Rams offense different under Linehan
Marc Bulger talks about the Rams new offense under coach Scott Linehan, growing up in an athletic family and more in the Weekly Conversation.
Editor's note: Each week during the season, Graham Bensinger will be talking with high-profile NFL figures for ESPN.com's Weekly Conversation. This week he checks in with Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
Graham Bensinger: Your father Jim was a QB for Notre Dame, your brother Jim golfed for the Fighting Irish, your sister Kate was drafted into the WNBA, and your younger sister Meg plays for West Virginia's basketball program. What's that like?
Marc Bulger: First, my older brother never even officially played for Notre Dame. He practiced with them for a year. He went a little overboard on that one! (laughs) Kate was drafted to the WNBA which didn't work out. Meg is going to be a senior this year. She blew her knee out four or five months ago so she's going to miss this year. She was leading the country in three-point field goals at the time she got hurt last year. She was definitely going to be a consensus All-American this year.
Bensinger: How was growing up in such an athletic family?
Bensinger: Who was the best athlete in the family?
Bulger: That's tough to say. We were all good athletes. Of the boys, I was probably the best-rounded because I played everything. My sister Meg is the most natural. My mom never got us into comparing. I'd probably get into trouble. (laughs)
Bensinger: How much sibling competition was there?
Bulger: A lot. It definitely helped my sisters because there were three boys of relatively close age. We always had mutual friends who played basketball all the time in the driveway. We'd have our friends over and my sisters could hold their own. They were girls and younger, but the competition helped them. It probably toughened them up a little bit.
Bensinger: I hear you're quite the golfer ...
Bulger: I'm getting there (laughs) Every year, it's the same thing. I start in the spring and I'm about an eight handicap. Last summer, I got down to a two handicap. Then, I don't play because I'm too sore during the season. From about July to February or March, I don't pick up a golf club. That hurts me. Fortunately, two or three years ago I got into Oakmont Country Club in Pittsburgh. The US Open is going to be there next year. Playing that course on a regular basis over the summer has helped my game a lot.
Bensinger: That's a pretty big deal to get into Oakmont.
Bulger: My older brother got in about five years ago. It's not a place that just because you're an athlete you can get into. They really do some background checks. I think there are only four or five athletes in there. I'm thankful I was able to get in.
Bensinger: What's the best part of being a member?
Bulger: The course is easily one of the top three in the world. I own a heavy equipment company that my older brother runs for me in Pittsburgh and for him to be able to tell clients, "Hey, I'll take you to Oakmont," is a big advantage.
Bensinger: Why not try and pick up a golf club during the season?
Bulger: I've tried. When I was the third-string QB during our Super Bowl year I was able to. Now that I'm playing, aside from being sore, there are so many commitments. On your day off, Tuesday, I have so many things to get done. Now, I value being able to get a little rest. Do I spend five hours golfing or do I get some yard work done and catch a two-hour nap? I realize taking care of your body and getting that rest is a little more important, now.
Bensinger: How sore do you find yourself being?
Bulger: This year, it's actually been a little different. I've found myself feeling pretty healthy. Early in the season, I had a rib and finger issue which bothered me a little bit. Besides that, while I may have the same amount of sacks, I don't feel I'm getting hit during the course of the game as much.
Bensinger: There have been 24 sacks allowed this season. QB protection has been an issue for a long time with the Rams. Why has the team been unable to figure out how to adequately protect the QB?
Bulger: That's a good question. It's probably not fair to our line. Since I've been here it's been a down-the-field passing offense. That hasn't changed. To compare a team that throws three-step drops every down and runs the ball forty times to one that throws the ball forty times per game and takes seven-step drops every time -- it's not fair to compare those lines. There's a big difference between holding for a second and holding for four seconds. You're going to get those five-to-ten yards when you take those three-step drops, but a team like us wants to get twenty-to-thirty yards a pop. You're going to have to take that risk of being sacked. You weigh the pros and cons. This year, there have been some sacks, but I've known when they've been coming. In the past, there have been completely blown assignments which got me hurt last year. There's been nothing like that.
Bensinger: In the past, the QB protection hasn't been very good.
Bensinger: Last year, there were 21 turnovers through the first eight games. This season, there have only been nine during that same amount of time. Obviously Coach [Scott, the Rams' first-year head coach]Linehan runs a different system than Coach Martz, but what's the main difference?
Bulger: The overall philosophy. Certainly Coach Martz didn't want to turn the ball over. That goes without saying in the NFL. It was an aggressive philosophy. We're going to take shots. We're going to stay on the offense as an offense. We aren't going to let the defense dictate to us what we're going to do. Now, the number one approach is to protect the ball. The defense still can't dictate to us, but if they're going to get way back and give us underneath things we aren't going to stretch the field. We're just going to play some ball control. I don't think either one of the philosophies is one-hundred percent right, but this is the one we're going with now. Our stats offensively are still up there passing.
Bensinger: This received local press: How much did Mike Martz consider turnovers to be an accepted risk of being an explosive offense?
Bulger: I hate to speak for him, but this is just the perception that I got If there was a chance that a guy was going to come open, I'm going to throw it. If our receiver "X" and their DB "Y" were neck-and-neck, I'm going to throw it. The ball is in the air and hopefully our guy wins. We assumed that our guy was going to win. If he didn't and I threw a pick, honestly, it was okay because that's what I was coached to do. It's not as if I was told to do that and then Coach Martz got mad at me. He fully understood the risks. Now, its check the ball down and lets see what Steven [Jackson] can do with the ball. We'll throw for two and if he can run for eight to get the first down, then, great. Coach Linehan always tells us as long as each drive ends on a kick -- whether it's a punt, a field goal, or an extra point -- then, we're in good shape. There's definitely credibility in what Coach Linehan tells us because the turnover battle is huge in the NFL. It was amazing how many years the Rams were able to overcome that with how explosive the offense was.
Bensinger: What did you find most challenging about the transition?
Bulger: I was taught a philosophy and a certain way to do things and that's all I knew for six years in the NFL. It's tough to say 'Hey let'ss embrace something different' when that was maybe the best offense in the history of the NFL. I hate to say we changed to a more conservative style because we're still more aggressive than most teams in the NFL. We were so aggressive before that it just seems like we're less aggressive. We're second in the league in passing yards. We're just playing a little smarter.
Bensinger: You've only thrown one interception this season. You were averaging 1.2 interceptions per game last season. How much would you attribute that to the change in philosophies?
Bulger: I've never seen myself as someone that turned the ball over a lot. I noticed myself starting to get that label. I think that was just because of the aggressive style. Now, if a guy comes open late, but I have already checked the ball down -- it's one-hundred percent OK with Coach Linehan that it happened. We can move on. Coach Martz' game was being aggressive. There weren't many things that bothered him, but I knew he didn't like not being aggressive. I knew he had gotten rid of QBs because they were either scared of throwing an interception or scared of being aggressive. The philosophy was in my head that if there's a chance, you're taking a shot, so that's what I did.
Bensinger: You reached 1,000 completions faster than any QB in history (45 games). It was two games quicker than Kurt Warner. Peyton Manning and Drew Bledsoe reached the mark in 48 games and Dan Marino in 49 games. How significant is that to you?
Bulger: It's not. It's something that's nice in the offseason. The whole hype thing in the NFL makes me laugh sometimes. You get told you're the sixth-highest rated QB in the history of the NFL, you have the second-highest accuracy percentage in the history of the NFL, you tied Dan Marino for the fastest to 10,000 yards, and you're the fastest to 1,000 completions. All of those things are great, but you rarely hear them. I don't know if it's the star power or if I'm not one of the guys that they want to promote out there because I could name five or six guys that if they had hit one of those five things they'd be on the cover of every magazine and every show before the game on Sunday. You wouldn't stop hearing about it. I see some of the things that guys do that they promote and it almost makes you laugh. I don't get caught up in it.
It's nice to hear it because sometimes you do doubt yourself: Why are these guys getting promoted more than you are? You think you're as good, but you're like maybe I can't do things as well as them. I know I can't run. Now that I've been in the league six or seven years, when it comes to throwing the ball I know I can do it with anyone. The new thing was 'It's the system.' I think I'm doing al alright in the new system.
Bensinger: The team has lost three in a row. You've been 4-4 to start each of the past three seasons. What will it take for the Rams to make the playoffs?
Bulger: This week is huge. I'm definitely not approaching it different as far as preparation, but I know the ramifications. If we go two games down, it would essentially be three games because we would have lost to the Seahawks twice. A couple years ago, we snuck into the playoffs at 8-8. There are too many good teams now. For us to get into the playoffs we're going to have to win our division. A loss this week would hurt a lot. We're not far away. I've been on a couple bad teams here where I knew we had huge holes in different places. I don't think we have those holes, personnel-wise, that we've had in the past. There are certainly things that we have to clean up, but it's nice to know we have that base here and the personnel to get it done. Now, it's time to stop making excuses and make it happen.
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org