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Can Bulger bounce back?

One game does not a season a make...or something like that. Rams QB Marc Bulger got more than his fair share of criticism last season, some of it well-earned, for a Rams offense that consistently struggled. However, as the season wound down and the impetus to win, if only to save jobs, increased, Bulger flashed some glimpses of his old self. One game in particular stands out: the Rams 27-31 loss to the Atlanta Falcons to close out the season. 

That was the second highest points scored total for the Rams that season (though it was the ninth time the defense allowed 30+ points). Unlike the 34 points they put up against Dallas, the week 17 game featured both Steven Jackson tearing up the field and an effective passing game. Bulger, despite being sacked three times for the second week in a row completed 19 of 32 passing attempts for 230 yards, one TD (a 16-yarder to Avery), no INTs, and a QB rating of 91.9, his best all season. 

In his post-game grades, 3k gave an A- to Bulger, and summed up his performance this way:

At times this season, he has looked absolutely awful.  Today, he showed the kind of presence that made him so reliable in years past.  After a horrible first series and a pair of errant throws in the first half, he turned into the kind of field general teams need their quarterbacks to be.  19 for 32 for 230 yards and a TD, including some very difficult throws; it was the kind of game you want to expect out of Bulger at a minimum... Bottom line: Bulger was a legitimate QB today.

That horrible first series 3k mentions ended on 3rd and 9 with Bulger sacked for a loss of 6 yards. Sadly enough, that was the least costly of the three times Bulger was sacked that day. The second sack came in the second quarter, Rams leading 7-3, and trying to convert a 4th and 3 at the Atlanta 34-yard-line. The Falcons would score on the resulting possession. The third sack came in the fourth quarter, Rams down 31-27, final Rams possession of the game. After a touchback, Bulger led the offense up the field quickly, completing a 29-yard pass to Joe Klopfenstein (?) and two Steven Jackson runs, both out of the shotgun on 1st and 10, for 22 yards. That set up 2nd and 2 when Chauncey Davis sacked him for a loss of 8. From there, it was two incomplete passes for an unceremonious end to the game.

The Rams had 15 third downs in that game, and called a passing play on 10 of those. Bulger was sacked on one of those plays, the very first drive. Of those passing plays, they converted the third down four times. Bulger completed another two passes on third down, both short passes to running back who had defenders in their face before they were able to eek out any more than a single yard. On 8 of those third downs, the Rams found themselves with 5 or more yards to go, they converted three of those attempts, each with a passing play. 

Something else that stands out in reading the play-by-play from this game is the centrality of the running game and breaking that up with passing plays of short to moderate distances, i.e. not many attempts for more than 20 yards. Though they'll call it something else and there'll be subtle differences in things like the way receivers run their routes, that approach is very similar to what the Rams have planned for the offense this year, only they hope to add in some better blocking with additions like C Jason Brown and FB Mike Karney. 

Over the Rams last four games, Bulger earned his two highest QB ratings of the season: the 91.9 against the Falcons and an 88.9 against the Seahawks in week 15. During those four games he completed 79 of 137 passes, threw 4 TDs and 2 INTs while being sacked 8 times. 

It's not wise to judge Marc Bulger's readiness based on one game, or even the last quarter of the season. There are, however, some hopeful signs to take away from this, things that could indicate to us that Bulger's career isn't quite as over as some like think. Pair that with some evidence that he can play at a solid level, with better supporting characters, in the run-first offense being installed. Now, that's not to say there won't be hiccups as Bulger and others learn the playbook, and you can still make the case that the Rams are overpaying for average QB play. Nevertheless, especially since you can't rewrite the contracts, there's enough here to make a reasonable case for Bulger with the 2009 season looming just beyond the summer.