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Re-living ‘99: Rams beat Ravens as Kurt Warner begins to erase the doubt

It’s Week 1 and Dick Vermeil’s job prospects are looking pretty dire. For a quarter at least.

St. Louis Rams Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The St. Louis Rams went 9-23 in the first two years under head coach Dick Vermeil from 1997-1998, and 21 of those losses came with Tony Banks starting at quarterback. Vermeil had entered the season on the “hot seat” as ESPN’s Chris Mortensen had reported early in the year. They were also going to be without Banks’ replacement, Trent Green, who they had signed to a four-year, $17.5 million contract before the season.

You can’t really say the Rams have had some breaks. They lost quarterback Trent Green right before the season started and were stuck with Kurt Warner to do the job.

But the Rams had been building.

First Isaac Bruce in 1994, then Orlando Pace in 1997. Defensively, they added Kevin Carter in 1995 and Grant Wistrom and London Fletcher in 1998. But the key ingredients wouldn’t come until the ‘99 offseason, when St. Louis traded for Marshall Faulk, drafted Torry Holt, and retained third-string quarterback Kurt Warner; during the Cleveland Browns’ expansion draft in 1999, Warner was one of five players protected by the Rams even though he wasn’t expected to contribute that year — or perhaps ever with the contract signed by Green, who also came packaged with his 1998 offensive coordinator in Washington: Mike Martz.

Then Rodney Harrison changed the lives of countless people forever.

It’s what Trent Green calls “The What If? Game.” (Where was Green during “What If?” week last week?) The Rams were playing the San Diego Chargers in a preseason game on August 28, 1999. The season was set to start in two weeks and this was Green’s dress rehearsal for an expected St. Louis turnaround — less Vermeil be fired a few weeks into the year should they flop. Then disaster seemed to strike when Harrison evaded a block attempt by Faulk, who had been holding out earlier in camp and who Green called “not real comfortable” with making that play:

“He knew he was supposed to get him, but if you look at the block, he’s not real comfortable with where he was at that point,” he said. “He kind of made like a half-block, a ‘not-really’ block.”

There was little left to gain for Green, Faulk, or Harrison by running that play and making that hit, but the “not-really” block ended Green’s first season as a franchise QB before it started. Green talked about how former Washington head coach Norv Turner (also on the hot seat in ‘99) taught him that the difference in being great and being out of the league is about how long you can stand in the pocket.

“I’ll never forget this,” Green said. “He said, ‘The difference between a guy who isn’t in the league and the guy who’s an average guy in the league, and a guy who’s a Pro Bowl guy and a guy who’s a Hall of Fame guy is the guy who can stand in the pocket knowing he’s going to get hit and yet be able to make the throw.’”

Green left the game having gone 11-of-11 for 166 yards with a 52-yard TD to Bruce against the Chargers. Vermeil still believes that Green would’ve led them to a Super Bowl championship that year and the relationship between the coach and quarterback would pick back up again with the Kansas City Chiefs eventually.

But at the time, it looked like the franchise was cursed. From the paper the next day:

The St. Louis Rams’ best-laid plans for a turnaround season are in the hands of a quarterback known only for his exploits in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe.

Kurt Warner, who has one-quarter of NFL experience, became the starter by default when Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 24-21 preseason victory over the San Diego Chargers Saturday night. Green tore the anterior cruciate ligament and sustained a third-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and also suffered cartilage damage.

Reconstructive surgery will be scheduled when the swelling subsides in about 2-3 weeks. Dr. Robert Shively, the team physician, estimated the recovery period at 13 months.

The Rams acquired quarterback Paul Justin from the Oakland Raiders as insurance Sunday, giving up a seventh-round pick in next year’s draft.

But for now it’s Kurt Who? in the most visible spot as the Rams try to field a winning team for the first time this decade. “I’m confident in my ability and the coaches are confident in my ability,” Warner said. “Now it’s time to go out and prove to the rest of the world that I can be successful.”

Warner, 28, led NFL Europe in passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns in 1998 for the Amsterdam Admirals. Before that, he passed for 10,164 yards and 183 touchdowns in three seasons with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League.

Last season, he beat out Will Furrer for the third-string job with the Rams. He was inactive the first 14 games and his only action came in the season finale, a 38-19 loss at San Francisco, in which he was 4-of-11 for 39 yards.

Now, suddenly, he’s the man. He was in for only four plays in the second half Saturday night before coach Dick Vermeil, who had the second stringers in by that point, took him out to protect his new meal ticket. Rookie Joe Germaine, a fourth-round pick, went the rest of the way.

“He’s paid his dues,” Vermeil said.

Harrison said after the game: “I feel terrible.”

But Martz said he felt good about where the team would be with Warner and that they bypassed the chance to get another QB in house directly because of their expectations for Warner:

“We had an opportunity in the off-season to get another quarterback,” says Rams offensive coordinator Mike Martz. “If we hadn’t felt great about Kurt, we would have done something then.” Martz says the team has no plans to start quarterback Paul Justin, who was acquired last week in a trade with the Raiders. In fact, Martz has so much confidence in Warner that he has assigned him no extra work or study sessions in preparation for the regular-season opener against the Ravens. “You look at me like I’m crazy when I say that,” says Martz, “but we know Kurt, you don’t.”

With only one preseason game to prepare as a starter, Warner went 9-of-15 for 89 yards and they scored 17 points on his three drives.

In the course of directing his first NFL touchdown march, Warner sidestepped Detroit tackle Luther Elliss, corrected tight end Chad Lewis when he lined up wrong, fired a 25-yard laser to Ricky Proehl, scrambled 12 yards for a first down and tossed a six-yard scoring pass to Marshall Faulk. Unlike most first-time starters, though, Warner made no effort to retrieve the ball. He got a nicer keepsake later when Vermeil handed him the gameball. “Hopefully,” said Warner, “what I did tonight was answer some of those questions about me.”

Entering Week 1, only four teams in the NFL had worse Super Bowl odds than the Rams at +15000: the Browns, Bengals, Bears, and Eagles. All of those teams finished with double-digit losses. The Rams ... did not.

Week 1 - Baltimore Ravens at St. Louis Rams, September 12, 1999

The Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis in 1995 and a year later the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. After three seasons under Ted Marchibroda — the replacement for a fired Bill Belichick — the team hired former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick to lead a franchise with an extraordinarily promising defense.

With Billick, the Vikings went 15-1 in 1998 with the number one scoring offense in the NFL. Minnesota was the odds on favorite to win the Super Bowl whereas Baltimore was only lurking a few steps ahead of the expectations for the Rams. The Ravens went 6-10 in 1998 but they had replaced the starting quarterback Jim Harbaugh (brother of their future Super Bowl-winning head coach and a good head coach in his own right) with three veteran options: former Detroit Lions QB Scott Mitchell, former Arizona Cardinals QB Stoney Case and ...

Tony Banks.

Like the Rams, the Ravens had been building something special over the last few years. Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis in 1996, Peter Boulware in 1997, plus free agents Michael McCrary in ‘97 and Rod Woodson in ‘98. They also had a 1,000-yard rusher the year before, Priest Holmes. The defense had been worse than mediocre in ‘98 and so a lot of the hope would be pinned on Billick and Banks.

Oh if we only knew that they were just along for the ride.

Before I tell you what happens in the game, I’ll give you the chance to watch it without spoilers. All 140 minutes are posted on YouTube:

Rather than getting to see Warner face off against Banks, the 9-21 starter for Vermeil the two years prior, Mitchell was named the Ravens’ starter for the ‘99 season. That wouldn’t last long.

After an ugly opening series in which Warner was sacked by Lewis and the team was forced to punt, St. Louis forced a three-and-out to get him the ball back immediately and Az-Zahir Hakim returned in 35 yards.

A 19-yard pass to Faulk got the ball rolling and eventually the drive ended in a 36-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins. Baltimore kicker Matt Stover would hit the upright on a 54-yard attempt on the ensuing drive and then Warner was intercepted by Lewis — who returned the ball 60 yards — near the end of the first quarter.

(Trent Green and owner Stan Kroenke on the sidelines, 1999; Photo courtesy of UPI)

Luckily Scott Mitchell was there too.

Three plays after Warner’s interception, Todd Lyght picked off Mitchell and tossed it to Taje Allen for a total of 33 yards gained on the return. Warner found Roland Williams a few plays after that for his first career touchdown; Williams, a fourth round tight end out of Syracuse in 1998, would catch six touchdowns this season.

Warner was again intercepted in the second quarter, this time by cornerback Chris McAlister, the 10th overall pick in the ‘99 draft. The Rams had picked Holt four selections ahead of him. Two Hall of Famers — Edgerrin James at four and Champ Bailey at seven — were also in that draft. McAlister could have potentially even been a target for St. Louis, as they picked corner Dre Bly in the second. Obviously they may have preferred Bailey over McAlister, but in his first career game, McAlister did pick off Warner.

McAlister was even covering Holt on the play, though the pass was intended for Faulk, who tipped it up instead and it went to the opposition. Unfortunately for Baltimore, Mcalister lost his balance and fell at the six when it seemed he could have scored; the Ravens ended up settling for a 25-yard field goal instead of a touchdown.

Then Warner got hot. He went 9-of-10 for 70 yards and a touchdown to Isaac Bruce on the following drive, giving the Rams a 17-3 lead going into the half.

The two teams went back and forth on punts — three each — until a good Scott Mitchell drive made it 17-10 when he hit Brandon Stokley for 28. The Rams had 2nd-and-7 from their own 40 on the next series when Warner was sacked by DeRon Jenkins and lost a fumble. Luckily that didn’t result in any points for the Ravens when Stover missed from 54 again. Wilkins was good from 51 and the score was now 20-10 with 10 minutes remaining.

Another three-and-out virtually sealed the win for Vermeil but another great drive for Warner — 4-of-5, 78 yards, TD — made it official.

“I know this is the NFL and a lot of people want to make it a big deal,’’ Warner said. “But I’ve played football a long time and I felt like I was just playing another game out there.’”

Said Bruce afterwards, “If you come in with a lot of bullets in your gun, they can’t cover everybody.”

Warner didn’t have weapons, he had ammo. And he was about to spray the joint.

St. Louis Rams 27, Baltimore Ravens 10

Record: 1-0

Kurt Warner: 28-of-44, 309 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 1 fumble lost

Marshall Faulk: 19 for 54, seven catches for 72

Leading Receiver: Isaac Bruce, eight catches, 92 yard, 1 TD

Torry Holt: three catches, 36 yards, 1 TD

Sacks: Kevin Carter (2), Grant Wistrom, Todd Lyght (1), Taje Allen, D’Marco Farr (.5)

Interceptions: Todd Lyght, Keith Lyle

Biggest Takeaway:

The Ravens had a mediocre defense before and would only finish 8-8 in 1999, but this was one of the best defenses of all-time. Baltimore ended the season sixth in points allowed, second in yards allowed, first in yards per attempt allowed, and second in yards per carry allowed. They were first in DVOA. Nobody knew it at the time, but the Greatest Show on Turf had faced the absolute best defense of the era — one of the best defenses we’ve ever seen, as the Ravens would smoke everyone in the 2000 playoffs — and Warner was really good. He threw two first half interceptions in his NFL starting debut but that didn’t shake his confidence to lead the Rams to game-sealing drives in the second half.

Mitchell ended up going 0-2 as a starter and backup Stoney Case went 2-2. They turned to Banks, who went 6-4 as a starter, throwing 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He almost won as many games in 10 starts with the Ravens that year as he did in 31 starts for Vermeil. The next season they featured both Holmes and Jamal Lewis in the backfield with Banks and Trent Dilfer splitting time at QB, winning the Super Bowl over the New York Giants.