Todd Hartley: A third-string Cinderella
So by now I imagine you’ve heard of this Marc Bulger kid, who has stepped in at quarterback for the St. Louis Rams and helped to turn their season around. I’m guessing you’ve already noticed that he has led them to five straight wins after they started the season by losing their first five games, and I’m assuming you’re suitably impressed.
Bulger, who is in just his fourth year as a professional, had never thrown a pass in the NFL before a few weeks ago. In addition, he was also third on the St. Louis depth chart and only got to play because the team’s top two quarterbacks went down with injuries, and yet he has looked for all the world like a seasoned veteran during the Rams’ unbeaten streak.
He has done it by playing smart football and avoiding costly mistakes and, when necessary, exhibiting unflappable nerves at crunch time. He has done it with and without running back Marshall Faulk, a former league MVP. He has done it with big statistical games and games where he did just enough to ensure a St. Louis victory, and along the way he has become the highest-rated passer in the NFL this season.
It’s a great Cinderella story, isn’t it? Kid comes out of nowhere to take over the helm of a sinking ship and, possibly, steers his team into the playoffs. It’s the stuff that Hollywood loves and that makes the NFL great. So, naturally, you’re probably assuming that there is no quarterback controversy in St. Louis, despite the Rams’ starting QB being healthy again.
Well, you’re right, only you’re right for the wrong reason. There is no controversy in St. Louis because Rams coach Mike Martz has already stated that Bulger will be back on the bench this Sunday when the Rams square off against the Redskins.
The reason for this is because the man Bulger normally backs up, Kurt Warner, is a two-time league MVP who has directed the Rams’ record-setting offense for the last three years. Coincidentally, Warner is also the original author of the very Cinderella epic that makes Bulger’s story so compelling.
The year was 1999, and St. Louis had just spent a lot of money on a QB named Trent Green. But Green suffered a torn knee ligament in the Rams’ first preseason game, and his backup, an unheralded former grocery-store stock boy and Arena Football player named Kurt Warner, was forced into action.
The rest, as they say, is history. Warner won the MVP, the Rams became one of the highest-scoring teams ever to play in the NFL, and St. Louis went on to win the Super Bowl that season. Just last year, in Warner’s second MVP season, St. Louis made it back to the championship game, where they lost to the Patriots, a team led by its own Cinderella, Tom Brady. (Brady, as you may recall, took over at midseason for the injured Drew Bledsoe.)
This season, however, the Rams offense started out in complete disarray, and Warner was the main culprit. He and his coaches claimed he was totally healthy, and yet he played as though he were crippled, blind or both. In the four games he started before breaking his finger, Warner threw just one touchdown and a staggering eight interceptions. He was, to put it bluntly, just about the worst quarterback in the NFL.
Second-stringer Jamie Martin was equally inept in losing one game before getting injured himself, and virtually everyone had written the Rams’ season off long before Bulger played a single down. Everyone, though, may have been wrong, because Bulger is doing what no one expected him to do: He’s winning football games.
So why isn’t Martz sticking with the hot hand and leaving Bulger in? That, as your parents might say, is the $64,000 question.
On the surface, Martz’s decision makes sense, seeing as how Warner is the reigning league MVP, but Warner himself was a complete nobody just over three years ago. Brady, too, was an unknown commodity when last season started, and yet both Brady and Warner led their teams to Super Bowl wins, all of which just proves that Bulger can do it as well.
With another loss or two, the Rams will have no shot at making it to the postseason, meaning that if Warner plays as poorly as he did to start the year, he could undo everything Bulger has worked for in a heartbeat. And that would be a travesty, because this season isn’t about Kurt Warner. No, the story this year is Marc Bulger, and, win or lose, he should be allowed to finish the tale.
Todd “The Fairy Godfather” Hartley, writes this column on Fridays in The Aspen Times. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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