Ravens gave Bulger an offer he couldn't refuse

Former Rams quarterback lured by opportunity to win

August 27, 2010|By Ken Murray | The Baltimore Sun

The checklist of teams Marc Bulger expected to hear from last spring as a new free agent included all the usual suspects, but it did not include the Ravens. No need, no vacancy in Baltimore, Bulger assumed.

But when the Ravens called the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback with the St. Louis Rams in May, he was -- in order -- surprised, intrigued, then sold.

"They called out of the blue," said Bulger, whose nine-year run in St. Louis ended in May when he was released. "I was just going through the Rolodex in my head of teams who would be calling and who wouldn't. Frankly, Baltimore never came to mind because I knew Joe [Flacco] and Troy [Smith] and John [Beck]. I knew the situation there, and it wasn't at the forefront of my mind."

It moved front and center after Bulger made some exploratory calls of his own. He listened to John Harbaugh's coaching philosophy, studied the organizational profile and familiarized himself with Cam Cameron's offense.

Check, check, check. All good. He had no trouble with the move from the NFC to the AFC, from St. Louis to Baltimore, either. One hurdle remained, though, and it was a big one.

"The whole deal was, do [I] really want to be a backup?" Bulger said. "I thought about it, and at this point in my career, you know what, the only important thing now is where I have the best chance to win."

There were more logical opportunities in Chicago and Arizona -- Bulger won't confirm talks with the Bears or Cardinals because he doesn't want to offend quarterbacks there -- but the chance to win in Baltimore as a backup to Flacco ultimately won out. A one-year, $3.8 million contract that could escalate to $5.3 million with incentives didn't hurt, either.

"I should've been a salesman, I guess," Harbaugh joked this week, talking about the pitch he gave Bulger in May. "He was really interested in coming here, I think, from the get-go. He spent a lot of time talking to Cam, a lot of time talking to Jim [Zorn, the quarterbacks coach]. I think he was excited about what he'd heard about the Ravens."

Bulger has always been a quick study. He started only one year of high school football in Pittsburgh but got offers from Maryland, Virginia Tech and several Ivy League colleges. He chose West Virginia because his parents were infatuated with then-coach Don Nehlen, started three years, threw for more than 8,000 yards and 59 touchdowns.

A perennial overachiever, Bulger came into the NFL as a suspect sixth-round draft pick with the New Orleans Saints in 2000 but didn't make it past the first cut. He went on the practice squads of the Atlanta Falcons and Rams before sticking with the Rams as a third-stringer in 2001.

But by 2002, he had started seven games for the Rams in place of injured Kurt Warner. By 2003, he had taken Warner's job in a meteoric rise. In St. Louis, Bulger threw for 1,496 yards in his first five starts -- the best five-game start in NFL history. He won his first six starts and 18 of his first 22. He went to the playoffs, and the Pro Bowl twice in his first four years as starter.

Bulger's ability to assimilate and execute Mike Martz's offense -- "The Greatest Show on Turf" -- was often overshadowed by playmakers Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. But it was the secret to St. Louis' prolific offensive production.

Martz "taught me 10 years of football in two years," Bulger said. "What he taught me the first couple years until he left, I can never replace. I owe him a big debt of gratitude for taking me under his wing, because there are not many guys in the NFL who have as much knowledge as he does."

Once Martz left, the winning didn't last. Neither did Bulger, who was sacked 228 times from 2003 to 2008. The Rams sank steadily after a 2004 playoff appearance. They have won a total of six games the past three seasons, when Bulger won only five of his past 35 starts. He finished with 22,814 passing yards and 122 touchdowns in 96 games in St. Louis. In the end, Bulger knew it was time for a change and asked for his release, which he got on his 33rd birthday. The past three years were the toughest of his nine-year career.

"It was just because you know how it was to have success and play at a really high level," he said. "Then you start looking at yourself in the mirror; you try even harder and you're pressing, and there are things out of your control. But the buck stops with you. I understood that. It was my responsibility for us to win, and we didn't get it done. It was on me."

It's not on Bulger in Baltimore. He is a high-priced insurance policy in the event Flacco gets hurt, and he may be the best backup quarterback in the NFL. Bulger's transition has been as smooth as it has been impressive. He fits comfortably into Zorn's quarterbacks room, where information flows freely.

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