October 10, 2010

1999: Warner to Bruce TD Passes Propel Rams to Win Over 49ers

By Week 5 of the 1999 NFL season, the St. Louis Rams had already created a sensation. The Rams had not had a winning record in ten years and were coming off a dismal 4-12 campaign in ’98. Head Coach Dick Vermeil, who had made a comeback to the sideline in 1997 after a 15-year absence, had not been able to turn the club around and it appeared that things would not get better when Trent Green, the quarterback signed away from Washington as a free agent, went down for the year with a knee injury – Green had been playing well in the preseason, and so the blow was all the greater.

Into the starting job at quarterback came Kurt Warner (pictured above), a 28-year-old unknown out of Northern Iowa who had most recently been playing arena football and in the NFL’s developmental league, NFL Europe. The 6’2”, 220-pound Warner proved to have a quick release as well as a strong and accurate arm and was a comfortable fit in the wide-open passing offense installed by offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

After three games (the Rams already had a bye week), St. Louis was 3-0 and had run up convincing scores against the Ravens, Falcons, and Bengals. Warner had passed for 894 yards with 9 touchdowns against just two interceptions, taking advantage of an excellent group of wide receivers that included sixth-year veteran Isaac Bruce, rookie Torry Holt, second-year speedster Az-Zahir Hakim, and slow-but-steady Ricky Proehl.

On October 10, the Rams hosted the division rival San Francisco 49ers at the TWA Dome. The 49ers, under Head Coach Steve Mariucci, were 3-1 entering the contest. Moreover, they had dominated the Rams since 1990, when they were still located in Los Angeles, winning a total of 17 straight games. The 49ers were playing with Jeff Garcia at quarterback in place of veteran star Steve Young, who was out with a concussion (he would, in fact, never return).

The St. Louis offense maintained the established pattern of the first three games, with Warner tossing a 13-yard touchdown pass to Bruce to cap a seven-play, 83-yard drive midway through the first quarter. Along the way, Warner had connected with RB Marshall Faulk, a key offseason acquisition from the Colts, for a 23-yard gain in a third-and-six situation.

Just three minutes later, Warner tossed a second touchdown pass to Bruce, this one covering five yards. While the 49ers recovered as Garcia completed passes of 21 yards to WR Terrell Owens and 11 yards to WR J.J. Stokes in a six-play drive that resulted in a 42-yard Wade Richey field goal, WR Tony Horne returned the ensuing kickoff 54 yards and, on the next play, Warner hit Bruce once more for a 45-yard TD. The Rams were up by 21-3 after one quarter.

San Francisco responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard touchdown run by RB Lawrence Phillips – a failed first round draft choice of the Rams who had behavioral issues that eclipsed his great talent and was roundly booed by the St. Louis fans. Along the way, Garcia had again done well, with two key passes that totaled 44 yards to RB Charlie Garner and a 19-yard completion to all-time great WR Jerry Rice in a third-and-13 situation.

The Rams extended their lead to 28-10 when Warner completed a nine-play drive that covered 89 yards with a 22-yard TD pass to TE Jeff Robinson. However, the 49ers got a break just before halftime when Warner fumbled in his end zone and it was recovered by DT Junior Bryant for a touchdown. The Rams’ lead at halftime was 28-17.

There was no more scoring until late in the third quarter. The Niners put together an 11-play drive that included a 31-yard run by Garner and ended with a 43-yard field goal by Richey to narrow the St. Louis margin to 28-20. It didn’t stay narrowed for long, though, as Horne returned the ensuing kickoff for a 97-yard touchdown.

For all intents and purposes, the game was over. The Rams scored one last touchdown in the fourth quarter, Warner connecting for the fourth time with Bruce on a scoring pass of 42 yards, and the final score was 42-20.

“I was happy more for the guys who were in Los Angeles with me and we went through a lot of trying times trying to beat this team,” Bruce said afterward. “I'm glad it's over.”

It was another convincing statement from Kurt Warner and the Rams offense. Warner completed 20 of 23 passes for 323 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. His 14 touchdowns in the first four games of the season were unprecedented in NFL history. Isaac Bruce caught 5 passes for 134 yards and the four touchdowns, while Torry Holt gained 67 yards on his three catches. RB Robert Holcombe gained 47 yards on six carries to lead the team, and RB Justin Watson was right behind with 46 yards on 11 attempts. Marshall Faulk was held to six yards on seven carries, but contributed 38 yards on four pass receptions.

Playing catchup throughout, Jeff Garcia went to the air 36 times with 22 completions for 233 yards, giving up three interceptions while completing no touchdown passes. Terrell Owens caught six passes for 60 yards while Charlie Garner added five receptions for 57 yards and led the team with 52 yards on 13 runs.

The Rams made it to 6-0 before losing two straight games, but then went 7-1 the rest of the way to finish first in the NFC West with a 13-3 record – the team’s best since 1975. They went on to defeat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl by a 23-16 score. San Francisco went in the opposite direction, winning just once more to end up at 4-12 and in fourth place in the division. It was the first time the 49ers had finished under .500 since the 1982 strike season and was the worst tally since 1979.

Kurt Warner went on to have an MVP season (Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America, Newspaper Enterprise Association, Bert Bell Award), leading the NFL with a 109.2 passer rating, 41 touchdown passes, 65.1 completion percentage, 8.7 yards per attempt, and 8.2 TD percentage. His 4353 passing yards ranked second.

Isaac Bruce (pictured below) had a Pro Bowl year (less surprising in his case – he was an established star who had previously been selected following the ’96 season), catching 77 passes for 1165 yards (15.1 avg.) and 12 touchdowns.