Best NFL Worst-To-First Teams By Decade: 1999 St. Louis Rams
Cinderella Story, rags-to-riches, poorhouse-to-penthouse, and as the late great Dusty Rhodes put it, wined and dined with kings and queens – slept in alleys and dined on pork ‘n’ beans. All these sayings have something in common, describing a situation the National Football League has seen plenty of over the past 50-plus years. In six decades, many teams have gone from pauper to prince (there’s another one) in a league that sports the most parity on the planet. So let’s jump into the late 90s for this franchise’s biggest single-season turnaround and one of the best in the history of the National Football League.
90s Kind of Flavor
It was the decade of gettin’ jiggy wit’ it, the rise of the internet, and when popular culture became meshed with so many different fibers. While grunge music was starting to fade, the sentiment behind it was still alive and well in St. Louis, home of the irredeemable Rams.
Sure the city only inherited this football team from LA in 1995 but what was happening west continued in the heartland of America. The Rams hadn’t had a winning season since 1989 and had been the laughing stock of the NFC West for a decade. Back-to-back fifth-place divisional finishes in ’97 and ’98, where they won a combined nine games, set St. Louis up for a losing decade, one without s single .500 season. Hell, their best showing was a seven-win campaign, and it looked like ’99 would cap ten years of futility.
The Times, They Are a-Changin’
The Rams were a mess just a year earlier, finishing 4-12 under quarterback Tony Banks. Banks was not a great NFL starting quarterback, but it didn’t help that St. Louis had minimal weapons on offense and a predictable scheme that didn’t generate much scoring. The offseason saw them bring in Mike Martz to run the offense. It also saw them acquire three-time Pro Bowler Marshall Faulk, who had over 2,000 yards from scrimmage with the Indianapolis Colts the season before. St. Louis also strengthened their offense through the draft. The Rams took wide receiver Torry Holt out of North Carolina State with the sixth overall pick. Perhaps most important, they upgraded at quarterback, signing Trent Green to bring a more potent passing attack than they had with Banks.
Green had some legitimate weapons and an offensive coordinator in Martz that would push the pace and put out a high-tempo offense. The former Washington pivot was coming off a career year, and St. Louis was all in on Green after inking him to a four-year deal to be their starting quarterback. But Green would barely don the gold and blue before suffering a gruesome season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
Clean Up on Aisle ’99
St. Louis had traded former starter Tony Banks after acquiring Green and did not have an experienced quarterback to step in for their fallen leader. They did, however, have an experienced grocery checker that would have to swap tossing loaves of bread into brown bags to throwing a brown ball into opponents’ endzones. Kurt Warner was making $5.50 an hour stocking shelves and packing groceries a very short time ago but was now going to get his shot at being a starting NFL quarterback.
Can Do Kurt
Warner jumped out of the gates and made everybody forget about paper or plastic or the ripeness of the cantaloupes in a hurry. In his very first NFL start, the former Hy-Vee employee put up 309 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-10 win over Tony Banks’s new team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Something Special Starting in St. Louis
Warner’s debut was no fluke as he and the Rams kept the ball moving and moving at a ridiculous clip each week. St. Louis won their next five straight while averaging 38 points per game. Their newfound quarterback threw for 15 touchdowns over that span and hit at least 275 yards in three of those contests.
Marshall Faulk was also in full beast mode, putting up video game numbers each week. The ultra dangerous back ran for over 100 yards three times in that stretch and had over 200 yards from scrimmage in a 41-13 beatdown of the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6.
First Sniff of Adversity
As they headed into Nashville, the Rams were rolling and walking tall, undefeated. The Tennessee Titans gave St. Louis an early wake-up call scoring 21 unanswered in the first quarter. While the Rams won the statistical battle, edging the Titans in first downs, time of possession, and total yards, they couldn’t overcome their sluggish first frame and tasted defeat for the first time in ’99 as they fell 24-21. I have a feeling they’ll have a shot at revenge for this one.
Warner would experience his second NFL loss just a week later in Detroit, this time a four-point defeat at the hands of the Lions. Suddenly, this unstoppable train jumped off the rails a bit as they headed into the second half of the season.
Back on the Trolley
Leading his team into part two of the season at 6-2, Warner got the Rams back on track and fast. St. Louis ripped off seven straight wins to solidify themselves as a legit Super Bowl threat and bring home their first division title in 15 years. The Rams’ 13-3 mark was the franchise’s best in its history, as no other Ram team had won 13 games in a season.
In addition to a growing contribution from rookie wideout Torry Holt, veteran Isaac Bruce paced the receiving core. Bruce was a key cog in the passing game down the stretch averaging over 100 yards per game from Week 10-13.
Of course, it was Warner getting him the ball, with four straight 300+ passing yard performances down the stretch. On the season, the Rams pivot finished with the most touchdowns (41), best passer rating (109.2), second most yards (4,353), and led St. Louis as the highest scoring team in the league, putting up over 32 points per game. In his first year as a starting quarterback and not too far removed from working at something similar to a Piggly Wiggly, Kurt Warner was named the league MVP.
Complete the Cinderella Story
With all the accolades, stats, and seven Pro Bowlers, including Warner, Bruce, and Faulk, what good would it all be if the story ended there?
The Rams met the Minnesota Vikings off their first-round bye, and oh, what a wild one it was. Warner and Vikings quarterback Jeff George combined for over 800 yards passing and nine touchdowns in a 49-37 St. Louis shoot-out victory.
A week later, the NFC Championship game could not have looked more different. Warner was picked off three times and had a 56.2 QB rating. Thankfully for the Rams, their D came to play as they rocked Bucs quarterback Shaun King with five sacks and a pair of picks in a grind-it-out 11-6 win. It doesn’t matter if you win ugly with the Super Bowl on the line, and that’s exactly where this Rams team was headed.
Midnight Train to Georgia
Warner’s bunch would again meet up with the Tennessee Titans, the team that handed them their first defeat of just a three-loss season. This Super Bowl at the Georgia Dome would end up going down as one of the most incredible finishes in NFL Championship history.
It was a tight one out of the gates as the Titans bent to the Greatest Show on Turf but did not break. Warner would lead drives in the first half, but Tennessee held them out of the endzone to just three field goals, and it was 9-0 at the half.
The endzone was finally found midway through the third quarter as Warner hooked up with Tory Holt for a nine-yard score. With a 16-0 lead, the Rams looked like they were on their way to their first-ever Super Bowl title.
Eddie George and the Titans had other ideas, as the hulking back powered his team back with two fourth-quarter TD runs. An Al Del Greco 43-yard field goal knotted things at 16 with just over two minutes to go.
Eighteen seconds later, Warner took the air out of Tennessee’s sails with a 73-yard bomb to Isaac Bruce on the drive’s first play. The long touchdown pass gave the Rams a 23-16 lead with 1:54 remaining.
Steve McNair wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel just yet, even though he had to start a potential game-tying drive from his own 12-yard line. A number of medium pass completions and a few critical penalties brought McNair and his squad to the Rams 10-yard line with five seconds remaining.
One Yard Short
The next play would forever be etched into Super Bowl lore and Titans fans’ nightmares. McNair steps back to pass and fires across the middle. A cutting Kevin Dyson makes the catch and reaches out with the ball for the goal line as Mike Jones wraps him up to leave Tennessee a yard short.
A game of inches makes Warner’s Rams the champs, and the Tennessee Titans close but not close enough.
Kurt Warner was given Super Bowl MVP to put next to his regular season MVP and led the Rams out of a 10-year abyss to their best ever regular season and first Vince Lombardi Trophy.