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Bulger admits this is his last chance

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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EARTH CITY, Mo.

Quarterbacks like Marc Bulger sometimes don't get a second chance. Rarely will they get a third. This isn't lost on Bulger when the subject is broached inside an office at St. Louis Rams headquarters. The franchise has won just five games in two seasons — the NFL's longest stretch of futility for a non-expansion team since the 1995-1996 New York Jets. That's usually enough losing to trigger a change under center. Bulger got a mulligan last offseason when the Rams passed on drafting Matt Ryan, instead selecting DE Chris Long No. 2 overall. But after another miserable season, the Rams could very well have opted to start from scratch at the position.
They didn't. Then this spring St. Louis eschewed acquiring another veteran starter or selecting a quarterback with the second overall pick in April's draft. For this, Bulger is grateful. But he also knows the Rams aren't going to have much more patience without a relatively quick turnaround. "I understand we have to win," Bulger told FOXSports.com after a recent offseason practice. "It's not fair to our fans or the ownership. If we don't, I know it starts with me. "It's probably my final chance." Bulger and defensive end Leonard Little are the last player ties to the franchise's glory days from early this decade. Both are the only remaining members of the 2001 Rams that were upset by New England in Super Bowl XXXV. Bulger went from reserve to starter the following season when replacing an injured Kurt Warner and won the position outright in 2003. For a spell, Bulger was considered in the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks. But while Warner has since reinvented himself in Arizona, the 32-year-old Bulger has faded in what should be the prime of his career. Playing behind a shoddy offensive line, Bulger has completed a full 16-game season just once while being sacked 228 times in a six-year span. At same time, the franchise around Bulger has crumbled because of poor personnel decisions and ineffective head coaching. Team owner Georgia Frontiere died in January 2008, leaving an uncertain future for the club in St. Louis.

Careers at crossroads

Alex Smith Like Marc Bulger, these players must prove they are able to perform at their salary level this season — or else, Alex Marvez says.
As the Rams tumbled to 2-14 last season, the "Greatest Show on Turf" became an increasingly dark circus. "I remember when we were winning, the days were longer and it was fun coming in," Bulger said. "You go out to eat with your buddies and tell stories. But the last two years when you're losing every week, you just go home after. You don't celebrate. You think, 'What did I do?' "The whole building had a different feeling. Not just the players, but everybody used to want to come to work and be part of the Rams. It just seems like when you lose, people wanted to start to disassociate themselves. There's supposed to be some fun involved in professional football. There just hasn't been any, quite frankly." Winning again can change that. And the team's new hierarchy believes Bulger can help make that happen. Bulger has taken the high road by not criticizing teammates or coaches for the team's failings in the media, but that also has made him a bigger target for public criticism. Second-year Rams general manager Billy Devaney spoke up for Bulger last season, claiming he needed a better supporting cast for success. Devaney said his opinion was reinforced when all five head-coaching candidates that he interviewed gave Bulger a vote of confidence. "There's not one person who said, 'You've got to get a different guy,' " Devaney said. "They firmly believed you've got a guy in place but you had to upgrade around him." Shortly after being hired, Steve Spagnuolo personally expressed his support to Bulger. That went a long way toward putting Bulger's mind at ease. "It's big, especially for a quarterback," Bulger said. "There's a lot that goes on with the position, especially with a new offense. You have to know what you're doing and the guys have to know you are the guy. It's not college. You can't be playing the two-quarterback system. One way or another, I just wanted to know [my future] without having to say anything. I didn't have to. Coach Spags came in and made it clear he wanted me to be his guy and we went right to work, which is nice." As New York Giants defensive coordinator last season, Spagnuolo orchestrated a unit that sacked Bulger six times in a 41-13 rout. Spagnuolo, though, said he used "a volume of work" in evaluating Bulger and concluded that "he's been pretty good." "If you're on defense and you're going to play the next opponent, the first thing you look at it is the quarterback. How can he beat you and how good is he?" Spagnuolo said. "When we played St. Louis and Marc was the quarterback, we had to worry. That speaks volumes about the ability he has. He's been in the Pro Bowl. "People across the league are critical of quarterbacks, good and bad. Marc has had some good times and not-so-good times, but I think there's a good player there." Now, it falls on Spagnuolo and his staff to reinvent a player given a six-year, $65 million contract extension after throwing for 24 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 2006. Under new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Bulger will be playing in a West Coast-style system with quick timing routes that also will showcase running back Steven Jackson as a rusher and receiver. The Rams also want Bulger to improvise better when a play breaks down, which should reduce his high sack totals. "Sometimes you're limited by plays or systems but I think with this new West Coast system there's going to be ways for me to get rid of the ball," Bulger said. "I don't think I'll have to hold it as long. Getting the ball to Steven on check-downs will be a big factor. "We're better up front and outside [at wide receiver]. We're better on defense and we've got Steven, so it's not going to all be on me. I hate to say the words 'manage the game.' But if I can just be smarter and get us out of bad situations, we have enough good players that it will help." Despite the offseason release of team icons Orlando Pace and Torry Holt, the Rams made offensive investments by signing free agent center Jason Brown and using the No. 2 pick on Baylor tackle Jason Smith. But Devaney admits he isn't close to fully restocking the roster quite yet. The Rams lack experience at wide receiver and have no proven running back depth behind Jackson, who has missed eight games the past two seasons because of injury. One thing the Rams do have is a head coach who has unified a fractured locker room and worked hard to change a culture of losing. That alone has Bulger enthused as he admittedly stands at the crossroads of his NFL career. "We have the leader that I think we needed," Bulger said. "Whether we're good enough to win, who knows? But if we lose, it's because the other team is better and not because we've got guys splintering off. We'll all be going in the same direction. But you've got to win to get excited again." Or guarantee staying in St. Louis beyond 2009.
Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Rams, Giants, Jaguars, Cardinals, Orlando Pace, Leonard Little, Kurt Warner, Torry Holt, Marc Bulger, Jason Brown, Matt Ryan, Jason Smith

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