January 30, 2010

2000: Titans Come Up a Yard Short, Fall to Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV

The Rams had not been very successful since moving from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995; in fact, they had had nothing but losing records since getting to the NFC Championship game following the ’89 season. Dick Vermeil, who had last coached in the NFL with the Eagles in 1982, became the head coach in 1997 but, in two seasons, had compiled a mediocre 9-23 tally.

It didn’t appear that 1999 would be any better when QB Trent Green, who they were counting upon to start after signing him away from the Redskins as a free agent, went down for the year with a knee injury in the preseason. Replacing him was Kurt Warner (pictured above), a 28-year-old unknown with an arena football and NFL Europe background who had appeared in one game in ’98 as a backup to Tony Banks and Steve Bono. What occurred became the stuff of pro football legend as Warner proceeded to pass for 4353 yards and a league-leading 41 touchdowns while compiling a top-ranked 109.2 passer rating. Veteran Pro Bowl WR Isaac Bruce hauled in 77 passes for 1165 yards and 12 TDs, while rookie WR Torry Holt added 52 catches for 788 yards. RB Marshall Faulk, acquired from the Colts in the offseason, contributed 1381 rushing yards, with a 5.5 yards-per-carry average, along with a team-leading 87 pass receptions for another 1048 yards.

The Rams roared through the ’99 schedule, piling up 526 points in winning the NFC West with a 13-3 record. They defeated Minnesota in the Divisional playoff round and then got past Tampa Bay, 11-6, in a tense, hard-fought NFC Championship game.

Their opponent in Super Bowl XXXIV was the Tennessee Titans, another team that had relocated in the preceding decade. Formerly the Houston Oilers, the club had moved to Tennessee in 1997 and, after a couple of nomadic years moved into its new home, Adelphia Coliseum, with a new name, the Titans, for ’99. Through all the moving and related distractions, Head Coach Jeff Fisher gathered together the pieces of a winning football team. In 1999, Tennessee came in second in the AFC Central with a 13-3 tally, good enough to earn a wild card spot in the postseason.

The Titans operated a conservative offense guided by QB Steve McNair (pictured at right) and the running of RB Eddie George (1304 yards). TE Frank Wycheck led the receiving corps (69 catches, 641 yards). The rugged defense featured rookie DE Jevon Kearse (aka “The Freak”), CB Samari Rolle, and SS Blaine Bishop. They defeated Buffalo in stunning fashion in the Wild Card playoff, and proceeded to beat the Colts and Jaguars in the Divisional and AFC Championship contests, respectively.

There were 72,625 fans present at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome on January 30, 2000 for the Super Bowl matchup. St. Louis moved the ball with ease in the first half, amassing 294 yards and driving inside the Tennessee 20 yard line on each possession but coming away with just three field goals. On the first drive, holder Rick Tuten bobbled the snap to thwart a field goal attempt, and placekicker Jeff Wilkins, who was successful on kicks of 27, 29, and 28 yards, also missed a 34-yarder.

The Titans threatened to score just once in the half, but Al Del Greco missed a 47-yard field goal attempt following a 42-yard drive. Tennessee amassed just 89 yards of offense, but was down only 9-0 at the half.

In the first possession of the second half, the Titans made it into field goal range but Del Greco’s 47-yard attempt was blocked by CB Todd Lyght. The Rams turned around and moved once more deep into Tennessee territory, highlighted by a 31-yard pass completion from Warner to Bruce. Warner tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Holt and St. Louis was ahead 16-0 and seemed to be in control.

However, the Titans offense came alive, scoring 16 points in under 14 minutes to tie the game. A 23-yard scramble by McNair set up Tennessee’s first score of the game, a one-yard rush by George. The try for a two-point conversion failed. But after the Rams were forced to punt, the Titans came right back with a 13-play, 79-yard drive that was capped by another short Eddie George touchdown run.

Once again, the Titans defense forced St. Louis to punt, and Tennessee again capitalized as Del Greco booted a 43-yard field goal to knot the score at 16-16 with just over two minutes remaining. It didn’t stay tied for long - on their next play, Warner fired a long pass to Bruce; hit as he was throwing, the ball was a bit underthrown but the wide receiver adjusted, and breaking a tackle he streaked into the end zone to complete the 73-yard touchdown play.

With 1:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Titans took over on their 12 yard line and proceeded to drive down the field. On third-and-five at the St. Louis 26, McNair barely avoided a sack and hit WR Kevin Dyson with a pass that gained 16 yards. There were now just six seconds left and the ball ten yards away from the end zone as McNair threw one last pass on a slant to Dyson who caught it in full stride at the three. Rams LB Mike Jones grabbed Dyson and tackled him a yard short of the goal line as time ran out (pictured at bottom). The Super Bowl had come within a yard (and successful extra point) of going into overtime; as it was, the Rams capped their remarkable season with a 23-16 win.

The Rams outgained the Titans with 436 yards to 367. Most of that was accounted for by the game’s MVP, Kurt Warner, who set a Super Bowl record with 414 yards on his 24 completions out of 45 passes thrown, including two touchdowns. Isaac Bruce gained 162 yards on 6 catches with a TD, while Torry Holt added 7 receptions for 109 yards and a score and Marshall Faulk (pictured at left) caught five for 90 yards. The Rams gained just 29 yards on the ground, with Faulk rushing for 17 yards in 10 carries.

Eddie George rushed for 95 yards and two touchdowns on 28 attempts, while Steve McNair added 64 yards on 8 carries. McNair also completed 22 of 36 passes for 214 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions (neither team suffered a turnover). TE Jackie Harris was Tennessee’s top pass receiver with 7 catches for 64 yards.

Dick Vermeil retired, having finally won a championship (although he returned to coach the Chiefs in 2001). The Rams were back in the postseason in 2000 as a wild card entry, losing in the first round, and returned to the Super Bowl in ’01, when they were upset by the Patriots. Kurt Warner’s career was derailed by a hand injury and he lost his starting job to Marc Bulger; he would eventually return to the Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals following the 2008 season. As for the Titans, they improved to 13-3 in 2000 but were upset by Baltimore in the Divisional playoff round.