- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
ST. LOUIS -- It isn't hard to determine the smartest move made by new St. Louis Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo so far -- it involved a candid talk with quarterback Marc Bulger.
Spagnuolo got right to the point after meeting with Bulger at Rams headquarters a few months ago. Bulger didn't have to worry about the Rams looking for another quarterback this offseason. He was the man, Spagnuolo told him, and that's all he needed to know.
This was an invaluable endorsement because Bulger needed to understand the organization was behind him this year. He'd had two subpar seasons and the Rams easily could have selected a quarterback with the second overall pick in this year's draft.
As Bulger said: "I think it was important for me to hear that. This team has changed so much over the last few years that a new coach could've come in and decided he didn't like me at all. I wouldn't say that it put me at ease. But it definitely allowed me to just go out and focus on my work."
What Bulger clearly realizes is that he's reached a critical juncture in his career. He's a 32-year-old quarterback who's thrown 28 interceptions and 22 touchdowns over the past two seasons for a team that won five games during that span. Numbers like those don't make people wonder if a guy is just going through a long slump. Those numbers inspire clamor for a new quarterback.
That's the kind of scrutiny Bulger is facing in St. Louis these days. Over the past two years, the Rams have hired a new coach and a new general manager (Billy Devaney). That means all eyes will turn to Bulger if the Rams continue to show no signs of improvement, even with Spagnuolo's endorsement. But what's important to remember about Bulger is that he should be up to the challenge, particularly because he's used to thriving when there are doubters all around him.
This is a man who became a successful starter at West Virginia after no other school offered him a Division I scholarship. The New Orleans Saints also gave up on Bulger after making him a sixth-round pick in 2000 and the Atlanta Falcons kept him on their practice squad for just two weeks shortly thereafter. By the time Bulger wound up in St. Louis as a third-string quarterback in 2001, nobody was giving him a shot to be a difference-maker in the league. The bottom line: This isn't a guy you write off easily.
Even when Bulger was at his best in St. Louis -- he's led the Rams to two playoff appearances in his seven seasons as a starter -- he had to operate in a town that never really embraced him. His first problem was that he was the man who replaced Kurt Warner, who was a beloved figure. Bulger's second issue was that his play declined as the team fell apart under former head coach Scott Linehan.
Last season after an 0-3 start, Bulger briefly lost his starting job to Trent Green. Although interim head coach Jim Haslett -- who replaced the fired Linehan early in the 2008 season -- reinstated Bulger as starter, the quarterback simply couldn't win with the public.
In many ways, he still can't.
"There were people talking bad about me even when I was going to the Pro Bowl," said Bulger, who played in that contest after the 2003 and 2006 seasons. "But that really doesn't matter if you're winning. This job is a week-to-week deal [when it comes to public support] and I've learned to deal with that now. The harder part is how much things have changed. When I first came here, it didn't feel like a job because you were having so much fun coming to work. Over the last couple years, it's felt like a job."
Given what the Rams have on their roster, Bulger had better remain prepared for some hard labor.
The team dumped seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Torry Holt this offseason. Of the remaining wideouts, only second-year veteran Donnie Avery made significant contributions in 2008. Of course, the Rams still have star running back Steven Jackson and an offensive line that should improve with two key additions (free agent center Jason Brown and left tackle Jason Smith, the second overall pick in the draft).
Let's face it: This bunch isn't going to make a run at the Rams' offensive records anytime soon.
What this team can do, however, is put Bulger in a position to play to his strengths. Spagnuolo said he's always respected Bulger's ability, especially the quarterback's penchant for getting rid of the ball quickly and managing the game well. Those traits will be vital in the West Coast offense that new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has installed.
"I just need to get the ball in the hands of our playmakers," Bulger said. "I'll also have a lot more flexibility when it comes to calling audibles and putting people in the right positions. The important thing is just keeping us out of bad situations."
Spagnuolo adds that better pass protection should allow Bulger to improve. After all, the Rams have given up 124 sacks over the past three seasons.
"Everything starts with the big men up front," Spagnuolo said. "I don't care what routes you're running, the quarterback can't make the throws if he's not protected. There isn't a quarterback in this league who can function on his own."
It's important for Bulger to hear those words as well. It means that the most critical season of his career doesn't have to be one in which he has to carry the offense. It's more vital that he help his younger teammates learn what it takes to succeed at this level. Spagnuolo has been pushing themes of teamwork and unity and that's exactly what Bulger wanted to see more of from this team.
Bulger also stresses that there's been no lack of confidence on his part. Sure, he spent a few weeks after the season looking back on what went wrong and what he could've done better. But he also ended the self-analysis after about a month. He figured he'd only be creating doubt in his ability if he spent too much time dwelling on his struggles.
As far as Bulger is concerned, it's best that he simply focus on the opportunity that still lies ahead of him.
As he said, "I'm excited because I got to this point in my career by proving people wrong and I'm looking forward to doing it again."
That sounds a lot like a man who's eager to prove that better days remain for him in St. Louis. And the good news for Bulger is that he's not the only person around the Rams who thinks that's true.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
14hEric D. Williams
20hDan Graziano and Adam Caplan