Former backup doesn't miss a beat

ST. LOUIS -- Mike Martz walks into the Rams' draft room, shakes hands with the interviewer and slides smoothly into his chair opposite the television camera. He looks comfortable in his navy blue sweat suit. Sounds comfortable, too.

In a soft, logical voice, the head coach discusses his team's success and the part his quarterback has played in it. He and the Rams have been here before. He knows the drill and, frankly, seems to rather enjoy it.

"We're playing well again," Martz said on Thursday.

Martz was Dick Vermeil's offensive coordinator in 1999, when the Rams scored 526 points and stunned the rest of the NFL with a 13-3 regular season and a three-game run through the playoffs. After the Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 in Super Bowl XXXIV, Vermiel retired from football for a second time and Martz was elevated to the top job.

Two years later, it happened again. The Rams cleared 500 points for the third straight year, won 14 of 16 regular-season games and only a determined New England Patriots team prevented them from winning a second Super Bowl.

And now, for the third time in five seasons there is a feeling gathering here at One Rams Way that this, too, could be the year. The team is 4-2, has won three straight, and scored 37, 36 and 34 points, respectively, in games against Arizona, Atlanta and Green Bay.

Here's the funny thing, though: While Martz, receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and the offensive line have been their routinely dazzling selves, the Rams are doing all of this without their two Most Valuable Players. Running back Marshall Faulk, who won the honor in 2000, suffered a broken hand on Sept. 21 at Seattle and missed all three of those wins. Quarterback Kurt Warner, the recipient in 1999 and 2001, is watching from the sidelines. The guy he's watching is Marc Bulger. And while Bulger didn't stock shelves in an Iowa grocery store or emerge from under the rock that is the Arena Football League, his dramatic rise is pretty remarkable.

"It's fun to watch young guys come in and have success and see how they handle it," Warner said. "Marc's handled it tremendously. His story is similar to mine in that he bounced around and was hoping to land somewhere and get an opportunity and finally he did. And when he got that opportunity, he took hold of it and seized it and he's taken full advantage of it."

Bulger, 26, expected to be the backup this year, but Warner was bludgeoned by the New York Giants in the season opener. The Giants sacked him six times and forced him to throw the ball 54 times -- the second-highest total in franchise history. Predictably, the Rams lost and it was later discovered that Warner played a significant portion of the game with a concussion.

Since then, Bulger -- the patient, humble quarterback-in-waiting -- has been the starter, completing 119 of 180 passes for 1,333 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He is ranked third in the NFL in completion percentage (66.1), fifth in touchdown passes and sixth in passer rating (90.3).

And if you're wondering if the Warner parallel is just a lot of in-the-moment hot air, consider this: Bulger won the first six starts of his career last year when Warner injured a finger on his throwing hand. That put him fourth among NFL starting quarterbacks since 1970, equaling, among others, Warner. Bulger's record as a starter is an impressive 10-2. That works out to a winning percentage of .833. Warner, despite the opening loss to the Giants, has the NFL's best record among active quarterbacks with more than 15 starts, 35-15 (.700).

Wait, there's more.

It has only been 12 games, but Bulger has thrown up some historic numbers. His career passer rating is 96.4. The NFL record book insists on 1,500 career passing attempts to be eligible for the category; Warner (97.6) is No. 1 all-time, followed by Steve Young (96.8) and Joe Montana (92.3). Bulger's completion percentage is 65.2, which fits quite nicely among history's top three: Warner (66.6), Young (64.3) and Montana (63.2).

What does Bulger bring to the Rams?

"Consistency, I think," Bulger said. "I'm not going to make huge mistakes or get too technical. If I throw three interceptions one week, most likely it won't happen the next week. I just try and throw the ball to our guys, Marshall, Isaac, Torry … they're the ones that can do something with it. Not me."

In Bulger's mind, he is merely a facilitator. According to his teammates, he really feels this way. They describe him with a litany of adjectives -- modest, honest, humble, etc. -- that sound like the Boy Scout Code. Ask him about his success and he almost always manages to work the offensive line into his answer.

"I think that people take sports figures and actors and put them on a pedestal where they don't belong," Bulger said. I don't feel that way about myself. I'm just a normal person who got thrust into the spotlight last year and I'm trying to stay that person."

Bulger's pedigree predicts this kind of success, but it took him some time to emerge from the shadows.

His father, James, played quarterback at Notre Dame and Bulger attended Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, the alma mater of one Dan Marino, the NFL's most prolific passer ever.

Bulger, 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, still holds 25 passing records at West Virginia, but that didn't help open NFL doors. He was drafted in the sixth round by the New Orleans Saints in 2000, but was cut. He spent two weeks on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad before he was waived again. The Rams picked him up for a single week of practice squad duty.

In 2001, Bulger was the Rams' third quarterback. Playing behind Warner and backup Jamie Martin, he was inactive for all 19 games that year.

"He's had to fight through a lot like Kurt did and like Trent Green," Martz explained. "All those guys had to fight their way through the system and when the opportunity came for him to play, he was ready. He just stepped up."

When Warner got hurt last year, Bulger started seven games, winning six of them. He was ready when Warner went down again in this year's opener.

Bulger completed 23 of 34 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns against Atlanta on Monday Night Football -- the fourth time he surpassed 300 yards in 11 starts. Bulger was 22-for-34 for 247 yards the three touchdowns last week against Green Bay.

This week's challenge is the Steelers. Bulger returns to Pittsburgh, the cradle of quarterbacks like Marino and Jim Kelly and, well, Marc Bulger.

According to Martz, Bulger is still coming to grips with the complex offensive system. Translation: He can get a lot better. Really?

"Where will he be a couple of years from now?" Martz said. "Mentally, in terms of the system, he's got a ways to go. But he's come so far in just the last two weeks. I've seen a tremendous change.

"He made three throws against Green Bay to receivers that weren't necessarily there. He just found them like Kurt would do and 'bang,' the ball was there."

According to the laws of physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is true of life in the NFL. For every startling success, there is an equally disappointing failure. Tony Banks was the starter in St. Louis in Vermeil's first two seasons, but Warner (following an injury to Green) stepped in and made history. Now, injuries have helped pushed him on the sideline, where he watches Bulger, the ascendant man he was only a few seasons ago.

On Thursday, Warner generously agreed to discuss Bulger's success which has come largely at his own expense. Although he is still under contract, there have been whispers that Warner will not be on the Rams' roster next year. After he was benched, his wife Brenda said in a radio interview that her husband would welcome a trade if the situation remained the same. Given the fragile nature of quarterbacks in the NFL, however, it might be wise to keep Warner around.

When he was finished, he headed down the hall and was walking down the stairs to the lobby of the Rams' training center. He had been listening to a reporter and a Rams public relations official talking about the Rams' offense and Martz' inventive schemes. Perhaps the system, the reporter said, was the story -- not the quarterbacks in it.

Warner walked down a few more stairs, then stopped and shook his head.

"Somebody's got to make the plays," he said, looking up. "The quarterback makes the system work."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.