September 4, 2012

2000: Warner Passes for 441 Yards as Rams Overcome Broncos

The St. Louis Rams began the defense of their surprising 1999 NFL title in a Monday night game on September 4, 2000 at home against the Denver Broncos. QB Kurt Warner (pictured at right), who had gone from unknown backup to league MVP in ’99, was back and had an outstanding stable of receivers that featured savvy veteran WR Isaac Bruce as well as second-year players Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim. The Rams also had the highly productive Marshall Faulk at running back, who became just the second NFL player to reach over a thousand yards each in rushing and pass receiving in 1999. St. Louis did have a new head coach in Mike Martz, elevated from offensive coordinator to replace the retired Dick Vermeil, as well as new uniforms of navy blue and old gold.

The visiting Broncos, coached by Mike Shanahan, had been the NFL Champions in 1997 and ’98. However, they dropped precipitously to 6-10 in 1999, having lost star QB John Elway to retirement and 2000-yard RB Terrell Davis for most of the year due to injury. QB Brian Griese, son of Miami’s former Hall of Famer Bob Griese, had suffered through a difficult year in place of Elway and the defense was in a state of flux.

There were 65,596 in attendance at the Trans World Dome. The Rams started quietly, going three-and-out in their first possession - although they would not punt again for the remainder of the contest. Denver put together a 59-yard drive in six plays, the last of which was an eight-yard bootleg by Griese for a touchdown.

St. Louis came back to advance into Denver territory, but LB Al Wilson intercepted a Warner pass at his own seven to end the threat. However, late in the first quarter Az-Zahir Hakim returned a punt 86 yards for a touchdown, which (with the successful extra point) tied the score and seemed to bring the Rams alive.

The Broncos moved back in front by 10-7 following a 32-yard field goal by Jason Elam. St. Louis responded with a five-yard touchdown run by Faulk with just under nine minutes remaining in the half. The teams traded touchdowns during the remainder of the second quarter, with Griese throwing to WR Rod Smith for a 25-yard TD and Warner connecting with WR Ricky Proehl from seven yards out in the final minute before halftime. The Rams led by 21-17 at the intermission.

Denver started off the third quarter with a nine-play, 63-yard drive that concluded with a 38-yard field goal by Elam to make it a one-point game. But the Rams struck quickly when a short pass from Warner to Faulk turned into a 72-yard touchdown.

The next time St. Louis got the ball, it was another quick score on a short throw by Warner that Hakim, breaking a tackle by former Rams safety Billy Jenkins at the line of scrimmage, went 80 yards with for a TD. Just two short tosses had gained a total of 152 yards and two touchdowns, put the home crowd in a frenzy, and given the Rams a 35-20 lead. But the Broncos were far from done.

For the second time, Al Wilson intercepted a Warner pass and the Broncos took advantage as Griese completed a seven-yard TD pass to TE Desmond Clark to close the margin to 35-27. Heading into the fourth quarter, an Elam field goal from 36 yards made it a five-point game.

St. Louis fell behind after a Warner pass intended for Torry Holt was picked off by CB Terrell Buckley, who returned it for a 32-yard touchdown and, although an attempt to add a two-point conversion failed, Denver had a 36-35 lead with 6:35 remaining on the clock.

The Rams rallied, however, putting together a 75-yard drive that featured Faulk running for a 30-yard gain to the Denver one. RB Robert Holcombe gained the last yard with just under three minutes to play, although the try for two points was unsuccessful. Still, the defending champs were back in front by five points.

Denver had a chance in the last two minutes, but the Rams defense, which had seemed so vulnerable throughout the contest, came alive and managed to sack Griese twice. Finally, on a fourth-and-33 play, Griese was hit by DE Grant Wistrom and he tossed an errant throw that fell incomplete to clinch the 41-36 win for St. Louis.

With several big plays, the Rams outgained Denver by 433 yards to 274, but the Broncos led in first downs by 25 to 23. St. Louis was nearly done in by three turnovers, as opposed to none surrendered by Denver.

Kurt Warner, who spread the ball around to seven different receivers, completed 25 of 35 passes for 441 yards and three touchdowns, although he also gave up the three interceptions. Marshall Faulk rushed for 78 yards and a TD in 14 carries and added 100 yards and another score on four pass receptions. Indeed, the Rams had three hundred-yard receivers in the same game for the first time since 1951 as Az-Zahir Hakim gained 116 yards on his 5 catches and Torry Holt pulled in 6 passes for 103 yards. It was a highly productive game for the often-overlooked Hakim, who, with the long punt return for a TD, accumulated 202 total yards.

For the Broncos, Brian Griese (pictured below) had great success picking apart the St. Louis defense, going to the air 29 times and completing 19 for 307 yards and two TDs with no interceptions. WR Ed McCaffrey led the receivers with 7 catches for 115 yards and Rod Smith gained 88 yards on his three receptions that included a touchdown. RB Olandis Gary paced the club with 80 yards on 13 attempts. Terrell Davis gained 34 yards on 9 carries before leaving the contest with a twisted ankle suffered in the first quarter.

“That’s the name of our game,” said Kurt Warner afterward. “That’s what we do around here, we spread it around and get it to everybody and take advantage of what defenses are doing to us.”

“This was a game that if you like offense, it was fun to watch,” said Mike Shanahan. “If you like defense, you picked the wrong one to go to.”

The exciting win over Denver set the stage for the Rams to get off to a 6-0 start, but they faltered during the second half of the season to finish at 10-6 and, due to tiebreakers, second in the NFC West. While they still made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, the Rams fell to New Orleans in the first round. Still an extremely potent offensive team, as the contest against the Broncos showed, St. Louis was leaky on defense. Denver bounced back to return to the postseason, also as a Wild Card with an 11-5 record. The Broncos lost in the first round as well, to the eventual-champion Baltimore Ravens.

Kurt Warner missed five games due to injury, but still passed for 3429 yards (averaging 311.7 per game) and 21 touchdowns, and was again selected to the Pro Bowl. Marshall Faulk, while out for two contests, was again prolific as he ran for 1359 yards and 18 TDs and caught 81 passes for another 830 yards and eight scores, giving him 2189 yards from scrimmage and a then-record 26 touchdowns scored.

Az-Zahir Hakim remained productive as the number three wide receiver and primary punt returner, although nagging injuries wore him down as well. He had 53 catches for 734 yards (13.8 avg.) and four touchdowns and averaged 15.3 yards on his 32 punt returns.

Brian Griese, who received much praise for his improved performance against the Rams, had a Pro Bowl year, completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 2688 yards and 19 TDs against just four interceptions.