The scene: Sunday, January 30, 2000; Super Bowl XXXIV at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Jeff Fisher, then the Tennessee Titans head coach, watched his team fight back from a 16-0 deficit only for the St. Louis Rams to go back up 23-16 following a deep 73-yard TD catch by Rams WR Isaac Bruce from QB Kurt Warner with just under two minutes remaining.
The Titans, led by RB Eddie George and late QB Steve McNair, would have one more drive, starting on their own 12-yard line. McNair used his legs and arm to get the Titans to the Rams 11-yard line with six seconds left and no timeouts.
On the game’s final play, McNair hit WR Kevin Dyson on quick slant underneath the goal line. But Rams LB Mike Jones was there for “The Tackle” that left Dyson one yard short of the end zone as time expired.
Super Bowl XXXIV marked the pinnacle for both Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and the Saint Louis Rams. While Fisher would go on to coach the Titans for another eleven seasons, he would never reach the Super Bowl again, and the closest the Rams would come to winning another Super Bowl was when they lost two years later to the New England Patriots in the final seconds of Super Bowl XXXVI.
It is at least a little ironic that Fisher will begin his second head coaching odyssey with the team that beat him in his finest moment as the Titans head man.
Fisher became the head coach of the Titans in 1994, back when the franchise was the Houston Oilers. In 1994, head coach Jack Pardee was fired after starting the season 1-9. Fisher, the defensive coordinator and disciple of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense, was named head coach. Fisher was Ryan’s defensive coordinator in Philadelphia, and also reunited with his coach from USC John Robinson for the latter’s final season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1991.
When Fisher took over the Oilers, the team was without a QB; owner Bud Adams broke up the 1993 squad, with the trade of Hall-of-Fame QB Warren Moon proving to be the most consequential move.
The next four seasons (1995-1998) for Fisher were particularly unique because of the circumstances of the Houston Oilers franchise. Bud Adams announced he was moving the team, and the new stadium in Tennessee was not to open until the 1999 season. So while Fisher built up his new team (adding McNair in 1995, George in 1996, keeping QB Chris Chandler around for two seasons until McNair was ready to start in 1997, and maintaining a solid if unspectacular defense), the Houston Oilers transitioned into the Tennessee Oilers.
The last two years in Houston (7-9 in 1995, 8-8 in 1996) were marked by an upset fanbase about to lose their team, and the first two seasons in Tennessee (8-8 in both 1997 and 1998) were marked by the team not really having a home, being based in Nashville but playing home games in Memphis (1997) and Vanderbilt (1998).
Four mediocre seasons may serve as a reason to fire a coach in some situations (Seattle Seahawks head coach Dennis Erickson had the exact same records from 1995-1998 before being replaced in 1999 by Mike Holmgren), but under these circumstances, it may have been a credit to Fisher that the club was competitive every year.
By 1999, the new stadium in Nashville was ready, the Oilers became the Titans, and Fisher’s team took off by going 13-3. They marked the postseason with the Music City Miracle against the Buffalo Bills, a win against Peyton Manning‘s Colts in Manning’s first career playoff game, and a defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship.
It took five seasons, but Fisher oversaw an offense that ran the ball and produced few negative plays in the passing game, a pressuring defense coordinated by Gregg Williams that featured DE Jevon Kearse (“The Freak”), and a creative special teams unit that was solid in the kicking game (at least until K Al Del Greco’s meltdown in the 2000 playoffs against the Ravens).
So what does all of this mean for Saint Louis in 2012? Well, the Rams are in rebuilding mode, just like the team Fisher took over in 1994. In fact, save for the best of the Greatest Show on Turf era, the Rams have made an art of longstanding declination periods since the 1989 NFC Championship.
The L.A. Rams under John Robinson were a playoff team every season from 1983-1989, except for 1987.
But the Rams were trounced 30-3 by the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, in a game so brutal that Rams QB Jim Everett literally collapsed at the thought of taking a hit. The Rams never recovered. Robinson’s Rams won only eight games combined in 1990 and 1991, and old coach Chuck Knox would continue the double-digit losing seasons in 1992-1994.
The Rams then moved from Orange County to Saint Louis for the 1995 season, and replaced Knox with Rich Brooks as head coach. Brooks went 7-9 and 6-10 before being replaced by Dick Vermeil in 1997. Vermeil continued the decline by going 5-11 and 4-12 in his first two seasons, solidifying St. Louis as the team with the worst record of the 1990s.
The 90s were marked by awful personnel decisions, most notably:
- Allowing incredibly fumble-prone QB Tony Banks to start from 1996-1998.
- Drafting RB Lawrence Phillips in 1996 and trading RB Jerome Bettis to make room.
- Turning OLB Kevin Greene into a DE in 1991 (that was on Jeff Fisher!)
- Drafting a terrible kicker in the third round in 1995 (K Steve McLaughlin was cut after missing half of his attempts by midseason).
The Rams aimed to turn things around in 1999, signing QB Trent Green, trading for RB Marshall Faulk, drafting WR Torry Holt, getting WR Isaac Bruce back from injury, and shuffling the entire offensive line except for LT Orlando Pace. In addition to getting Green from Washington, the team bought his QB coach from Washington, Mike Martz, to be the offensive coordinator.
Martz was a Rams offensive assistant from 1992-1996. Unfortunately for Vermeil, Martz, and the Rams in 1999, Green tore his ACL in the preseason while getting blitzed by Rodney Harrison.
But unknown signal-caller Kurt Warner took the starting job and got the Rams off to a stellar 6-0 start. The Rams’ first loss of the season was actually to (you guessed it) Jeff Fisher’s Titans, who recovered three Rams fumbles. The Rams lost the following game to the Detroit Lions, but got back on track by winning seven straight.
Everyone remembers the offense for racking up 526 points (and rightfully so), but the defense was rock-solid too, led by DE Kevin Carter’s 17 sacks and a pass defense that intercepted 29 passes.
Even the special teams was special, with KR Tony Horne scoring twice and PR Az-Zahir Hakim finding the end zone once. The 1999 Rams lit up the Minnesota Vikings for 49 points, held the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to 6 points in the NFC Championship, and then won the rematch with the Titans on the Georgia Dome turf.
Three days after that Super Bowl victory in Atlanta, Dick Vermeil retired and handed the head coaching job over to Mike Martz. The decline of the Greatest Show on Turf began then, although you couldn’t notice with the Rams scoring 500+ points in 2000 and 2001, losing a Super Bowl after going 14-2 in the latter season.
But in 2002, the Rams went 7-9, as Warner was 0-6 as a starter to go with 3 TDs and 11 INTs (Rams QBs combined for 27 INTs). Marc Bulger emerged as a viable option in 2002, and after Warner fumbled six times in the 2003 season opener, Bulger became the new Rams starting QB. But the Rams defense was improved under defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who left after three seasons to coach the Chicago Bears in 2004.
The Rams haven’t had a winning season since, going 8-8 in 2004 and 6-10 in 2005. Martz was fired after the 2005 season in which assistant head coach Joe Vitt coached the final 11 games of the season due to Martz’ health problems, and after new head coach Scott Linehan went 8-8 in his first season in 2006, the Rams have an embarrassing 15-65 record the last five seasons.
The only season with more than three wins was when Steve Spagnuolo went 7-9 in 2010, but the team fell back apart this past season.
Fisher has a very difficult task in Saint Louis. The previous regimes left him a roster that is the result of years of completely inept drafting. The team has had to give up on every single player from the entire 2006-2008 draft classes except for DE Chris Long, 2009 features injury-prone draft bust OT Jason Smith, and 2010 rookie standouts QB Sam Bradford and OT Rodger Saffold painfully regressed in 2011.
Speaking of the 2011 draft class, DE Robert Quinn looked decent as a pass rusher, but the three receivers taken after him all had low moments (TE Lance Kendricks dropped passes all year, WR Austin Pettis will start 2012 suspended and WR Greg Salas broke his leg).
Besides Long and Quinn, the only other young defender worth building around is ILB James Laurinaitis. Fisher even has his own version of “Trent Green’s ACL”, losing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to suspension as a consequence of Bountygate.
But as described above, Fisher (and the Rams) have been here before.
It almost certainly won’t take one season like the 1999 Rams, because of the absolute dearth of talent. But it’s not like the Rams are in a division with one or two perennial powerhouses. The San Francisco 49ers (no playoff appearances from 2003-2010), Seattle Seahawks (no playoff appearances from 1989-1998) and Arizona Cardinals (six total playoff appearances since the 1970 merger and no playoff wins from 1948-1997) have all had their share of embarrassing lore.
It takes the right coach to turn things around. Ken Whisenhunt has done it in Arizona with a Super Bowl appearance, Jim Harbaugh did it last year in San Francisco with Alex Smith and Pete Carroll is suggesting that he can follow Mike Holmgren better than Jim Mora could in Seattle. Let the rebuilding begin in Saint Louis.