As quarterback controversies go, the one in St. Louis with injured incumbent Kurt Warner and surprisingly effective backup Marc Bulger is simmering -- for now. Fairly soon, perhaps even midway through the third quarter of the Rams-Redskins game Nov. 24 at FedEx Field, it could rise to full boil.
Bulger is this season's Most Valuable Understudy, stepping in for a star and playing spectacularly. In four starts after Warner broke the pinkie finger on his throwing hand, Bulger has become the highest-rated passer in the NFL. The Rams have won all four of those games, their only victories this season.
But -- for now -- Bulger is not going to get a chance to be this season's Tom Brady, the quarterback who led the New England Patriots to the NFL title last season after Drew Bledsoe was injured.
For now, Rams Coach Mike Martz said Warner will be the starter when healthy. That almost certainly will be after the Rams-Bears game Monday night in St. Louis.
"It's a real easy decision for me," Martz said earlier this week. "Kurt's our quarterback. I'm telling you, he is our quarterback. Marc Bulger is outstanding, but Kurt is our quarterback."
That's the textbook -- and perhaps fairest -- way of handling the situation.
The injured star gets his job back when healthy, as Bob Griese did in 1972 after Earl Morrall quarterbacked the Miami Dolphins to 10 straight regular season and playoff victories during his absence. And it worked, as Griese led the Dolphins to the only unbeaten season in league history and a victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
But Patriots Coach Bill Belichick kicked conventional thought aside last season. Brady played so well after Bledsoe suffered a serious chest injury late in the second game that he remained the starter after Bledsoe was available to play full-time in the final seven regular season and playoff games. That also worked, because the Patriots beat the Warner-led Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Bledsoe, voted an offensive co-captain by the Patriots before last season, was traded in mid-April to the Buffalo Bills.
For the Rams, the almost certain scenario is Bulger going against the Bears and Warner getting the start against the Redskins. It would not be surprising for Warner to get a chance to shake off some rust against the Bears, as Griese did during the final quarter-plus of a 7-7 game for the AFC championship at Pittsburgh that the Dolphins won.
If Bulger continues to play well and Warner is ineffective against the Redskins, Martz will be under considerable pressure. It would accelerate if Martz then went back to Bulger, and Bulger, after some inactivity, suddenly lost his touch. The Rams currently are three games behind the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West and one game behind in the wild-card chase.
Publicly, Bulger is playing the good soldier, saying in a conference call: "I'm happy that I do have one more game. I realized when Kurt came back it would be his team. I knew that after the first week, regardless of how I played. It's not a surprise."
Warner and Bulger apparently are friends, and Warner described their situation to a St. Louis reporter this week as "no-win." This position is nothing new for Warner. He was promoted to the starting job in 1999 when Trent Green suffered a major knee injury, and the Rams didn't look back until Warner was named Super Bowl most valuable player.
"They want you to either criticize Marc or walk around and brag about yourself, and I'm not going to do either one of those things," he said. "You let the questions and rumors and controversy fly, but you know what the bottom line is at the end of the day and you stand on that."
The ultimate bottom line, of course, is winning, and some league observers believe Warner may have other problems.
"He wasn't exactly lighting it up when he got hurt," CBS analyst Randy Cross said. "I think you're completely out of your gourd if you pull a guy that's playing that well. I don't care who you're putting in there, especially in the context that he might not be 100 percent."
Cross noted the similarities between Warner-Bulger and Bledsoe-Brady and said: "Why is it suddenly Warner can't be replaced when Bledsoe could? Last year in New England was the rarest of things, a legitimate star player having to sit on the bench while his backup is playing well and not moaning about it."
If Warner's and Brady's stories were not so fresh, Bulger's would be more celebrated. After a standout career at West Virginia, he was chosen in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints but was cut after training camp. After some time on the Atlanta Falcons' practice squad, he signed with the Rams and was their third quarterback last season.
The first regular season pass Bulger threw this year was his first in the NFL. After Warner was hurt, Jamie Martin started the next game, a loss to the San Francisco 49ers that saddled the Rams with a 0-5 start. Martin gave way to Bulger the next week because of a bruised knee.
"Bulger's throwing the ball well, doing a lot of things you like to see in a quarterback," Baltimore Ravens personnel director James Harris said. "He's had to bring his team from behind -- and he's done that. He's playing with a team with good personnel, but he's responded in a positive way in some situations that a young quarterback could have folded."
Warner is signed through 2006. The Rams have exclusive rights to Bulger next season and the right to match any offer he might receive the year after that.
"I really honestly haven't thought about next year too much," Bulger said. "I've been so busy just with what's going on now. Whatever happens, happens. I'm real happy here in St. Louis, I can tell you that much."
For now, at least.