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Re-Living ‘99: The Unbearable Lyghtness of Being ... Todd

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The Greatest Show on Turf takes spotlight away from Also a Really Good Defense on Turf

Todd Lyght #41

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

The 1991 NFL Draft. Yeah, let’s start there.

The Dallas Cowboys are on the clock with the number one overall pick and while I wouldn’t necessarily call the Russell Maryland pick a “misstep,” he had the unfortunate task of following up Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith as the Cowboys three most recent number one picks. Or perhaps fortunate is the right word since Maryland did win three Super Bowl championships because of those picks.

And while Dallas had two more picks in the top 20 in 1991 (receiver Alvin Harper, defensive tackle Kelvin Pritchett), their best pick didn’t come until tackle Erik Williams as their third pick in round three. That’s not all. The Cowboys also found two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Leon Lett in round seven and their last pick, Larry Brown at 320, started nearly every game at corner as the franchise won the Super Bowl in ‘92, ‘93, and ‘95.

Even with the first overall pick, three in the first round, three in the third round, and four in the fourth round, Jerry Jones found his best defensive tackle 172 picks after Maryland and a starting cornerback after 319 players had gone off the board. Keep that lesson in mind.

With the second overall pick, Bill Belichick made safety Eric Turner a Cleveland Brown and the very first draft selection during his career as a head coach. When the Browns led the NFL in points allowed in 1994 (yes, that happened), Turner had nine interceptions and was an All-Pro. He passed away from stomach cancer in 2000 at the age of 31.

The third overall pick was cornerback Bruce Pickens, perhaps one of the least remembered busts of the 90s in spite having one of the best last names for a defensive back. (At least by me, I can only speak for my memory.)

The Atlanta Falcons wanted to pair Pickens with Deion Sanders but the rookie held out into October and barely appeared with the team that season. He played in every game in 1992 but only in a reserve role and then in 1993, he was traded along with Eric Dickerson to the Green Bay Packers. Actually, Pickens was the second player in Atlanta’s 1991 draft class who had been traded to Green Bay; the first was second round pick Brett Favre, who they shipped to the Packers the previous February.

The Falcons took Pickens with the third pick, receiver Mike Pritchard with the 13th pick, then Favre with the 33rd pick. Seems they too got the order mixed up.

The Denver Broncos had been to the Super Bowl in ‘86, ‘87, and ‘89, but the defense (under Wade Phillips) flopped in 1990 and they dropped to 5-11. With the fourth pick, the Broncos selected linebacker Mike Croel. He posted 10 sacks as a rookie and seemed to be trending upwards for a couple of years but Croel was essentially out of the league by 28. In his final season, 1996, Croel was on the Baltimore Ravens mentoring rookie linebacker Ray Lewis. The free safety on that team: Eric Turner.

Finally that brings us to the Los Angeles Rams, who hold the fifth overall pick after going 5-11 under John Robinson, his worst campaign as a head coach at that point. And I’m not sure how well known it was at the time, but the Rams were headed for a dark period due to their lack of successful drafts for quite a long stretch of time.

Since finding FIVE Pro Bowl players in 1985 (Kevin Greene, Jerry Gray, Duval Love, punter Dale Hatcher, and though he’d never play for them, Doug Flutie), the franchise failed to come away with many quality starters from 1986-1990.

  • 1986: 11 picks, only guard Tom Newberry (two All-Pro rosters) became a regular.
  • 1987: 11 picks, only safety Michael Stewart would have an immediate and long-term impact. Linebacker Larry Kelm would start 40 games from 1990-1992. 12th rounder Fred Stokes didn’t do much with the team initially, then returned in 1993 to record 9.5 sacks.
  • 1988: 14 picks, including two first rounders and three second rounders. First rounders Gaston Green and Aaron Cox fail to help Rams. Second rounder Flipper Anderson posted over 1,000 receiving yards in 1989 and 1990, leading the NFL in yards per reception each time. The other two second rounders (Anthony Newman, Fred Strickland) would only show value sparingly in their Rams careers.
  • 1989: Almost a repeat of the last year as they make 14 picks, five in the first two rounds. This time, the Flipper Anderson type might be Cleveland Gary, who scored 14 touchdowns in year two and rushed for 1,125 yards in year four, but didn’t do anything else.
  • And in 1990 they make 11 more picks. First round center Bern Brostek will stick for a little while but the class provides almost nothing else in help for the franchise.

That’s a bit of how we got to the 1991 NFL Draft and the Rams are picking fifth overall.

Los Angeles is on the clock and two defensive backs are already off the board. In fact, every pick so far has been a defensive player and the Rams are going to make it five in a row. When they’re done, the Phoenix Cardinals, who had moved from St. Louis four years earlier, would make it six straight.

The Cardinals will play into this even more in a second.

With the fifth overall pick, the Rams select cornerback Todd Lyght out of Notre Dame. He was the third secondary player taken in the top four picks but as defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher put it, Lyght was not viewed as anything but maybe the best available in the entire class.

“For the past two, three weeks we’ve been going through all the scenarios, the what-if situations,” Ram defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher said. “To be honest, Lyght’s name never really came up because we just assumed that he would be gone in that second pick to Cleveland.”

Wrong assumption. The Browns shook up the top of the draft by choosing UCLA safety Eric Turner, beginning the ripple effect that sent Lyght (6-0, 186), rated by some analysts as the best overall athlete in the draft, drifting inevitably down to the Rams.

So when Lyght suddenly dropped straight through the draft-day cracks into their laps, all the Rams could do was take him, get ready to line him up at right corner, and watch him go.

“He was, in most people’s view, rated either the second or third-best player in the draft, and to have him be there for our pick was most fortunate for us and we’re very excited about it,” Coach John Robinson said.

It was just a year earlier that the Rams had selected Lyght’s former teammate, safety Pat Terrell, with the 49th pick in the draft. The pair both joined the Irish in 1987 to play for Lou Holtz, won a national championship in 1988, and combined for 13 interceptions in 1989: eight for Lyght, five for Terrell.

Robinson and Fisher reunited the two with the idea in mind that LA’s defense could vault back to relevance after taking a dump in three of the previous four years.

That wasn’t meant to be, but Lyght was almost anything but a bad player. Or even a bad pick, as the order of selections once again proves that the term “NFL talent evaluator” is far more of an oxymoron than most are willing to admit.

With the sixth pick, the Cardinals take defensive tackle Eric Swann, a two-time Pro Bowler whose career could look even better if we had access to the same stats we do today like QB hits and tackles for a loss. But Swann, like is the case for the Cowboys and Falcons already, was not even close to Phoenix’s best pick that year.

Another example of how much of the draft is based on guessing.

After two offensive tackles went off the board (including Tennessee’s Antone Davis, a name that the Rams were using as a smokescreen in their pursuit of an elite DB), the San Diego Chargers picked another defensive back in Stanley Richard. It was such a DB-heavy year.

Four of the top nine picks played safety or corner and two more went in the first round. Then four in the second round, including the Houston Oilers picking both Mike Dumas and Darryll Lewis; the Oilers then selected another DB in round three and a fourth in round four.

All told, nine defensive backs went in the top 48 and because they were all the wrong pick compared to this guy and that’s how Aeneas Williams became the Cardinals selection near the top of round three.

A former walk-on who had no offers out of high school, Williams had played college at Southern, whose most successful alumni up to that point was Isiah Robertson, a near-Hall of Fame linebacker for the LA Rams in the ‘70s. After two years of not playing football because he didn’t feel he was good enough, Williams was encouraged by Maurice Hurst, Sr (not a senior at the time yet) to try and join the team.

Sporting News Archive Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

We give Kurt Warner plenty of attention for his story, and rightfully so, but Aeneas Williams went from being so far from football that he was simply a student at Southern University for his first two years there, then after only two years of playing for that little-known program he was on the NFL All-Rookie team after posting six interceptions.

Even the Cardinals drafted another defensive back, Dexter Davis, one round after Williams.

And while the Cards never moved back to St. Louis, both Williams and Davis would find their way there eventually.

Overall, the 1991 draft resulted in two Hall of Fame players, neither of whom were close to the prized jewel of their franchise’s draft class. That year also gave us Ricky Watters, Herman Moore, Ben Coates, Ed McCaffrey, Ted Washington, and some other very good players like Lett and Erik Williams and Michael Sinclair.

And Todd Lyght.

He would not make the Hall of Fame, nor would he even get any consideration, but Lyght recorded an interception in all 12 seasons that he played in. There are only 29 players who had longer such streaks, including Aeneas Williams, who did it in 13 straight campaigns. The height of Lyght’s 12 seasons was in 1999.

Pro Football Weekly named him first team All-NFC, the AP named him second team All-Pro.

Up to this point in Re-Living ‘99, we’ve seen Lyght intercept three passes: once against the Ravens in Week 1, once against the Falcons in Week 2, and a third against the Browns in Week 4. Two of those three teams picked a defensive back in the 1991 draft over Lyght. (Even if you said that the 1999 Cleveland Browns weren’t the same as the ‘91 team that moved to Baltimore, you’d still have to count the Ravens. How about that?)

Up next for Lyght and the 6-2 Rams would be the 1999 Carolina Panthers, whose quarterbacks coach at the time was Bill Musgrave. Which doesn’t really matter that much, even after I tell you the fact that Musgrave was a fourth round pick in that 1991 Cowboys draft class that I talked about so much, but it is still interesting to me. More than interesting if we’re talking about what Lyght did to Musgrave’s QB that day — even in the midst of his only Pro Bowl season.

After back-to-back losses, this is going to be the start of an easy road to the playoffs for Lyght and the Rams.

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 - Lions 31, Rams 27

Week 10 - Carolina Panthers at St. Louis Rams, November 14, 1999

I wrote so much about Lyght and the 1991 draft if only because there’s not going to be much needed to be said about the games from this point forward. The 1999 St. Louis Rams won 13 games and all 13 of those came by double-digits; that is the NFL-record for double-digit wins in a single season and it stands to this day.

The Rams aren’t going to lose another game this year and I’m happy to spoil that for you if you didn’t already know.

Carolina joined the NFL in 1995, the same year that the Rams relocated to St. Louis to replace the Cardinals team that had departed less than a decade earlier, and by 1996 they were in the NFC Championship game. But the Panthers fired Dom Capers after a 4-12 finish in 1998 and handed the club over to George Seifert, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the San Francisco 49ers.

In fact, Lyght’s first career interception came on November 25, 1991 in Anaheim Stadium as the Rams hosted the 49ers on Monday Night Football. San Francisco won the game 33-10 but LA got in a couple of highlight moments, including Lyght’s interception off of Steve Bono, the backup to Steve Young. The head coach that day was Seifert.

It is now eight years later and Lyght wants another highlight.

Though they’re 3-5 at this point, the Panthers must not feel hopeless. They’ve lost two of their games by two points and featured one of the more potent offenses in 1999. Not “Rams level” potent, but quarterback Steve Beuerlein would throw 36 touchdowns and they had two 1,000-yard receivers (Muhsin Muhammad, Patrick Jeffers) and tight end Wesley Walls caught 12 touchdowns himself.

On defense, the aforementioned Kevin Greene posted 12 sacks during his final campaign.

Steve Beuerlein #7

Coming off of a 33-7 win over the Eagles, I’m sure that Carolina felt good. The Greatest Show on Turf was about to make them feel ... bad.

After a 32-yard return by Pro Bowler Michael Bates, the first tackle of the game is made by Lyght. Beurlein then goes off against the defense on his first series, completing 6-of-6 attempts for 47 yards and a touchdown to Walls. The Panthers immediately lead 7-0 over a Rams team that has dropped their last two games.

If there were doubts though, I’m sure some of that was erased when Warner gained more than 47 yards on a single play.

Facing 3rd-and-10 on the ensuing drive, Warner goes to Marshall Faulk for a gain of 53 yards. On the next play, a 22-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce and it’s 7-7.

The two sides trade three-and-outs and finds themselves driving again when running back Fred Lane picks up a first down at the STL 46. Carolina is in position to re-take the lead but as Beuerlein looks up the middle to Jeffers, he instead finds Lyght, who returns it 57 yards for a touchdown. He is immediately greeted by rookie corner Dre’ Bly, a player who posted at least two interceptions in all 11 of his seasons.

St. Louis Rams v Tennessee Titans Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

This essentially puts to an end the effectiveness of Beuerlein that day. After completing his first nine passes, Lyght intercepted Beuerlein and he went 15-of-30 with two interceptions the rest of the way. He was also sacked six times.

Despite his thorough domination by the underrated Rams defense in Week 10, Beuerlein went off like a Warner Lite (or Warner Lyght?) in the final seven games of 1999: 22 touchdowns, three interceptions, 8.1 Y/A, passer rating of 111.8.

Following the pick-six, the Rams posted another quick three-and-out, getting Warner the ball back early in the second quarter. He drove 80 yards and ate up more than eight minutes of clock as St. Louis scored on a 19-yard touchdown to Roland Williams.

This is a picture of Orlando Pace:

Orlando Pace #76

Some hope for the Panthers arrives early in the second half as they trail 21-10 and force St. Louis to punt the ball back to them, but Walls fumbles on the first play of the drive and it is recovered by linebacker Mike Jones, who returns it 37 yards for a touchdown.

28-10.

Bly adds an interception in the fourth quarter (the second of his career, as Bly’s first, like Lyght’s came off of a 49ers backup QB) and Faulk scored a garbage-time 18-yard touchdown.

FINAL SCORE: Rams 35, Panthers 10

Record: 7-2

Kurt Warner: 19-of-29, 284 yards, 2 TD, 1 int

Marshall Faulk: 16 carries for 73 yards, 1 TD, two catches for 64 yards

Isaac Bruce: 5 catches, 69 yards, 1 TD

Sacks: Kevin Carter (2.5), London Fletcher, Ray Agnew, Jay Williams, D’Marco Farr (.5)

Interceptions: Lyght, Bly

Defensive Touchdowns: Lyght, Jones

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Lyght, Jones returns key big-play defense”

Back at home, the St. Louis Rams were back in playoff form.

Kurt Warner threw two touchdown passes, increasing his NFL-leading total to 26, and the Rams got defensive touchdowns from Todd Lyght and Mike Jones in a 35-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The Rams (7-2) recovered convincingly from successive excruciating losses at Tennessee and at Detroit that ended an unbeaten season.

“Our defense basically won the game for us,” said tight end Roland Williams, who caught a touchdown pass. “They were making a lot of plays and they just shined.”

Until Marshall Faulk tacked on a gratuitous 18-yard run with 1:11 to play, the offense and defense each had produced two touchdowns. The Rams got their first two-TD game from the defense since 1995.

“For a while, we were a little worried about it,” Warner joked. “When our defense goes out and gets us 14 points, we can’t complain too much.”

The Rams won their sixth straight at home, their longest streak since 1984-85. They’re 5-0 at the Trans World Dome, where they’ve quickly developed into a hot ticket and are drawing sellouts while winning by an average score of 35-10.

The game was the first of five in a row against NFC West competition and gave St. Louis a four-game lead with seven to play. The Panthers (3-6) were without running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka, who missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle, and have lost three of four.

Warner, who had thrown only 11 passes entering the season, fell one touchdown pass off the NFL record pace of Dan Marino, who had 48 in 1984. He was 19-for-29 for 286 yards and one interception, hitting Isaac Bruce for his 10th touchdown from 22 yards and Roland Williams from 19 yards.

Not that all the Panthers were impressed.

“They were about what I thought they were going to be,” said free safety Mike Minter, who had a fumble recovery. “Fourteen points on the defense, and that last one, you can’t count that.

“So that’s pretty good. They’ve been putting up 30-something points on everyone.”

Lyght’s 57-yard interception return with 15 seconds to go in the first quarter was the Rams’ biggest defensive play, giving them the lead for good at 14-7. Lyght took away the inside route from Patrick Jeffers and the pass from Steve Beuerlein, who had been 9-for-9, hit him right in the numbers.

“Just a bad play on my part,” Beuerlein said. “I’ve got nowhere else to put the blame. I threw it too quick and hit him right in the chest.”

Lyght, who has four career touchdowns, was shocked and pleased.

“When you catch the ball clean like that and get a free run to the zone, it’s always a lovely situation,” Lyght said. “We needed a big play to get it open and that was it, and after that we never looked back.”

==

Kevin Carter had 2½ of the Rams’ six sacks for the 10th multisack game of his career. He has 5½ the last two weeks, is among the league leaders with 9½ and has 11 sacks in nine career games against the Panthers.

”Our front four is, I think, as good as any,” Carter said. “We really come after you.”

Beuerlein, who had three touchdown passes last week, was effective from a statistical standpoint, going 24-for-39 for 286 yards, but with two interceptions. Walls caught a 14-yard pass for the game’s first score, and Muhsin Muhammad had nine receptions for 125 yards before leaving in the second half with injured ribs.

Final Takeaway

The 7-0 deficit early in the first quarter was the first time all season that the ‘99 Rams trailed at home. They went undefeated in the dome in 1999 with the closest game being 27-10 in Week 1 against an elite Ravens defense. It was blowout after blowout after blowout until the playoffs.

Carolina dropped to 3-6 but as mentioned, Beuerlein found unprecedented glory from there on out and the Panthers went 5-2 in the final seven games to finish at .500.

Beuerlein, Notre Dame’s quarterback up until the year before Lyght arrived, actually went 4-0 in place of Troy Aikman for the ‘91 Cowboys, even winning a playoff game against the Chicago Bears. He later had a short stint with the Cardinals (where his top receiver was Ricky Proehl), meaning he was briefly teammates with Aeneas Williams. Then came the ‘99 season, leading the NFL in completions and yards (yes, over Warner) but the offense sputtered in 2000 and his career would wind down in 2003 with the Broncos.

Jeffers caught 63 passes for 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1999 but missed all of 2000 with a torn ACL and surgery on both knees. He only caught 14 more passes in his career.

The Panthers went 7-9 in 2000, then 1-15 in 2001, resulting in the firing of Seifert and the selection of Julius Peppers in the 2002 NFL Draft. Had it not been for an expansion team in Houston though, the team may have selected quarterback David Carr instead. There was some discussion as to whether Carr, Peppers, or Joey Harrington could be the best prospect in the draft (with other reports saying that Carolina nearly took Quentin Jammer) and the Panthers had an obvious need at quarterback.

The “luck” of the Texans existing meant that the Panthers would get Peppers, an immediate Hall of Famer when he’s eligible. Even Dick Vermeil, then the former Rams coach, said he’d definitely take Peppers first overall.

As for Lyght, this was not the last interception of his season. Not even close. He made his first and only Pro Bowl in 1999, recording 72 tackles, six picks, 13 passes defensed, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. Lyght played one more year in St. Louis before signing a free agent deal with the Detroit Lions in 2001. In his first and only career game against the Rams, Lyght failed to record a tackle for the only time in his career that we know of. He had no picks or any stats of any kind as the Lions lost 35-0 on their way to a 2-14 season that helped them land Harrington.

With Lyght gone, St. Louis turned his spot over to a free agent corner who had never missed a game and was a six-time Pro Bowler done with his career in Arizona: Aeneas Williams.

Williams goes into the Hall of Fame and Lyght into the Hall of Not Bad Or Anything and had they flipped spots in the draft, what sort of difference would it have made? The Rams got a really good career from Lyght and a Super Bowl championship during his finest season.

Then they also got Williams to replace him.

Up Next: San Francisco 49ers Part II