January 23, 2013

2000: Rams Edge Bucs in Defensive Battle for NFC Title

After nine straight losing seasons, dating back to when the franchise was still located in Los Angeles, the St. Louis Rams rose to 13-3 in 1999 and were in the playoffs for the first time since 1989. 63-year-old Head Coach Dick Vermeil, in his third year at the helm following a lengthy hiatus from coaching, had built an offensive powerhouse, although it certainly didn’t look to be the case when newly-acquired QB Trent Green went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason. But in a stunning development, unheralded backup QB Kurt Warner stepped into the job with spectacular results. He was helped by the presence of outstanding veteran WR Isaac Bruce and rookie WR Torry Holt as well as, perhaps most significantly, RB Marshall Faulk, obtained from the Colts, who had over a thousand yards each in rushing and catching the ball. The defense was an afterthought but was also much improved. The high-powered offense had been on full display in a 49-37 Divisional round win over the Vikings.

On January 23, 2000 the Rams hosted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the NFC Championship. Coached by Tony Dungy, the Bucs went 11-5 in topping the NFC Central and were coming off of a one-point win over Washington in the Divisional playoff round. They featured an outstanding defense that included DT Warren Sapp, linebackers Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson, and SS John Lynch, all of whom went to the Pro Bowl. The offense was conservative and ground-oriented, depending on running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. QB Shaun King had replaced injured veteran Trent Dilfer and was attempting to become the first rookie quarterback to guide his team to a Super Bowl. Nevertheless, the Rams came into the contest as solid 14-point favorites.

There were 66,946 fans at the Trans World Dome hoping to see their team win its first conference title since moving to St. Louis. Kurt Warner received an immediate indication that he was in for a battle when his first pass was tipped and then intercepted by DE Steve White in St. Louis territory. The Bucs got a 25-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica off of the turnover to take a 3-0 lead.

St. Louis came back to score with a methodical 16-play drive that covered 74 yards and led to a Jeff Wilkins field goal from 24 yards. On the first play of the second quarter, the Rams got a break on defense when a snap to Shaun King, in shotgun formation, flew past the quarterback and into the end zone. King, seeking to prevent a possible defensive touchdown, knocked the ball through the end zone for a safety.

The Rams had a chance to score again after the free kick but a 44-yard field goal try by Wilkins was unsuccessful. The teams traded punts and the Bucs put together a promising drive that reached the St. Louis 24. However, Mike Alstott was then thrown back for a two-yard loss and King was sacked by LB Charlie Clemons to take them out of field goal range. Before the first half was over Tampa Bay threatened again, but CB Todd Lyght intercepted King’s pass at the St. Louis 33 to extinguish the drive. The Rams carried a precarious 5-3 lead into halftime.

Opening the third quarter, the Buccaneers put together a solid series that covered 66 yards in nine plays and included a pass from King to WR Jacquez Green for 32 yards in a third-and-eight situation that had more yardage attached due to a facemask penalty. Gramatica capped the drive with a 23-yard field goal that put Tampa Bay in front by 6-5.

The Rams came out throwing on their next series as Warner tossed nine passes and they moved from their 13 to the Tampa Bay 24. But the tenth pass was picked off by LB Hardy Nickerson at the Tampa Bay two to snuff out a scoring threat with just under four minutes remaining in the period.

The Buccaneers kept the ball on the ground and punted. Now in the fourth quarter, Warner again threw an interception in the Rams’ next series, this time with CB Brian Kelly giving Tampa Bay good field position at the St. Louis 42. The Bucs were unable to do anything with it and the teams again traded punts.

The Rams made a big play on defense midway through the fourth quarter when rookie CB Dre’ Bly intercepted a Shaun King pass at midfield. Six plays later, in a third-and-four situation, the Rams finally hit pay dirt.

With 4:44 left in the game, Warner threw to the team’s number four receiver, WR Ricky Proehl, who pulled the pass in along the left sideline over a leaping Brian Kelly for a 30-yard touchdown. While he juggled the ball momentarily, he came down cleanly in the end zone (pictured at top). The pass attempt for a two-point conversion failed but the Rams were back in front.

The Buccaneers had time but continued to come up short against the Rams defense. On their final drive, the Rams came through with two sacks of King, by DT Jeff Zgonina and DE Grant Wistrom. With 47 seconds left, an apparent 13-yard completion to WR Bert Emanuel to the St. Louis 23 was overturned on review. King, needing long yardage, then tossed two incomplete passes to end any hopes for the Bucs. St. Louis came away with a hard-fought 11-6 win to advance to the Super Bowl.

The Rams led in total yards (309 to 203) and first downs (17 to 12). Neither team was able to run the ball effectively, with the Bucs gaining 77 yards on 23 rushing attempts and St. Louis amassing just 51 yards on 21 carries. The Rams turned the ball over three times, to two by Tampa Bay, while the St. Louis defense stepped up with five sacks.

Kurt Warner, heavily harassed but never sacked, completed 26 of 43 passes for 258 yards with a touchdown but also three critical interceptions. The Tampa Bay defense did a good job of taking Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce out of the game – Faulk rushed for 44 yards on 17 carries, with six of those rushing attempts going for either no gain or a loss, and had only three catches for five yards, and Bruce gained 22 yards on three pass receptions. Instead, slow but dependable Ricky Proehl, typically an afterthought in the speed-based passing attack, gained 100 yards on 6 catches that included the game-winning TD and Torry Holt hauled in 7 receptions for 68 yards.                                                                                   

For the Buccaneers, Shaun King (pictured below) was successful on 13 of 29 throws for 163 yards with no TDs but three interceptions. Mike Alstott rushed for 39 yards on 12 carries and Warrick Dunn contributed 35 yards on 9 attempts. Dunn also was the team’s co-leader with four catches, for 37 yards, while Jacquez Green gained 59 yards on his four receptions.

“Kurt (Warner) and I talked prior to the play on a TV timeout,” explained Ricky Proehl, who had not caught a touchdown pass during the regular season, of the game-winning score. “He said if the safety comes we’re running a fade. They had good coverage. I went up to the ball and tried to screen (Brian Kelly) off. I was fortunate to make the play.”

“Kurt Warner put it (the pass) up exactly where he had to put it,” said Warren Sapp. “You take your hat off. He threw it early because we had the blitz on, but he put it in a perfect spot. That’s why he made the play.”

Speaking about the Tampa Bay defense after the game, a relieved Kurt Warner said, “they had a great scheme coming in. We never knew when they were going to blitz and when they weren’t. It seemed like everything we did, they were all over us.”

The Rams went on to win a close-fought Super Bowl over the Tennessee Titans. With Coach Vermeil stepping down into what became a brief retirement, offensive coordinator Mike Martz was promoted to head coach and St. Louis went 10-6 in 2000, losing to division-rival New Orleans in the Wild Card round. Tampa Bay came back to go 10-6 in 2000 and finish second in the NFC Central, although still grabbing a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The Bucs fell to Philadelphia, also in the first postseason round.