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Martz's Response to Bulger Is Kurt

Despite leading Rams to four victories in a row, former backup will be replaced by Warner after Monday's game.

November 17, 2002|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

The night before last Sunday's game against San Diego, a message popped up on St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger's cell phone. It was Dan Marino calling to wish him luck. Considering he and Marino went to the same high school in Pittsburgh -- and, well, Marino might be the greatest quarterback in NFL history -- Bulger returned the call and thanked him via voicemail.

Then, instead of waiting for a call back, Bulger turned off his phone and went to bed.

"I couldn't believe that," said Marc's father, Jim, a former Notre Dame quarterback. "It was Danny Marino. And Marc was turning off his phone? I would have slept with that thing under my pillow."

Thing is, Bulger doesn't need the strokes. He appreciates the kind words, mind you, he just doesn't need them to know he's the hottest quarterback this side of Brett Favre. After taking his first NFL snap a month ago, Bulger has directed the resurgent Rams to four consecutive victories and leads the league with a 107.4 passer rating.

Telephonically speaking, this kid is off the hook.

But anyone can be put on hold, and that's exactly what the Rams plan to do with Bulger after squeezing one more start out of him, against Chicago on Monday night. Two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner, out with a broken pinkie since the first quarter of a Week 4 game against Dallas, is ready to return to action.

"It's a real easy decision for me," Coach Mike Martz said last week. "Kurt's our quarterback. I'm telling you, he is our quarterback. Marc Bulger is outstanding, but Kurt is our quarterback."

The situation is remarkably reminiscent of what happened in New England last season, when Patriot quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury and unknown backup Tom Brady stepped in, ultimately leading the team to a Super Bowl victory over Martz's Rams.

But the decision of New England Coach Bill Belichick was an unusual one. In most cases, a coach gives the job back to his recuperated star. That was the case with the 1972 Miami Dolphins, when Bob Griese returned to the starting lineup after Earl Morrall quarterbacked the team to 10 consecutive regular-season and playoff victories. It was Griese who put the finishing touches on that magical romp, though, leading the Dolphins over Washington in Super Bowl VII and the only unbeaten season in league history.

But few comparisons can be made between those Dolphins and these Rams, who opened the season 0-5. Warner struggled through his first three-plus games, throwing one touchdown with eight interceptions. The Rams had their chances to win some of those games, however, and the offensive line was as porous as any in the league. Backup quarterback Jamie Martin started one game after Warner was injured but wound up on the sideline with a twisted knee.

Warner is ready to come back, and will do so next Sunday at Washington, yet he toiled as a backup long enough to grasp the sensitivity of the situation. When asked about replacing Bulger, he winces.

"It's a no-win situation," he said. "They want you to either criticize Marc or walk around and brag about yourself, and I'm not going to do either one of those things. You let the questions and rumors and controversy fly, but you know what the bottom line is at the end of the day and you stand on that."

Bulger, 25, is getting a quick lesson in rumor-ology. Sunday night, after he threw two touchdown passes in the final 3:06 to beat the Chargers, 28-24, Bulger learned of a simmering scandal. A TV camera appeared to catch Bulger shoving Warner on the sideline after the game-winning touchdown toss. What were they hiding? Where was the love?

Turns out, it was there all along. The shover was former Ram quarterback Paul Justin, who was standing on the sideline in street clothes, and it was a playful push, as if to say, "OK, Kurt, it's your turn to congratulate him." Bulger heard about it hours later when Rick Smith, the team's director of public relations, called to investigate the rumors.

"I finally saw it Monday on the news," Bulger said three days after the shove-that-wasn't. "I tried to get ahold of Kurt to make sure he didn't think it was anything, and I couldn't get ahold of him. We saw each other [Tuesday] for the first time, and he basically said the same thing I was saying: 'I don't know why people are making an issue of it.' "

Then again, this is Bulger's first go-round under the microscope of fame. He was a sixth-round selection by New Orleans in the 2000 draft -- 31 picks ahead of New England's Brady -- but didn't take a snap for the Saints in an exhibition game, or even in practice. They released him in training camp.

He drove home to Pittsburgh, but didn't consider giving up on his dream.

"Until I got an opportunity, I wasn't going to sell myself short," said Bulger, who set 25 passing records at West Virginia.

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