc Bulger clutched the game ball tightly, then jogged to the sideline and handed it to coach Mike Martz.
The significance of the gesture was likely lost on the youngster, who simply wanted to express his gratitude for the faith Martz has demonstrated in him, but the symbolism could not be ignored. Having stewarded the Rams back to respectability, and established several NFL passing records for a quarterback in his first five league starts, Bulger is prepared to have Martz now hand the ball over to the man who led the team to a Super Bowl title three years ago.
"In my heart, do I want to give (the starting job) back to Kurt (Warner)?" asked Bulger, after a 21-16 victory that left him undefeated as a starter. "Hey, I'm a quarterback, and there isn't a quarterback out there who wants to surrender the starting job. Kurt would tell you the same thing. But this is a guy who's won a Super Bowl, two most-valuable player awards, and I think some people around here seem to forget that."
Martz certainly hasn't, and he wasted little time in his post-game session with the media reiterating that Warner will assume the No. 1 job next week, when the Rams face the Washington Redskins. Back at 5-5 now following a disastrous 0-5 start, only the second team in league history to follow a five-game season-opening losing stretch with five wins, the Rams are Warner's team once again.
And it's imperative he pick up where Bulger left off, since St. Louis still has very little margin for error over the final half-dozen games of the year, if it is to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth straight year. Even at 5-5, St. Louis still trails three franchises -- New Orleans (7-3), Atlanta (6-3-1) and the New York Giants (6-4) -- among the current wild-card contenders.
His return to the field, albeit briefly, actually came a week early for Warner, who has been sidelined by a broken pinkie finger on his throwing hand.
In a touch of irony, Bulger left the game in the second quarter with what the doctors feared was a broken index finger on his right hand. Enter Warner, who was sacked for a seven-yard loss on his first play. He then threw wide of Isaac Bruce on second down and completed a 13-yard pass to Bruce on a third-and-17 play.
That was it for Warner, as Bulger returned on the Rams' next series, then played the rest of the way. But in just three snaps, Warner demonstrated a bit of rust, enough to open Martz to plenty of second-guessing by the pundits if St. Louis falls shy of a postseason berth, or if Warner struggles next week against a Washington defense capable of pressuring the passer.
Already mildly rankled by what he knows will be a barrage of questions about his rationale in yanking a quarterback with a hot hand, Martz reacted a tad testily when a reporter asked if Bulger might have done anything more to stay in the lineup. Shot back Martz: "Is there anything more Kurt Warner could have done in his first three years as a starter in this league?"
Warner will have to re-prove, though, that he is the same quarterback he was in those three seasons, when he posted numbers that made him statistically the top-rated passer in NFL history. The two-time most-valuable player was uncharacteristically inaccurate at the outset of this season, appeared to have a "dead" arm, and was careless with the football.
Locally the Rams coach already is being questioned for his intransigent tack on the quarterback situation and there are fans, and more than a few Rams players, who feel Bulger should retain his job.
Mature beyond his years, Bulger wasn't about to be yanked into the debate on Monday night, and he handled himself with class and aplomb for a guy about to be handed a clipboard and pointed in the direction of the bench. In a crowded locker room where he was backed into his dressing stall by a mass of reporters, many of them attempting to bait him into controversy, Bulger was a model of political correctness.
For the most part, his answers were as sharp as his completion percentage, as he trod carefully on treacherous ground.
"This isn't my team," Bulger allowed, "and I know it. Coach has been very honest and straightforward from the beginning. There was never any beating around the bush. It was always, 'When Kurt is healthy again, he's the guy.' I understood that all along. I never considered that I would replace him. My job was to try to win some games and that's what I did."
In pulling the Rams out of a huge hole, Bulger completed 113 of 173 passes for 1,496 yards, with 12 touchdown passes, four interceptions and a passer rating of 106.0. The yardage and passer rating represent league records, at least since 1950, for a quarterback in his initial five starts.
His performance against a Chicago defense that came with lots of blitzes, many of them up the middle, was nothing shy of gritty. Once the X-rays revealed no fracture of his index finger, Bulger immediately took a pair of painkiller injections and then some oral medication at halftime, and just continued to make big plays.
Although he had to make an adjustment in his grip because his finger was numb, he still completed 21 of 35 passes for 347 yards, with two touchdown passes and one interception. Minus any kind of running game, with rookie Lamar Gordon managing a puny 45 yards while starting for injured Marshall Faulk (ankle), Bulger and Bruce took over.
The two hooked up five times for 128 yards. Counting the 13-yard reception from Warner, the slippery Bruce totaled six catches and 141 yards. Bulger had eight completions of 20 yards or more and made big-time passes in all three of the St. Louis touchdown drives.
On the game's opening possession, he hit Bruce on consecutive plays for gains of 21 and 22 yards, converted three times on third down, and threw for 60 yards overall on a drive that ended with tight end Ernie Conwell's one-yard touchdown run on a tricky inside handoff. The second touchdown for the Rams came on Bulger's 22-yard pass to Gordon, who badly beat Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher up the field, and the Rams quarterback also had completions of 22 and 33 yards on the possession.
The final score, an eight-yard pass to slot receiver Ricky Proehl, came on a possession in which Bulger had completions of 20 and 32 yards.
"He came up big when he had to do it . . . but that's pretty much what Marc has done for five straight weeks now," said Bruce. "Look, he saved our butts, right? He's kept us afloat and now we have to keep on swimming."
St. Louis continued to at least tread water Monday night, in part, because its defense complemented Bulger's standout performance. The Rams blitzed Chicago quarterback Chris Chandler mercilessly and finished the evening with seven sacks, while allowing the Bears only 220 yards. Chandler spent plenty of time in the trainer's room afterward, icing a body covered with welts. Then again, the season has been a series of sore spots for the Bears, who lost for the eighth straight time.
Chicago also lost rookie left offensive tackle Marc Colombo, probably for the year to a patella injury late in the first half.
"That's the way the season has gone," Urlacher said. "If something bad can happen to us, it will, but you hate to make excuses or (complain), you know?"
Bulger certainly knows.
In a very short period of time, he has gained valuable experience, and has built an impressive resume. There will come a time, he acknowledged, when a team will be his to operate. Now isn't yet the time, though, and on Monday night he accepted that reality with grace.
So much grace, in fact, that he blew away the guy who will take his job.
"That kid," said Warner, as he left the locker room, then nodded back in the direction of Bulger, "has plenty of class."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.