Commentary

Bulger an example of the inexact science of scouting

Originally Published: August 3, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Just a couple of days into his brief stint on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad in 2000, Marc Bulger was asked by a reporter how things were progressing so far.

Marc Bulger
Elsa/Getty ImagesAfter waited his turn in St. Louis, Mark Bulger is an upper-echelon quarterback now.

"If I had to," Bulger responded, "I really don't know that I could get this team out of the huddle right now."

It was meant partly as a commentary on the complicated offense of then-Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, a design heavy in verbosity and shy on patience, and also as a self-deprecating assessment of where Bulger stood at that juncture of his fledgling NFL career.

As anyone who witnessed Bulger's two-week struggle in Atlanta will attest, it was a candid appraisal on both counts.

Seven years later, Falcons officials would probably kill right now to have Bulger standing in their team's huddle this season. The St. Louis Rams just signed him to a gaudy six-year, $65 million contract extension to keep him in theirs through the 2013 campaign. And while New Orleans is in love with Drew Brees, the Saints, who chose Bulger in the sixth round of the 2000 draft and regarded him at the time as little more than a practice squad guy, might not have needed Brees had they made a more accurate projection on Bulger.

Of course, the Saints and Falcons weren't the only teams that missed on Bulger, who wasn't chosen in 2000 until 167 other names had been removed from the draft board. Four of those were quarterbacks. Of that group, only Chad Pennington has achieved any degree of success in the league. Two others (Gio Carmazzi and Tee Martin) are out of football altogether. Chris Redman, who has not played in the NFL since 2003, is a long shot to make the Atlanta roster as he attempts a comeback after shoulder woes.

So how is it that in an era when some prospects are so overscouted at times, Bulger managed to slip through so many cracks?

Part of it can be attributed to poor scouting and shoddy projections of his potential. Some can be pegged to the fact that Bulger, who didn't begin playing at Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh until his junior season, was a late bloomer. And, according to Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, much of it is just luck.

"Probably more than any other position, quarterback is kind of a right-place-at-the-right-time proposition," said Martz, who orchestrated the transformation of Bulger from a practice-squad player to a two-time Pro Bowl pick when he was the Rams' head coach. "I mean, everyone is looking for a real complicated reason, you know? But a lot of things have to click for a quarterback to be good in this league. The pieces all have to fall into place. It took a little while, with Marc, for that to happen."

Indeed, in his first season with the Rams, Bulger was the No. 3 quarterback for all 16 games. It wasn't until 2002, when Jamie Martin was injured, that Bulger earned his first start, and he didn't become the full-time starter until 2003. Now his burgeoning resume includes three seasons of 3,000-plus passing yards. And he is coming off a 2006 season in which he established career highs for attempts (588), completions (370), yards (4,301) and touchdown passes (24), while throwing just eight interceptions.

"I think that just about everyone had a low-round grade on him. Obviously, I think now that just about everyone [screwed] up. It happens."
-- One scout on Marc Bulger

Good fortune, right place at the right time, whatever; those numbers still suggest that a lot of scouts missed the mark on their evaluations of Bulger.

Asked to dig back into their files and break out the scouting reports on Bulger from the 2000 draft, two longtime NFL personnel executives had similar reads on the former West Virginia University standout. They cited average arm strength and mobility, concerns about his size, worries that he might not be able to drive the ball into the tiny passing windows the NFL affords quarterbacks, and only decent mobility. Both noted entries in their scouting files, though, on football awareness and leadership skills.

"I think that just about everyone had a low-round grade on him," one of the scouts said. "Obviously, I think now that just about everyone [screwed] up. It happens."

What also happens, obviously, is that quarterbacks have something in their makeup -- moxie, tenacity, perseverance, whatever the intangible -- to rise above their low-round grades.

Said new Miami starter Trent Green last week: "If you want to know one of the reasons that they say scouting is an inexact science, just look at the quarterback position."

Green can speak from experience. He was originally drafted by San Diego in 1993 in a round that doesn't even exist anymore (the eighth), then was released and bounced to the CFL for one season. He didn't start double-digit games in an NFL season until 1998, and didn't start all 16 games until the ninth year of his career.

Quarterback certainly is a position with a history of late bloomers. And no matter how good the scouts, or how sophisticated the technology and methodology of modern-day bird-dogging, sometimes they simply can't always discern how well seeds of success may have been sown at the college level.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.