he was a reckless pirate in a sea of colorless navigators, the one NFL coach who could be counted on to put his conservative peers to shame. Then last January, in the NFC divisional playoffs, Mike Martz chose to play it safe, and that may have cost the Rams a chance to reach their third Super Bowl in five years.
Trailing the Panthers by three points with 42 seconds to go at the Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis was 15 yards from a potential winning touchdown. But Martz, fearful that a turnover would derail a furious comeback that had included a successful onside kick, instructed quarterback Marc Bulger to run down the clock, setting up Jeff Wilkins's tying 38yard field goal as time expired.
The move was widely viewed as a sign that Martz lacked confidence in Bulger, who had thrown 22 interceptions as a first-year starter. As if to confirm that opinion, with 13:48 gone in overtime Panthers cornerback Ricky Manning picked off a Bulger pass at the Carolina 38-yard line. Three plays later Jake Delhomme connected with Steve Smith on a 69yard touchdown pass for a 29--23 Panthers victory.
Despite the ensuing outcry from incensed fans and the St. Louis media, Martz and Bulger kept their jobs. With the off-season release of two-time league MVP Kurt Warner (now with the Giants) and the signing of his successor to a four-year, $19.1 million contract, the Rams are Bulger's team. Martz's legacy now rests on the performance of a 27year-old passer and his patchwork offensive line, which will be without tackle Kyle Turley for the season (back injury).
"What I did in that game was interpreted as my not having confidence in Marc, but we threw the ball eight out of 11 plays in overtime, so that obviously wasn't the case," Martz says. "Going into that game, if I'd been given that hypothetical situation, I definitely would've gone for the win. But the feel of the game and the way we'd struggled in the red zone changed my thinking. Had we been playing better offensively, like we had the first three years I was here, it would've been a nobrainer."
That three-year run by the Greatest Show on Turf-- Martz was the Rams' first-year offensive coordinator in 1999 and took over as coach when Dick Vermeil resigned following St. Louis's victory in Super Bowl XXXIV--featured offensive pyrotechnics, with Warner delivering the ball to future Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk and breakaway receiving threats Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and AzZahir Hakim. Bruce and Holt, a 2003 Pro Bowl selection, remain in St. Louis's lineup, with the 31-year-old Faulk trying to hold off first-round draft pick Steven Jackson from Oregon State.
The key to it all is Bulger, whose accuracy, toughness and ability to grasp Martz's scheme have convinced the coach that he's up to the task. A revelation in 2002, when he led the Rams to a 5--0 record after Warner broke the pinkie on his throwing hand, Bulger became the starter after Warner's shaky outing in the '03 opener. Bulger's numbers (he was sacked 37 times, fifth most in the league) reflected his inexperience. "Last year Marc struggled with protections," Martz says. "He knew what to do, but he didn't know why we were doing it--and a lot of that was because, as Kurt's backup, he hadn't had the preparation."
Bulger's teammates noticed his new-found swagger in training camp, but there's little danger he'll carry that confidence too far. "One thing I love about Marc is that he doesn't indulge in his own success," Faulk says. "He's too nice to be true."
When Bulger needs a dose of perspective, all he has to do is think back to 2000. Out of football after being cut by three teams, including the Rams that summer, Bulger went home to Pittsburgh and, he says, "turned into a fan again." In late October he was attending a Steelers game at Three Rivers Stadium when he received a call on his cellphone informing him that Warner had broken his finger and St. Louis wanted to sign him.
"That experience made me more appreciative of being here," Bulger says. "I remember thinking, Can I even play with those guys?"