Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.
The top of the 1999 draft was an interesting one and would have been drastically altered with even one or two plays changing during the 1998 regular season. There were three teams that finished 3-13 and three teams that finished 4-12, including the St. Louis Rams, who ended up picking sixth.
One of those potential plays could have come on September 20, 1998, when the Rams beat the Buffalo Bills 34-33 on a last-minute touchdown by quarterback Tony Banks. Had St. Louis failed to score a touchdown for any reason, they’d have lost that game and potentially gone 3-13. I can’t quite do all the math to figure out the tiebreakers, but that could have had the Rams picking as high as second because the expansion Cleveland Browns were locked into the top spot.
Therefore, no altered 1998 history changes the fact that the Browns almost always draft Tim Couch. Maybe the only thing that could have changed that would have been if St. Louis didn’t protect Kurt Warner in the 1999 expansion draft, but they did and NFL history went the course that it ended up going.
Cleveland selected Couch. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Donovan McNabb. The Cincinnati Bengals selected Akili Smith, who we’ve already mentioned in this series from when the Bengals lost to the ‘99 Rams. The Indianapolis Colts picked Edgerrin James after having traded Marshall Faulk to St. Louis. And the New Orleans Saints traded everything and more for Ricky Williams.
That’s when the Rams picked Torry Holt. What if they had been picking second though? Would Dick Vermeil target McNabb? Given that he brought over Mike Martz to be his offensive coordinator and signed Trent Green in free agency — a pair who had worked together in Washington in 1998 — I think it would be fine to assume that Holt was always Plan A.
And it’s also one of those examples of why I think draft order and getting a higher pick is overrated. What if a higher pick leads to choosing Akili Smith or Ricky Williams instead of Holt? What if a higher pick doesn’t lead Washington to picking Champ Bailey seventh overall that year?
The Rams are happy with their pick and didn’t need to do anything other than beat the Bills that day. The Browns didn’t even exist in 1998 and couldn’t win or lose any games to prevent them from picking first overall.
And that didn’t stop 1999 or the next 20 years from happening.
Week 2 - BYE
Week 7 - Cleveland Browns at St. Louis Rams, October 24, 1999
We are now six weeks into the season and the Rams are undefeated while the Browns are defeated. Defeated. Defeated. Defeated. Defeated.
Under first time head coach Chris Palmer, a former Bill Parcells assistant in New England who wasn’t all that far off from being on the level of desirability as Patriots colleague Bill Belichick at the time, the Browns were far worse than I would have remembered were I to have expended any memories on the expansion Browns.
In their first game as a reborn franchise, Cleveland lost 43-0 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, gaining FORTY total yards and achieving TWO first downs. That game was started by Ty Detmer, who was replaced by Couch. On three attempts, Couch completed zero passes other than one interception. The next week he was starting against the Tennessee Titans.
After six games, the Browns were winless, had been outscored by a league-worst 97 points, and had scored only 50 points. also worst in the league.
Over his five starts, Couch was also as bad as you’d expect a rookie QB to be with an expansion Cleveland. He had only thrown two interceptions in those games, but he averaged only 5.8 yards per attempt and completed only 53% of his passes. A little more acceptable in the 90s, but still quite bad.
The Rams would still do the neighborly thing though and while the Browns had already gotten a Couch for their home, St. Louis was ready to send over a new floor.
Here is a 20-minute highlight reel of the game:
On the first drive of the game, Warner goes 75 yards down the field for a touchdown pass to Roland Williams, making it 7-0. Faulk gained 58 yards on the drive off of four receptions and three runs. On the ensuing kickoff, Browns returner Ronnie Powell fumbles the ball back to the Rams. It took four plays for Warner to throw his second touchdown pass of the game, this time going to Isaac Bruce.
Something a little strange happened on the next drive, which is that the Browns picked up three first downs, two on throws by Couch, and they celebrated a 47-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, a rookie that season who was kicking in the NFL as recently as 2018; Dawon played with Tim Couch in his first season and Josh Rosen in his most recent.
Cleveland wouldn’t need Dawson much in this game though.
It was another relatively quick and easy drive for Warner following the field goal, as the Rams went 69 yards until he found Williams again for another one-yard touchdown. 21-3.
After Powell atoned a bit with a 43-yard return, Couch found himself with 3rd and goal from the Rams 4, but was intercepted by Todd Lyght on the attempt. Then on the final drive of the half, Couch ran 40 yards as time expired in the second quarter; 43 yards would’ve gotten him a touchdown.
St. Louis’s final touchdown came on a 33-yard run by Faulk, his longest of the season at that point. This is also the first time it’s really hit me that Marshall Faulk played with Peyton Manning as a rookie one year and with arguably the most historic quarterback season of all-time the next year.
On Cleveland’s final drive, Couch completed a fourth-and-four to Irv Smith (father of Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith, Jr) but on the next play he was intercepted by Rich Coady, making the first two-interception game of his career.
FINAL SCORE: Rams 34, Browns 3
Kurt Warner: 23-of-29, 203 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions
Marshall Faulk: 16 carries for 133 yards, 1 TD, nine catches, 67 yards
Leading Receiver: Faulk
Roland Williams: 2 TD
Sacks: Dexter McCleon/Jeff Zgonina
Interceptions: Todd Lyght, Rich Coady
Game Recap (ESPN) (Marshall Faulk food poisoning, Kevin Johnson predicted Browns would win, Roland Williams’ only ever 2-score game):
“Warner throws three more TD passes”
The surprise juggernaut claimed another victim.
The St. Louis Rams, who entered this season as the NFL’s losingest team in the 1990s, remained the only unbeaten team this year with a 34-3 victory over the winless Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
“We’re No. 6,” Browns coach Chris Palmer said. “They’ve done the same thing to everybody they’ve played, whether it be the 49ers, or the Falcons, or whoever they played.”
Kurt Warner threw three touchdown passes, two to Roland Willliams. Marshall Faulk, after spending the previous night in a hospital with what he termed a “mixture of food poisoning and flu-like symptoms,” had 133 yards rushing on 16 carries, with a 33-yard touchdown.
”I don’t want to bad-mouth any restaurant or anything like that,” Faulk said. “I was going to try to play regardless of how I felt.”
Browns rookie wide receiver Kevin Johnson had brashly predicted a victory. In particular, he was treated roughly.
”Our secondary got together during the introductions and they were going to give this guy the business,” defensive tackle D’Marco Farr said. “Somebody was talking to him as soon as he got up and all the way back to the huddle.”
Johnson also was taunted by some fans as he left the field, and his post-game comments were muted.
”I just said what I thought,” Johnson said. “Hats off to those guys.”
“I’m not worrying about other people’s expectations for me, I’m more worried about what I expect of myself,” Warner said. “When there’s an opportunity to make a play, I expect myself to make it. I get mad about the ones I don’t complete.”
Williams, the starter at tight end while Ernie Conwell recovers from reconstructive knee surgery, had a pair of 1-yard scores and has three touchdowns. He had his best game receiving with five catches for 50 yards and had his first two-catch game ever, including high school.
”We kind of hounded him about being just a blocking tight end,” wide receiver Isaac Bruce said. “So he proved to us that he could catch the ball.”
A plus for Couch, who was 22-for-40 for 185 yards and two interceptions, was getting some protection for a change with only one sack and rare pressure from the Rams. He’s been sacked 24 times overall, including.
”They’re a great team,” Couch said of the Rams. “I can see why they’re undefeated.”
The last time the Rams were 6-0 was 1985, when they opened 7-0 and won the NFC West at 11-5. They’ve won five in a row at home, their best since 1988-89, and are 3-0 against the AFC Central.
+154 vs +80
The +154 is the Rams point differential after six games in 1999. The +80 is the Jacksonville Jaguars point differential after six games in 1999. The Jaguars had the second-best point differential in the league that year at that point. That’s how wide the gap was between St. Louis and second place, but third place was +63 and fourth place was +45. This wasn’t the slaughter of a team, this was practically a slaughter of an entire league.
I saw one place that expanded on Faulk’s quote about not bad-mouthing a restaurant: “I’m not sure what I had. The doctors don’t even know what I had. Don’t want to give it a name. I don’t want to see it again.”
Through Week 7, Warner was first in the NFL with 18 touchdowns (Peyton Manning was second with 13) and he had only thrown three picks (Manning had eight). His 131.5 passer rating was well ahead of second-place Brad Johnson at 105.7. Warner was completing 72.8% of his attempts too. There was nothing like him.
Prior to Warner, the only QB to throw 18 TDs in his team’s first six games of a season was Brett Favre when he had 20 TD, 3 INT in 1996. Since Warner, we’ve seen Tom Brady, Manning (twice), Daunte Culpepper, Drew Brees, and Patrick Mahomes accomplish that milestone. Warner’s 131.5 passer rating through six games still remains the best of all-time, however. Not even 2007 Brady or 2013 Manning topped that.