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Re-living ‘99: Detroit rocks city with ‘Gus vs Them’ second half finish

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Few may remember how or why the Rams weren’t the first place team in the NFC at the midway point

Ross/Vermeil

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

When we last left them, the 1999 St. Louis Rams were coming off of their first loss of the season. They were now 6-1 and losses always hurt but consider where the Rams were in 1998. The season before ‘99 the Rams lost their first game in Week 1, not in Week 8. They lost their third game in Week 4, not in Week 17.

In their final game of 1998, St. Louis went on the road to face the San Francisco 49ers and surprisingly landed the first blow when Steve Bono threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. Reality smacked them in the face in the second quarter though when STEVE YOUNG threw a four-yard touchdown pass to JERRY RICE. Bono would actually finish with three touchdown passes that day, but Young did Young stuff, rushing for a touchdown and capping the game off with a 24-yard score to TERRELL OWENS as the Niners won by plenty.

1998 was another year in the 90s that didn’t belong to the Rams.

1999 was not “another year in the 90s” for St. Louis, not even close, but for the first time all season they’d have their resiliency tested with a loss. How would they respond?

It was really more of the schedule that responded: After traveling to Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Tennessee in three of the previous five weeks, the Rams went on the road again, this time to Detroit to face a Lions team whose surprising 5-2 record in the first year after Barry Sanders retired had been overshadowed by the monster story developing in St. Louis.

Like most any other person who is aware of football, I’ve spent many hours thinking of what Barry Sanders did in the 90s, but I’ve spent almost no time thinking about Detroit in the year following his decision to walk away from the game at 31; odd to consider that 20 years ago a running back leaving the game at 31 was viewed as pure insanity.

FBN-LIONS-SANDERS RETIREMENT-MURAL Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

And yes, I understand that Sanders is exceptional and why people are surprised that he left the game when he did, but Sanders averaged 306 rushing attempts per season for 10 years and at the end of it we were all still saying: “Not Sanders. Not now. This is BONKERS!” Barry Sanders had 3,062 rushing attempts and 352 receptions from 1989-1998. The most rushing attempts by any player in the 2010s was 2,380 by Frank Gore, and only LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson were also over 2,000 attempts.

The real exception here is Sanders (and Emmitt Smith, who had over 3,200 attempts in the 90s) because it has often been more common to see a heavily-used back get about 200 carries per year. O.J. Simpson had the most rushing attempts in the 70s, with 2,223 and 59 touchdowns.

Sanders scored 99 times during his 10-year career.

There really has never been anything like him and 1999 would be the first year since 1988 that the Lions would attempt to win games with a different player at running back. It started out better than expected but not because Detroit’s running game had been able to stay even a shell of its Barry identity.

In his final season, Sanders would rush for 1,491 yards as the Lions finished 10th in rushing yards and third in yards per carry. In ‘99, Detroit ranked 28th in rushing yards and 24th in yards per carry behind leading rusher Greg Hill, who had 542 yards and two touchdowns on 144 carries. How did this team get to 5-2 headed into their Week 9 matchup vs 6-1 St. Louis?

A little defense, a little luck, and more emphasis on the passing game as they turned their attention to receivers Johnnie Morton and Germane Crowell.

The Lions were seventh in points allowed during their 5-2 start and 10th in passer rating. But let’s again consider just how different the ‘99 Rams were from every other team that season by looking at the team passer rating leaders:

Warner was ahead of his time. The Lions were past theirs. But they had an excellent opportunity in Week 9 to upset a Rams team going on another road trip and all it would take to win is a few career-best games from some unknowns and several more mistakes by a St. Louis team that wasn’t without its flaws.

Week 1 - Rams 27, Ravens 10

Week 2 - BYE

Week 3 - Rams 35, Falcons 7

Week 4 - Rams 38, Bengals 10

Week 5 - Rams 42, 49ers 20

Week 6 - Rams 41, Falcons 17

Week 7 - Rams 34, Browns 3

Week 8 - Titans 24, Rams 21

Week 9 - St. Louis Rams at Detroit Lions, November 7, 1999

Full game highlights, or at least 20 minute reels of the game, were coming in pretty hot for the first six or so articles in this series. Not so much anymore but I expect that to pick up as the season goes on. If you have a link to the full game or a longer highlight reel, drop it in the comments because this was a wild one.

The Lions get the ball first and 25-year-old Charlie Batch, a late second round pick in 1998 who showed much promise as a rookie a year earlier, orchestrates a quick three-and-out. Batch had a 19-18 record as starter over his first three seasons, but with an 0-9 added to his resume in 2001, that’s when he became the career backup in Pittsburgh that most of us remember today.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The ensuing drive was stalled when Warner was sacked for a loss of seven, but the Rams had 3rd-and-1 from Detroit’s 39 and a chance to score first. Instead, Marshall Faulk threw an incompletion and Rick Tuten punted it back to the Lions for a series that would end in a strip-sack by D’Marco Farr on Batch and a punt to Az-Zahir Hakim who muffed it obviously; Faulk was 0-for-2 in his career as a passer and you have to wonder if Dick Vermeil spent a lot of time thinking about how he had his Hall of Fame runner/receiver throw the ball on 3rd-and-1.

St. Louis was able to recover Hakim’s fumble but it was only setting up another three-and-out. However, Tuten had a fantastic 50-yard punt that pinned the Lions at their own 1 and resulted in a safety by Hill — that replacement back for BARRY SANDERS — on the very next play.

2-0 Rams.

Greg Hill #21

Tuten would punt six times but eventually leave with an injury in what ended up as his final season. Kicker Jeff Wilkins had two punts for 57 yards, the first two punts of his career. En total, Wilkins punted six times over 200 career games.

But Warner and Faulk were unable to get past their own 40 on the following series and the ball went back to Batch, who managed a 42-yard completion to Brian Stablein on the first play. Batch then had a 13-yard completion to Sedrick Irvin on 3rd-and-10 and a 16-yard completion to Germane Crowell on 3rd-and-5.

And there go three receivers in the 90s who I have no memory of at all.

Stablein’s 42-yard reception and 48 yards on the day were career-highs for the former eighth round pick. Irvin was a fourth round rookie, the first running back drafted by the Lions following the retirement of Sanders. The comparisons between the two end there and his 65 receiving yards and 96 all-purpose yards vs the Rams that day were career-highs by wide margins. The most memorable is Crowell, who was sixth in the NFL in receiving yards in 1999, having caught 81 passes for 1,338 yards and seven touchdowns. He was 23 years old.

For comparison’s sake, 22-year-old Randy Moss had 80 catches, 1,413 yards, and 11 touchdowns that same year.

Germane Crowell

The Lions took a 7-2 lead, but Warner remembered that he was actually pretty good that year and went 4-of-7 on the next drive for 64 yards and a touchdown to Jeff Robinson. The lead was short-lived though and Batch found Crowell twice for a total of 40 yards on the next drive, resulting in a field goal to make it 10-9 Detroit. Warner eventually got his offense back into the red zone before halftime, but they settled for a 34-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins and the Rams led 12-10 going into the break.

This game would not be like most of the others.

After trading punts, Warner threw an interception to Lions corner Terry Fair, a 1998 first round pick whose only real career highlights may be his two kickoff return touchdowns as a rookie, his two picks against the Vikings earlier in the ‘99 season, and this interception off of the red hot Warner.

The pick setup Gus Frerotte — Batch had left the previous series with a thumb injury and he wouldn’t play again until Week 15 — at the Rams 12-yard line. Irvin fumbled on the first play but it was recovered by Crowell and three plays after that, Frerotte threw a touchdown to Cory Schlesinger. Frerotte then added a two-point conversion to Crowell to make it 18-12 midway through the third.

Gus Frerotte #12

Lots of credit has to go to Detroit’s defense on this day as Warner and Faulk weren’t really stunned by any team like this except maybe the Titans the week before. Warner was making mistakes, the offensive line was losing, and Faulk couldn’t get positive runs off.

But perhaps St. Louis still could have had a chance if Frerotte wasn’t playing like a man absolutely possessed by the ghost of Kurt Warner himself.

Batch was fine, going 10-of-20 for 148 yards and a touchdown, but Frerotte was owning the Rams defense like he’d never really owned many teams before or since. A seventh round pick in 1994, Frerotte spent five seasons in Washington and even made the Pro Bowl in 1996. In 1998, he had lost his job as starter.

To Trent Green.

His quarterbacks coach was Mike Martz.

By 1999, Green and Martz were with the Rams, Frerotte was backing up Batch on the Lions, and Green had lost his job (due to injury) to Warner. Frerotte was comfortable enough with Detroit’s offense, if not the defense that Martz’ played against in practice every day in Washington, and he fairly well dominated St. Louis’s less-heralded side of the ball in ‘99.

And the Rams still probably should have won.

Holding a 21-12 lead early in the fourth quarter, Frerotte was sacked by Grant Wistrom and Detroit punted it back to the Rams. On the fourth play, facing 3rd-and-10, Warner found Hakim for a 75-yard touchdown and they cut the lead to 21-19. Frerotte got the Lions into field goal range for a 24-19 lead, but six minutes remained for Warner to bring them back to the end zone.

Kurt Warner #13

A 33-yard defensive pass interference penalty on Bryant Westbrook — who I can never forget as being a guy who the Lions took over players such as Walter Jones and Tony Gonzalez in 1997 — was the biggest advantage on a Rams drive the ended in a 2-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Tucker, a reserve offensive lineman who played 12 seasons with the Rams and Browns and only caught this one pass. Warner found Bruce for a two-point conversion (how many games feature multiple two-point conversions?) and St. Louis led 27-24 with 2:32 remaining.

All that one of the best teams of the 90s had to do was beat a Lions team down to their backup QB and without the face of the franchise to help them ever again. That was it. But this is also why we love football. Why we love sports. Though it’s hard to appreciate it when you’re on the losing end of those moments.

Detroit’s final drive started as you may have come to expect from the Lions: Falsely. Jeff Hartings was called for a 5-yard penalty, immediately setting back Frerotte to his own 18. He found Morton for 19 yards on the next play, but then was sacked for a 14 yard loss by Kevin Carter and they were lucky that Ray Roberts recovered his ensuing fumble.

It was now 2nd-and-24 from their own 23 with Frerotte only losing a total of two yards over the next two plays, including an eight-yard sack by Farr. The Rams were a 4th-and-26 from beating the Lions and there was barely a minute on the clock. Detroit’s hope for victory couldn’t have felt much stronger than a virgin piña colada but Frerotte was about to spike it.

Or. Not spike it? He’d throw it. 57 yards to Germane Crowell.

Germaine Crowell #82

On 4th-and-26, the Lions went from their own 21 to the Rams 22. On 2nd-and-14, Frerotte did literally spike the ball, and on 3rd-and-14, Dexter McCleon was called for pass interference on Crowell, giving Detroit 1st-and-10 from the 12 and :33 seconds remaining. Frerotte-to-Morton gave the Lions the 31-27 lead and Warner’s final attempt of the game was intercepted by Ron Rice.

The Rams have now lost two in a row. Two games that they certainly must have felt like they should have won.

FINAL SCORE: Lions 31, Rams 27

Record: 6-2

Kurt Warner: 25-of-42, 305 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, 4 sacks

Marshall Faulk: 11 carries, 15 yards, 10 catches, 78 yards

Isaac Bruce: Two catches on seven targetse, 34 yards

Az-Zahir Hakim: Two catches on six targets, 94 yards, 1 TD

Sacks: D’Marco Farr (3), Kevin Carter (3), Grant Wistrom

Interceptions: Second week in a row with no picks

Gus Frerotte: 12-of-16, 209 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT, four sacks, 156.2 passer rating (second-best of career)

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Lions roar past Rams behind Frerotte”

The Detroit Lions, despite the retirement of Barry Sanders and mounting injuries, keep finding new heroes in a surprising ride to the top of the NFC.

“We proved that we are for real,” Lions safety Ron Rice said. “One of the best teams in the NFL just came in here and got beat.”

Frerotte, who completed 12 of 16 passes for 209 passes and two touchdowns, played the entire second half because Charlie Batch sprained the thumb on his throwing hand. Batch passed for 148 yards and one touchdown in the first half.

On the winning drive, the Lions went 77 yards in 10 plays, the biggest of which was a 57-yard toss to Germane Crowell in front of Rams cornerback Dexter McCleon on fourth-and-28 at the Lions’ 21.

“On fourth-and-25 or whatever it was, you just throw it up and let the guys run under it,” Frerotte said. “It looked like both of their guys fell down, and Germane was just standing there by himself.

“That was an amazing play. I just held the ball as long as I could and let it go.”

McCleon was devastated by his mistake.

“I take full responsibility,” McCleon said. “I just got caught looking back at the quarterback, and I lost sight of him. I should have been a lot deeper than I was.”

“It was all me,” McCleon said. “I should have been back there, should have broken up the play. The game should have been over.”

—-

ALSO: Teen singing stars The Backstreet Boys attended Sunday’s game and had an informal field-goal kicking contest on the field afterward. They are in town for a weekend set of concerts.

The New York Times

“The Lions Solve the Rams and Continue Their Run”

The St. Louis Rams have amazed, even terrified, the National Football League with their powerful and versatile offense. But fear only lasts so long. It takes just a short time for the rest of the league, full of innovative men, to put a team like the Rams under a microscope and pick it apart, like a scientist breaking down a virus.

That detailed exam of the Rams’ offense has led to a sharp decline in production. St. Louis scored a healthy 143 first-half points in its first six games but only 12 first-half points in its last two. And in suburban Detroit today, where the big story continues to be ‘’Barry Who?’’, the Rams again looked mortal.

And in a wild, thrilling 31-27 victory by Detroit, it was the Lions’ offense that showed it could be the best in the game. In a year of improbable stories, the Lions are among the most surprising, leaping to the top of the National Football Conference without all-world runner Barry Sanders. With a 6-2 record, the Lions are tied with the Rams for the conference’s best record.

It seemed as if there was no way the Rams would endure a two-game losing streak, especially after St. Louis took a 27-24 lead with just under three minutes remaining. The team scored because of a smart call by offensive coordinator Mike Martz. With the ball on the Detroit 2, Ram center Ryan Tucker reported as an eligible receiver, and the Lions ignored him, as most teams do in that situation. But after Tucker snapped the ball, and quarterback Kurt Warner faked a handoff to Marshall Faulk, the 305-pound lineman ran a lumbering pass pattern. Warner, who threw for 305 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, lobbed Tucker the ball. No Detroit player was within 5 yards. Warner passed to Isaac Bruce for the 2-point conversion.

There were 2 minutes 42 seconds remaining, and the situation was dire for Detroit. Quarterback Charlie Batch was on the sideline after banging his thumb on a defender’s helmet. His backup, Gus Frerotte, was at the helm, and he is most famous for injuring his neck several years ago after banging his head in celebration on a padded concrete wall while with the Washington Redskins.

‘’I’m not going to sit here and say I was excited about our chances at that point,’’ said Detroit defensive lineman James Jones. ‘’But we never doubted ourselves as a team.’’

‘’I wasn’t surprised I got behind him,’’ Crowell said of McCleon. ‘’I was running past him all day.’’

Said Lions Coach Bobby Ross: ‘’I’m not going to sit here and sound intelligent like we did this and that on that play. We just laid the ball up.’’

On third down, McCleon, who will want to incinerate this particular set of game films, was called for pass interference on Crowell. That put the ball at the Ram 12. Then Frerotte threw a wonderfully timed fade pass to Johnnie Morton for the winning score.

Detroit helped itself by studying game film of last week’s Tennessee victory over St. Louis, then stole a page from the Titans’ defensive blueprint. Last week, the Titans beat the Rams by stacking the line of scrimmage to stop Faulk and constantly blitzed Warner. Yesterday, Faulk had only 15 yards rushing on 11 attempts and Warner was under pressure all afternoon, sacked 4 times.

Meanwhile, Ron Rice is right, it is time to start taking the Lions seriously. In this strange N.F.L. season, who says they cannot have Super Bowl dreams?

Final Takeaway:

Who says the Lions cannot have Super Bowl dreams? Oof, the Lions, I’m sure.

Once the excitement of the moment passed, reality set in. I mean, think about the players again who I just mentioned for Detroit that day.

Batch and Frerotte were not going to be legitimate long-term starting options at QB for any team. Irvin and Hill (who had 11 carries for three yards as Detroit rushed 20 times for 21 yards total) didn’t have NFL futures. Injuries pretty much ended Crowell’s career in year three and he couldn’t make a roster by 27. His 163 yards was a career-high, same as mentioned before with Irvin and Stablein; three Detroit players posted a career-high receiving total on November 7, 1999 vs the best team in the NFL and Frerotte’s 13.06 yards per attempt was also a career-high. It was also the only time in his career that safety Ron Rice had 10 tackles and an interception on the same day and he also had a forced fumble.

How repeatable is that?

Ross/Vermeil

Even after this game, the Rams were 6-2 with a point differential of +147 and the Lions were 6-2 with a point differential of +34. (The Jaguars and Dolphins were both 7-1, but had worse point differentials than St. Louis and Miami’s point differential was barely better than Detroit’s.)

The Lions lost their next two (both on the road) and won their following two (both at home) before losing the final four games of 1999. Remarkably they made the playoffs as an 8-8 wild card but lost 27-13 to Washington. In that game, Frerotte was 21-of-46 vs his former team and threw two interceptions and fullback Cory Schlesinger led the team with 23 rushing yards on seven carries.

Since their 6-2 start that culminated in that amazing 31-27 win over the ‘99 Rams, the Detroit Lions went 2-6 in the second half and then after the playoff loss, didn’t make it back to the postseason until 2011. They have not won a playoff game or made it to the divisional round since 1991. Head coach Bobby Ross was fired midseason in 2000 and the team has since hired six replacements, most recently that being Matt Patricia.

In 1999, Matt Patricia was a 25-year-old defensive line coach at Amherst.

But most notably, the Lions have failed to even find an adequate running back since the retirement of Sanders. Leading rushers in the 20 years since include Hill, James Stewart, Shawn Bryson, Kevin Jones, Kevin Smith, Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, and Kerryon Johnson. They most recently drafted D’Andre Swift atop the second round to be the next player who must challenge that beast of an expectation.

It’s not like anyone’s asking Swift to be Sanders, but could he at least be something?

Barry Sanders topped 1,300 rushing yards nine times in the 90s and owns nine of the 10 best rushing seasons in Lions history. No Detroit player since Sanders has topped 1,200 yards and the most recent over 1,100 was Kevin Jones in 2004. The only Lions players to rush for 1,000 yards in this century are Stewart (2000, 2002), Jones, and Bush (2013).

Four years ago, Riddick led the team with 357 rushing yards.

This isn’t just meant to bash a franchise that is aware of it’s inability to get to the playoffs or past the first round if they do, it’s only a reminder of how easily we can be swayed in the moment. In the middle of the 1999 season, the Rams and Lions were both 6-2 and Detroit had a tiebreaker thanks to their victory over St. Louis, even doing so short-handed. The Rams too would have their struggles in the 21st century, but first came some really monumental successes.

Study the tape all day if you want to, the St. Louis Rams weren’t worried.

Up Next: Carolina Panthers