Is there a member of the St. Louis Rams likely to be more scrutinized than QB Marc Bulger? Probably not. Now in the third year of a hefty contract, Bulger is looking make good on his end of the deal after two seasons that mostly helped fans pine for the days of Kurt Warner. If he doesn't put it together this season, he certainly won't be a member of the Rams beyond 2009 and the best he can hope for is a job as a backup somewhere.
Deciding whether or not Bulger fared worse in 2007 or 2008 is purely academic. He was sacked 75 times in the last two seasons, and 124 times in the last three. Last season, Bulger had a DVOA of -19.8%, the worst among QBs that threw more than 300 passes and generated 259 fewer yards than a replacement level QB, when adjusted for opponents. The season before, Bulger had a -16.5% DVOA and a -142 DYAR. If there is any silver lining to be found in Bulger's last two season is that his accuracy hasn't gone away, and was, in fact, closer to career norms last season. The Rams have made a major commitment to the team and Bulger by taking steps to build a tougher, bigger and younger offensive line, as well as install a playbook that doesn't call for the QB to hold the ball for an eternity in the pocket. Can he succeed?
Best case scenario: The new West Coast offense suits Bulger perfectly. The short drops, more routes in the middle, and the need for accurate and quick releases, all play to his strengths. On top of that, the balance created by having a healthy Steven Jackson and a tough-as-nails offensive line allows Bulger to get his confidence back and he again becomes one the league's top system QBs. The run-first aspect means he won't reach the 4,000 receiving yards plateau, but his TD/INT ratio makes that easy to forget.
Worst case scenario: Quite simply, Bulger flops. Recovering from the injuries he suffered as the league's tackling dummy over the years proves to be too big of a hurdle, even with a decent offensive line. The receivers flounder with Bulger unable to make the passing game work, and opposing defense stuff eight pieces into the box like the lunch rush at KFC. Boller takes over under center, but questions about his poise look legit and he doesn't fare much better. Hello Sam Bradford.
Most likely outcome: I think what we'll see is an acceptable season from Bulger. On the last edition of Turf Show Radio someone pointed out just how difficult it will be for him to overcome the injuries that befell him the last few seasons, and that's a real concern. Fortunately, Pat Shurmur's offense is built to harness Bulger's strengths and doesn't call on him to do the offense's heavy lifting. I think Bulger will respond to the challenge he faces this season. His numbers won't be elite (though a healthy Jackson and group of TEs and tough receivers like Keenan Burton could mean very pleasing TD numbers), but good enough to make him the QB for another season while the Rams look for their next starter.
What to watch: First of all, as we go through the first weeks of camp, keep an eye on how sharp his throws are in the 11-on-11 drills. What we want to see is a firm grasp of the playbook, a good connection with the receivers, and throwing off his front foot. If you remember correctly, the Rams have struggled to score in their preseason games over the last two years. Preseason games usually don't mean much, but it was certainly a harbinger of what a slog the season would be for the Rams. This year, watch how the offense flows in the preseason, especially the starters, and look for Bulger to do the things mentioned previously with opposing defenders coming at him. If Bulger and the offense are moving the ball well and scoring some, particularly on passes, it'll be a good sign.
I know Bulger has his haters out there, but the Rams really need him to play well enough to keep the team competitive while they go through another year of rebuilding. That will also give them a chance to assess their QB options for the future and develop a rookie if need be.
Past best & worst case posts: