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Re-living ‘99: Rams vanquish defending NFC Champions as Kurt Warner rises up leaderboards

A scheduling quirk had the Rams off in Week 2


Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.

Week 1 - Rams 27, Ravens 10

Week 2 - BYE

In an odd scheduling quirk that lasted only for the three seasons in which the league had 31 teams, the St. Louis Rams took a Week 2 bye. (The San Diego Chargers were stuck with the Week 1 bye in ‘99.) That gave Kurt Warner 14 days to consider his three-touchdown debut against what would be the NFL’s best defense over at least the next two years. Excitement was building up for a team that few expected to compete after the preseason injury to quarterback Trent Green.

Tom Oates of ESPN in his 1999 season preview of the NFC:

The Rams spent tons of money trying to upgrade their offense, signing quarterback Trent Green, trading for halfback Marshall Faulk and drafting wide receiver Torry Holt. Instead of getting instant offense, however, coach Dick Vermeil got instant playoff elimination when Green blew out a knee in an exhibition game. The Rams’ playoff hopes now depend on former Arena League quarterback Kurt Warner.

“Instant playoff elimination.”

ESPN’s pre-season power rankings had the Rams ranked 25th, with the note that they’d be 20th (woo-hoo) if Green hadn’t gotten hurt. ESPN’s Brian Murphy casually mentions the Rams as a “one-win team” during his playful season preview.

First they knocked off the Ravens, who had Ray Lewis and some exciting pieces around him, but Baltimore had been 6-10 in 1998 and they were 22nd in the power rankings. Following the Bye, the Atlanta Falcons were coming to St. Louis.

The Falcons were not expected to be bad.

Week 3 - Atlanta Falcons at St. Louis Rams, September 26, 1999

In Week 1, the Rams beat a Baltimore team that was led by first-time head coach Brian Billick, the offensive coordinator for the dominant Minnesota Vikings in ‘98. That team went 15-1 but fell short of the Super Bowl when they ran into the 14-2 Falcons. The star of that team was running back Jamal Anderson, who Atlanta rode for 410 regular season carries in 1998. They would only get 19 carries out of Anderson in ‘99 and he was already out for the year when St. Louis hosted the Falcons in Week 3.

And Atlanta was slipping fast.

In a re-match with the Vikings in Week 1, the Falcons lost 17-14 when kicker Morten Andersen missed from only 39 yards out and 3:58 on the clock. In Week 2, they were already down to backup QBs Danny Kanell and Tony Graziani headed into the game, then Anderson left after only three carries and the Dallas Cowboys won easily 24-7.

If the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons are going to bounce back from an 0-2 start, they’ll have to do it without their best player.

The Falcons received a devastating blow Tuesday when they learned that Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson is out for the season because of a knee injury.

Anderson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Monday night in a 24-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, crumpling to the turf on his third carry of the game without being touched.

“It is one of those deals that it happens, and you hate it, but you can’t dwell on it,” Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. “We have got to move forward and try to get the job done.”

The Falcons had signed Anderson to a $32 million contract after a preseason holdout in ‘99, and that came off the heels of them rewarding the oft-injured Chandler with an extension too. By 2000, the franchise was pretty well focused on finding their replacements.

The Rams pretty much sent them on that mission early in Week 3.

There was one notable change to the roster as cornerback Dexter McCleon returned after missing Week 1 and he would start the remaining 15 games. But all the focus would be on Warner and the offense in this game against a Falcons team that would prove once again that you might be better off not reaching the Super Bowl than losing the Super Bowl.

Again, you can watch the full game before I talk about it:

On the St. Louis Rams’ first drive, head coach Dick Vermeil calls a timeout to consider whether to challenge a ruling that tight end Roland Williams didn’t score — significant because 1999 was the first season in which coaches could challenge and ask for instant replay. There was even talk in the preseason about how coaches had been accidentally challenging plays because it was done through a device on their belts. Pretty soon, they’d realize that “low-tech” was the proper way to go.

But there doesn’t appear to be any challenge on this play and the Rams eventually scored anyway — it’s interesting though to watch how teams and the broadcast handled challenges during their first year in use.

Warner went 6-of-7 for 47 yards on the opening drive and Robert Holcombe punched it in for a 7-0 lead. After a 3-and-out, Warner went 4-of-7 for 80 yards with a 38-yard touchdown to Torry Holt and it was 14-0. On the next play, Todd Lyght intercepted Chandler and on the play after that, Warner threw a 46-yard touchdown to Torry Holt and it was 21-0.

The Rams had scored 14 points in the first :29 seconds of the second quarter.

The Falcons put up their longest drive of the day at that point — 30 yards — but punted it back to Warner. On the next play, Marshall Faulk ran for 58 yards.

Three plays later, Warner found Faulk for a 17-yard touchdown and it was 28-0.

St. Louis went 3-and-out on the next drive, their first of the day that didn’t result in a touchdown. But when Kevin Carter sacked Chandler towards the end of the first half, it knocked Chandler out and brought back Graziani. Warner rushed for a touchdown in the third quarter and the Rams end up winning easy.

St. Louis Rams 35, Atlanta Falcons 7

Record: 2-0

Kurt Warner: 17-of-25, 275 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT

Marshall Faulk: 17 for 105, five catches for 67 yards, 1 TD

Leading Receiver: Isaac Bruce, three catches, 68 yards, 1 TD

Torry Holt: two catches, 47 yards, 1 TD

Sacks: Todd Lyght, Kevin Carter

Interceptions: Todd Lyght (his second in two weeks)

Game Recap (ESPN):

Sunday, Sep. 26 1:00pm ET

“Rams make chumps of NFC champs”

“They beat us in every way you can get beat,” Falcons coach Dan Reeves said. “If you don’t play well and you make some mistakes and the other team plays well, anybody can beat you. I didn’t think we were going to be 0-3, but there is nothing in this league that can shock you.”

The Rams (2-0) have lost 99 games in the 1990s, but they caught the Falcons at the perfect time: coming off a bye against a team with beat-up skill players coming off a short work week. The Rams were in control from the start as they ended an eight-game losing streak to NFC West opponents and a four-game losing streak against Atlanta.

“We’re hungry dogs,” said cornerback Todd Lyght, who had an interception. “We don’t want to just eat the meat off the bone, we want to eat the bone.”

“Graziani is a good player, but he’s not going to get it done,” Lyle said.

“I don’t think I’ve been around a team as good as this one may end up being,” coach Dick Vermeil said.

Warner, who finished 17-of-25 for 275 yards, was an unproven and unknown backup who starred in NFL Europe and Arena Football before Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game. Warner has thrown three touchdown passes in each of the Rams’ two games, and he completed 12 of his first 16 throws for 190 yards Sunday.

He was not impressed with his TD total.

“Not one bit,” Warner said. “I’m used to throwing eight in a game.”

Biggest Takeaway:

Coming into the season off of a 4-12 campaign and losing their starting QB in Preseason Week 3, the Rams were expected to be at best, a fun 6-10 team. Now three weeks and two games into the 1999 season, they’re 2-0 and they’ve beaten the league’s best defense and reigning conference champion and they did it by a combined score of 62 to 17.

Not only that, but Warner had now thrown six touchdowns and was second in the NFL in that category despite the fact that most other teams had played three games and he had only been in two. Only Charlie Batch and Peyton Manning had thrown more, having scored seven times in three games, but with five interceptions each; Warner had thrown two picks, one on a deflected ball by Marshall Faulk and the other by the greatest defensive player of his generation.

Ironically, perhaps the only QB off to a better start in 1999 was Brad Johnson, who had replaced Green in Washington — and that was one season after he had been the backup to Randall Cunningham on the 15-1 Vikings with Billick as OC — and he had five touchdowns, no picks in his first three games. Johnson was a Pro Bowl QB and a good story that year, but it was apparent early on that the story of the season was happening in St. Louis.

Next: Onto Cincinnati