- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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For once, Mike Martz, who coaches on the edge of chance each Sunday, surrendered.
His Rams trailed, 10-7. His quarterback, Marc Bulger, struggled through a second quarter in which 12 of 13 plays were passes and almost all were disastrous. Only 34 seconds remained before the half, and the Rams were in decent field position at their 46-yard line. Enough time remained to push for the tying field goal, but Martz decided to let the clock run out. Fans booed. Critics wondered: Was the "Go-For-It" Play-Caller waving a white flag?
"I let the clock run," Martz confessed after an emotionally-draining 27-24 overtime victory over San Francisco. "If you throw it down there, so many bad things can happen. Let's get the half over and regroup."
That was the smart play and the right call. That's where having Bulger as his quarterback makes Mike Martz a better coach. With Kurt Warner, Martz knows the sky is the limit. They've been to two Super Bowls together. Their playbook is more extensive on paper, so Martz thinks he can call plays from three years ago on the spur of the moment and get execution. To Martz, Warner is the ace-in-the-hole. With Bulger, making only his eighth NFL start, he has to play the cards with less bravado. Warner may be Martz's Porsche, but Bulger is his Ford who can get the Rams to the same finish line.
When Martz sits down with the press Monday, there is no doubt that he will announce he will drive his Buick -- Bulger -- to Seattle for next Sunday's game against the NFC West-leading Seahawks. Unless Bulger screws it up, he could take the Rams rest of the way. In the most important game of Bulger's young career, he stepped up big in the second half.
Regrouped after the half, Bulger and Martz hit a happy balance of offensive strategy. Martz called four consecutive running plays to open the half to foil an aggressive 49ers blitz. He even called those runs when halfback Marshall Faulk was being treated along the sidelines for a bruised eye after his helmet rim banged into it following a 26-yard run. Lamar Gordon, who finally accepted a fullback position after a year of pleading, ran for 29 yards on five carries in a game-turning 93-yard drive.
Bulger needed to only pass four times during that series. Faulk returned to score a 2-yard touchdown to give the Rams a 14-10 lead, but more importantly, the playing-calling enabled Bulger to regain his composure.
"The great quarterbacks have short memories," Martz said. "Marc came back and played very well. He went 15 of 17 in the second half (for 155 yards and 20 points). That, ladies and gentlemen is a big-league quarterback."
His 6-1 record last season proved to his teammates Bulger could be an NFL quarterback. Sure, Warner has the MVP credentials and still has great potential if he can avoid injuries and get rid of the ball a little quicker. Sunday was Bulger's first true test of being a playoff quarterback. The 49ers won the NFC West last year, and a relentless blitz package by 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora fluttered Martz, Bulger and the Rams offense.
The second quarter was miserable. Bulger was 5-for-9, but he was sacked three times and fumbled twice. The 15-play second-quarter played netted minus-four yards. Bulger was flustered. Martz was drained. Offensive linemen were baffled as to how to handle the 49ers' blitzing pressure.
But the presence of Bulger and not Warner allows Martz to feel more natural enacting Marshall Law. Remember how critics complain about Marshall Faulk's inactivity during Warner's passing shows? Faulk had 18 carries for 57 yards and four catches for 33. A third of the 65 offensive plays is a good percentage. Faulk had only nine carries in the opening loss to the Giants.
"A good running game will always slow down a blitz," said Bulger, who finished with 25 of 36 completions for 236 yards and two touchdowns. "We got into a little bit of a rhythm in the second half. We were making some mistakes earlier, and against the blitz, there is a little bit of a snowball effect."
"The 49ers are going to show blitz and keep blitzing you until you stop it," Faulk said. "There were certain things we had problems with. But if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In the second half, we started picking it up better."
Mora knows the Rams tendencies. He knows Martz loves to send out five receivers into coverage, so he'll overload the left side of the Rams offense and try to make Orlando Pace choose between linebacker Julian Peterson or defensive end Andre Carter. If he times the right stunt, one guy slips free on the quarterback. If the Rams keep in an extra blocker, Mora will overload the right side. That game was being played all day.
But Faulk is the blitz fixer. He's a good pass blocker. He knows where to slip into routes to be a hot read for the quarterback. If asked to run, he'll see the position of the defenders and know where to run.
"Marshall told me once he knows where to go on a running play before the play even starts," Bulger said. "He knows where the linebackers are going to go. Marshall knows football."
So does Martz, and he's learning the right way to use Bulger, whom Martz believes is a Top 10 starting quarterback in the NFL. For one, Bulger throws a more accurate pass than Warner. Players say he runs a better huddle. What sets Warner apart is his ability to make big-time throws while taking big-time hits, but those hits are leading to more and more Warner injuries.
Players believe in Bulger, and when Martz gives him the balance of run and pass, the result is victories. After an 0-for-3 first series passing, Bulger had a nine-play, 69-yard touchdown drive. There were four runs to five passes. The 49ers took a 17-14 lead in the third quarter, but Bulger mixed passing to running backs with other passes in an eight-play 71-yard drive. Faulk and Gordon were involved in five of those eight plays.
Bulger looked cool in the pocket in the fourth quarter when he managed a 14-play, 67-yard field goal drive. Faulk had eight runs during that possession. It slowed down the blitz, so when Bulger tried play-action, he had a better chance of getting a completion.
More importantly, Bulger learned and adjusted as the game progressed. In the first half, he blew a scoring chance by holding the ball too long trying to make a play and fumbled during a sack. In the fourth quarter, Bulger saw a sack coming and knowing he couldn't get rid of the ball, he got in the fetal position so he didn't make a turnover.
Because he's the smart play quarterback, Bulger will continue as the starter.
"Next week, it's going to start all over again with people saying if I don't win, I can't win on the road," Bulger said. "There is always going to be something. Last year after I won two games, they were saying I only won two."
A playoff caliber win earned Bulger the job. Maybe Bulger doesn't give Martz the comfort level of a Warner, but he's proven he can win. After the game, Martz looked as though he had a Gatorade shower, but no Gatorade was poured.
"My friends, this was sweat," Martz said as he looked at his wet shirt.
The Rams sweated out a victory, so it was just as good as a Gatorade shower.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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