When Ram Coach Mike Martz finds himself without a great quarterback, he simply creates a new one. If it takes genius to make such a thing happen, that's what Martz is.
Against the Chicago Bears in the 501st game of the Monday night series, he will show off his new model, Marc Bulger. While old model Kurt Warner has been injured, Bulger has so far won four straight.
Although Warner is the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player — a two-time MVP, in fact, in the last three years — he never had a day like Bulger's in Week 10. Four of Bulger's better passes were caught, but fumbled away, two of them returned for spectacular San Diego touchdowns. Then, throwing four touchdown passes to end pass-play drives of 85, 88, 94 and 54 yards, Bulger came back to win, 28-24.
Bulger Exhibition Season Product
THE CREATION of two superior pro quarterbacks — back to back — is so difficult and unusual that Martz has had few predecessors in the last century of football. One was Bill Walsh of San Francisco, who built the NFL's only five-time Super Bowl champion with a third-round draft pick, Joe Montana, and a castoff quarterback from Tampa of all places, Steve Young. In the NFL's only other comparable case, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin led the old Los Angeles Rams to the championship a half century ago when Hamp Pool was the offensive coordinator under Coach Joe Stydahar. On that team, owner Dan Reeves drafted Van Brocklin after he already had Waterfield.
On this team, Martz has been working with Arena League graduate Warner and sixth-round draft pick Bulger, who had been cut by two other NFL clubs, New Orleans and Atlanta. And instructively, the Ram coach was ready this fall when his first two quarterbacks, Warner and Jamie Martin, both went down with injuries. All summer, Martz had used Bulger in every exhibition game, making the time after each game to go over the fine points of the incomparable Martz system with a third-stringer. The Rams went 0-4 in exhibition starts, but who cares about the exhibition season except the media? When it was over, Martz had another quarterback.
Ram Passers vs. Bear Runners
THE TWO LEADERS who will be seen under the lights Monday night, passing coach Martz and running coach Dick Jauron of Chicago, could hardly be more different. The Bears lost again last Sunday the way they usually lose, blowing a 33-30 game against New England by trying to save it with running plays after they had leads of 27-6 in the third quarter and 30-19 in the fourth.
Ten of the Bears' last 11 scrimmage plays on offense were unsuccessful runs as Jauron, facing a Super Bowl passer, Tom Brady, kept stubbornly at it with his big running back, Anthony Thomas.
Jauron's quarterback, Jim Miller, though burdened with tendinitis in his passing arm, can when throwing a football be nearly as effective as Brady, particularly on first-down pass plays when defensive teams must keep Thomas in mind. Moreover, Jauron's people executed one particularly smart pass play Sunday, a touchdown throw by one wide receiver to another.
The Bears, in other words, with their able pass-play players, might be challenging Green Bay this week for first in the NFC North — instead of resting miserably six games out — if Jauron would use them more often. The Bear problem is that Jauron, an old Yale running back, wants to run.
Martz wants to pass. And the pass plays he has called for Bulger in the Rams' last four starts, particularly the first-down pass plays, have brought them to 4-5 after they began the season 0-5 under Warner and Martin, good as those two are.
The Record Suggests Martz is Tops
THERE ARE TWO reasons to think of Martz as the nation's greatest football coach of at least the last 20 years, since Walsh. First, he has developed two successful, winning quarterbacks consecutively. On too many other teams, other coaches have been hard put to get one even once.
Second, Martz's teams have scored more than 500 points in one season not just once but three years in a row, doing it every time with a pass offense that has often seemed unstoppable.
Before Martz, only one NFL team had ever exceeded 500 in one schedule of games, and had done that but once. Thus if San Francisco's Steve Young is the NFL's all-time No. 1 passer because he has the highest pass rate ever, Martz is the league's all-time No. 1 offensive coach because the record is there to prove it.
Even so, Martz's many critics in the national media and at home are a real threat to bring him down. Misunderstanding or underestimating pass offense despite all the Rams have done with the thrown ball in Martz's time — year after year — they keep saying he should run it with running back Marshall Faulk
They keep saying he lost the Super Bowl game because he wouldn't run Faulk — even though the plain truth is that Warner's passes had the Rams in a 17-17 tie in the last two minutes, when Tom Brady's surprise pass attack won it for New England.
Lately, the critics have been influencing Martz no doubt. Repeatedly in the San Diego game, as on recent Sundays against weaker teams such as Arizona and Seattle, Martz called Faulk's number — sometimes for long yardage — when in his system a pass was the percentage call. Accordingly, the threat to Martz now is a media-inspired Warner-Bulger quarterback controversy — which makes a great story, unquestionably — placing Martz on what could be a no-win spot. He can get off it only by listening to himself.
Rams Come Back Minus Faulk
ON THE FOURTH play of the fourth quarter against San Diego, Faulk, who is perhaps the premier pass-catching halfback of all time, went down with a game-ending injury. At that moment, the Rams were losing, 24-14, but if Faulk's injury should have doomed his team, according to Martz's critics, it didn't.
Freed from the necessity to prove anything to anybody but himself, Martz, through the rest of the fourth quarter, called one pass after another, and Bulger completed them all — except a spike and a throwaway or two — to turn a 24-14 San Diego lead into a 28-24 Ram win.
Both of Bulger's fourth-quarter touchdown passes went to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who, when he wasn't fumbling the ball, was as unstoppable as almost everything else in Ram football when Martz is ignoring his many voluntary advisers.
The lesson is that on Monday night, and through the remainder of the schedule, Martz is more likely to please his critics if he doesn't heed them — if, instead, he hears only Martz. That gets increasingly harder to do the louder they shout. It's like Eastern philosopher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says: "The knowledge from an enlightened person breaks on the hard rocks of ignorance."
Martz in his Ram years has built football into a completely different game, going beyond even Walsh. But only when he's calling his game
Passing Takes Brains and Courage
HERE ARE THREE reasons why most NFL coaches have for 83 years been reluctant to throw the ball even though Knute Rockne, Sid Gillman, Walsh, Martz and a few others have shown them how:
It takes an intelligent designer to create good pass plays, whereas dummies can persistently run the ball. For the entire duration of 83 NFL years, running-play advocates have continually used the same three simple-minded running plays: off-tackle, around end, or into the line. By contrast, on the Ram team, Martz has designed hundreds of pass plays.
It takes a superior amount of self-confidence for a passing coach to disregard the potential for interceptions. When an interception or two costs him the lead or possibly a game, a one-word explanation will come instantly not only from Terry Bradshaw but from every corner in every bar in town — "Turnovers." Everything else the coach might do all day, good and bad, and everything else his team does, good and bad, will be forgotten while the critics constantly and thoughtlessly and sometimes ignorantly repeat — "Turnovers."
Above all, it takes more courage than most people have to face down the critics who gather like vultures whenever, for any reason, pass plays fail.
In the NFL as in the college game, it has always been much safer to run the ball. If you run and fail, it's the players who take the heat, not the coach. Either the running back or a blocker or both screwed up — never the coach.
Regardless of how long the season lasts, one rarely if ever hears media analysts say: "They lost because they didn't pass enough." Over and over, though, when a passing coach loses, it is said: "He lost because he didn't run enough." It's no wonder that most football coaches, hearing their own running-play preference reinforced, keep with it.
Importance of Passing Often Discounted
MOST NFL COACHES — along with most NFL analysts — look the other way when a passing-based club succeeds. During Martz's first three big years, when his teams were scoring 500 points a season, it was rarely mentioned by any commentator that he won because the Rams threw the ball on almost every play.
Only when Martz hit a five-game losing streak this fall did anyone hear much about the Ram pass offense. And then, of course, it was repeatedly said that the problem was the Ram pass offense: There was too much of it. Until then, it had always been the Ram offense — not the pass offense — that was credited. And Faulk, it was always said, was the big man in that offense. Even in St. Louis, Faulk has been dividing the MVP votes with Warner.
When Norv Turner was the offensive coordinator helping Jimmy Johnson win Super Bowls for Dallas, he used to say that he was amused to be repeatedly congratulated for his running offense, seldom for his pass offense. He once recalled that NFL coaches, after looking at the statistics of a typical Cowboy game, often called to marvel at Emmitt Smith's 132-yard rushing day.
"They never seemed to notice that Troy Aikman gained 195 yards passing in the first half," Turner once said. "We threw the ball to get ahead in the first half, then ran it to hold the lead in the second half." To this day, Turner's Dallas coach, Johnson, attributes his Super Bowl successes there to running plays, not to the pass offense with Aikman — despite all the evidence to the contrary.
In Super Bowl XXVII at Pasadena, for example, Turner called four touchdown passes for Aikman — all on first down, a traditional running down for a running coach like Johnson — and Aikman completed each one.
Smith's single touchdown that day came on a second-half fake-pass run on third and nine — a passing down for a running team.
As a passing coach, Martz to be sure, enjoys his own football. But to keep enjoying it, he will have to keep doing it over the protests of more critics than any running-play champion has ever gathered. Now that Bulger has restored order, perhaps Martz only has one chance to continue the big season he's belatedly started; The requirement is to heed not the talk-show analysts but his own heart and mind.
Five Choices in the Big Ones
As NFL results get increasingly more unpredictable, here are five guesses on the games of Week 11:
San Francisco to win by one or two points over San Diego at Qualcomm Stadium, site of this winter's Super Bowl: Two good California teams can both run and pass, but the 49ers are at present deeper into the habit of winning.
New Orleans by three over Atlanta at the Georgia Dome: In a battle of impressive young quarterbacks, the Saints' Aaron Brooks is more experienced in the art of rising to big games than second cousin Michael Vick though Vick, the favorite this week, beat him last time at the Superdome.
Kansas City over Buffalo by a touchdown at Arrowhead Stadium: The Chiefs will hold their own passing the ball and outrun the Bills.
New England over favored Oakland by a touchdown at the Coliseum: In a rematch of the controversial Snow Bowl of last winter, the Raiders would like to get even but haven't shown lately that they can play that well.
St. Louis by 8 over Chicago at the Edward Jones Dome: In the Monday nighter, the Bears will exhibit the tools to disrupt the Ram defense but not the interest in intelligent play-calling.