Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.
Remember the Oilers?
Three years after the Rams moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis, the Oilers moved from Houston to Tennessee, keeping their name for the first two seasons. The team then changed their name to the Titans and after going the expected 7-9, 8-8. 8-8. 8-8 in his first four seasons, Jeff Fisher changed the expectations people would have for him ... for decade at least.
I don’t know that the ‘99 Titans were the best team of the 90s to not win the Super Bowl, but they sure seemed to know how to handle the best team of the 90s.
Tennessee started 2-0 against a soft schedule of Cincinnati and Cleveland, but then made a huge statement with a 20-19 comeback win over the heavily favored Jacksonville Jaguars to stay undefeated. The Titans then lost on the road to San Francisco 24-22 when a two-point conversation attempt failed in the final minute, but they rebounded to win their next two as they headed into the bye week at 5-1.
Their next game would be against the undefeated St. Louis Rams, and they’d be rested. Most importantly, Steve McNair would be back.
The Titans went 4-1 behind backup Neil O’Donnell after McNair needed back surgery following Week 1 — a game in which he threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns. McNair, the third overall pick in 1995 after Ki-Jana Carter (oh dear, Cincy) and Tony Boselli, had barely played in his first two seasons and he was serviceable but not exciting during his first two seasons as an 8-8 starter.
McNair was 28th in passer rating in 1997, three behind the Rams’ Tony Banks with remarkably similar numbers at the same age, and then 16th in 1998; that’s where the two begin to separate. At that point, his fourth season, McNair was comparable to Washington’s Trent Green. But rushing gave McNair an added advantage that made him more valuable than his passing statistics alone. McNair led the NFL with 6.7 YPC in 1997 with eight touchdowns and then had 7.3 YPC and four touchdowns in 1998.
As a passer, McNair was rarely better than average. As a runner, he was effective and dangerous for his first three seasons as a starter. When that ability went away he became a bit of a better passer, sharing MVP honors with Peyton Manning in 2003, but he was perhaps never more valuable per game than in 1999.
McNair scored 20 touchdowns over 11 games and Tennessee went 9-2 in his starts. However, they also went 4-1 with O’Donnell because they were a solid team. And also a little lucky. The Titans won two games by one point and three games by three points. I’m not saying they did not deserve those wins, of course they did, but they just weren’t really dominant in anything other than ball control: second in turnovers, fourth in takeaways.
Tennessee was fifth in DVOA (third on offense, 20th on defense, 10th on special teams), seventh in scoring, 15th in points allowed, and they were so consistently “whatever” on defense. Few great days, few terrible days, but when the breaks came, the Titans had more points than their opponents and that’s all that matters.
I’m sure few people would remember that the Rams were not first on offense in DVOA that year (Washington was first, Oakland was second, Tennessee was third) and actually ranked higher on defense (third). But that’s just a made-up metric of efficiency. Points were also made up initially too I guess, but they’re the thing we care about and St. Louis was first in that and that’s all that matters.
The Titans were not flawless but they had plenty of notable “NFL 90s references” like Frank Wycheck, Eddie George, Jevon Kearse, Lorenzo Neal, Kevin Dyson, Bruce Matthews, Samari Rolle, and Al Del Greco. They also had left tackle Brad Hopkins, dad of future LA Rams tight end Brycen Hopkins.
It’s amazing to consider now that George carried the ball at least 312 times for eight straight seasons without missing a game. If a player can do that two years in a row now, I’m surprised. He had four straight Pro Bowl appearances, but never more than 4.1 yards per carry, and so he couldn’t really crack out of the “he’s pretty good” file. Like McNair, maybe no season was better than ‘99, even if he rushed for more yards and touchdowns in 2000.
Going into the bye week, George was coming off of his best game of the season, 155 yards on 28 carries against the Saints. But nobody was more ready to go than McNair.
Week 2 - BYE
Week 8 - St. Louis Rams at Tennessee Titans, October 31, 1999
It’s Halloween and things are about to get freaky for Kurt Warner and the 6-0 Rams.
Though few expected it to actually happen, Fisher said that he expected McNair to be back for the suddenly-huge showdown against the Rams on Halloween, and an hour before the game it was officially announced that he was back. The Titans had gone 4-1 with the underrated O’Donnell (who, by the way, posted records like 9-3, 9-6, 10-4, 9-3, and 8-6 during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, albeit with a couple bad years too) but there was a different energy and strategy with McNair.
As of now, I have had difficulty tracking down the full game or highlight footage of this Week 8 contest against Tennessee because anything related to these two teams in 1999 directs to the Super Bowl. If you have any clips like that, please share and I’ll add to the post.
On the first play of the game, McNair completed a 15-yard pass to Yancey Thigpen, a two-time Pro Bowler, including in 1995 with O’Donnell as his QB.
After McNair recovered his own fumble on second down, he ran for a 13-yard gain that put the Titans into St. Louis territory. Three plays later, another third down, McNair found Wycheck for 13 more yards. Then Eddie George ran for 19, putting the offense into the red zone. McNair ran for 11 more yards, then eventually hit Lorenzo Neal with a one-yard touchdown pass.
Through six games, the Rams had trailed for less than three minutes, which is when they trailed the Cincinnati Bengals 3-0 in the first quarter in Week 4. This was the first time a team had scored a touchdown against St. Louis before the Rams had scored, and they had only been averaging one touchdown allowed per game as is.
The Titans were up 7-0 almost immediately and though they required two third down pickups, the 80-yard drive was relatively easy and chewed up the first 6:32 of clock. The Rams were known then and remembered now for their offense, but the defense was arguably better and it was only the fifth time they had allowed a drive of at least 80 yards.
Still, Warner would always get his chance.
Kurt Warner completed his first three passes, but the Rams punted without moving into Tennessee territory. The defense forced an immediate 3-and-out by McNair, bringing the ball back to Warner at his own 11, and St. Louis picked up a first down on 3rd and 8 thanks to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Terry Killens. However on the next play, Warner was sacked by linebacker Joe Bowden, forcing a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Barron Wortham; two journeyman defensive players who I’ve completely forgotten about and who were out of the league by 2001 despite being productive in 1999.
On the first play following the fumble, McNair completed a 17-yard pass to George. Touchdown.
On the very next offensive play, Marshall Faulk gained 10 yards on a run to the right. Through their first three drives, we saw what made St. Louis so great that year, but we also saw how no team is immune from mistakes. On the next play, Warner fumbled again and the ball was again recovered by Wortham; a player credited with seven fumble recoveries over seven seasons, Wortham had two off of Kurt Warner in a matter of one minute and one second.
Starting at the Rams 26, McNair went to Dyson for 16 yards, then ran up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown.
21-0. The 21 first quarter points tied a franchise record set in 1961 when the team was in New York. It was only the second quarter all season in which the Rams had failed to score a point, but it wouldn’t be the last.
The Titans were doing to the Rams what the Rams had been doing to everyone else and the Titans were 5-1 already. St. Louis was the story of 1999 but the first quarter of Week 8 is a key reminder of how differently history could have viewed these two teams with slight tweaks here and there.
But it still came down to those two fumbles by Warner more than anything else.
Regardless, McNair had scored three touchdowns in less than 15 minutes and this all came within two hours of uncertainty that he’d be able to return that day from back surgery. And he was doing it against maybe the best six-game start we’ve ever seen.
On the very next drive, Warner was sacked by Jevon Kearse on 3rd and 10 and he fumbled for a third time. This one was recovered by teammate Roland Williams however and the Rams punted it back to Tennessee.
There was no scoring in the second quarter and when the Rams ran their third play of the day in Titans territory, Warner was sacked for a loss of 13, putting them back at midfield. With 1:07 remaining in the half, Warner had a 22-yard run, the longest of his career at that point and the second-longest of his career when it was all over. That put them into field goal territory but then he was sacked by Blaine Bishop for a loss of seven. Eventually Jeff Wilkins did miss a 54-yarder, the Rams only real scoring opportunity of the half.
But the second half was a fresh start.
On the first play of the third quarter, Warner’s pass to Torry Holt fell incomplete. On the next play, he found Faulk and 57 yards later, the Rams were on the board.
The St. Louis defense contained McNair on the next drive and the Rams got it back on their own 41. The longest play of that drive was 21 yards to Isaac Bruce and it ended with a 3-yard touchdown to Bruce.
After Al Del Greco was good from 27 (with a 34-yarder to Thigpen on the drive to set it up), the Titans extended the lead back to double digits. The Tennessee defense continued to stifle Warner and Faulk in ways that no other team even came close to and when the Rams got the ball at their own 20 with 7:15 remaining, it was still 24-14.
Mixing in yet another sack and fumble (Williams recovered that one too), Warner completed passes to Holt, Ricky Proehl, Az-Zahir Hakim, Faulk, then Proehl, Hakim, Faulk again, before finishing the drive with a 15-yard touchdown to Amp Lee — a player who I can’t imagine will be mentioned again in this series, but was on the 1992 NFL All-Rookie team, if that’s a thing you’ve ever really heard of or cared about before.
Then came the thing that you so rarely are able to see today, for better or worse.
Down 24-21 with only 2:20 remaining and no timeouts, Wilkins attempted an onside kick that was recovered by Rams reserve linebacker/incredible football movie script name Lorenzo Styles, a former third round pick of the Falcons out of Ohio State whose son Lorenzo Styles Jr is a top-ranked receiver committed to Notre Dame.
Warner now had the ball, 2:14 on the clock, the two-minute warning, and following a Fred Miller false start, 63 yards to victory. At the very least, maybe 30 yards to overtime.
He went to Faulk for four yards; Holt for 15; Faulk for 5; Hakim for 15; Hakim for 5; and Proehl for 4. (He also had three incomplete passes.) By the end, he got the Rams to the Tennessee 20 with :22 remaining and 4th-and-1. The ‘99 Titans will be remembered for falling one yard short, but the ‘99 Rams may have been one yard shy of beating them in the regular season if Warner could run one or two more plays. Instead they settled for a 38-yard field goal by Wilkins to send it to overtime.
Wilkins was wide right. Some wanted a flag for running into the kicker, but it was deemed that Killens got blocked into him.
FINAL SCORE: Titans 24, Rams 21
Kurt Warner: 29-of-46, 328 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 6 sacks, three fumbles, two lost
Marshall Faulk: 16 carries for 90 yards, six catches, 94 yards, 1 TD
Leading Receiver: Faulk
Isaac Bruce: six catches, 53 yards, 1 TD
Sacks: Kevin Carter
Interceptions: First game of season with no interceptions
Game Recap (ESPN):
“Slow start dooms Rams in clash of Titans”
Quick starts had made the St. Louis Rams the NFL’s last undefeated team. On Sunday, they couldn’t get going fast enough.
Steve McNair, playing his first game in six weeks following back surgery, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as the Tennessee Titans held on for a 24-21 victory over the Rams in an unlikely clash of this year’s NFL powers.
The Titans (6-1) outscored the Rams 21-0 in the first 14 minutes, more points than St. Louis (6-1) had given up in any game this season.
“We wanted to see how they would react being down,” Titans safety Blaine Bishop said. “They hadn’t been down all year, blowing everybody out. They came back out fighting in the second half. Hats off to them. They came back, but we did enough to win.”
“We didn’t play very smart,” Rams coach Dick Vermeil said.
The Rams had outscored opponents 66-9 in the first quarter this season, but Tennessee jumped on St. Louis from the opening possession. McNair, who wasn’t named the starter until an hour before kickoff, moved the Titans 80 yards and capped the drive with a 1-yard toss to Lorenzo Neal.
Then it fell apart for St. Louis, a team that had trailed only once this season and then for less than three minutes.
St. Louis, which hadn’t given up more than 20 points in a game this season, had trouble regrouping before a very loud crowd of 66,415, the largest in Titans history. The fans were on their feet and cheering throughout the first quarter and most of the fourth as the Rams rallied.
The Rams had tried to get electronic earplugs for their players, but that was rejected by the NFL. Vermeil credited the fans with having a big effect.
“Usually the loud crowds are in our favor, so obviously we didn’t handle the situation very well,” he said.
Coach Jeff Fisher awarded a game ball to the fans for their support, something Tennessee lacked the last two seasons with the worst attendance in the NFL. His players agreed.
“If coach Fisher hadn’t given them a game ball, I would have,” McNair said.
“It may have been a shock to a lot of people that the big game of Week 8 was the Titans and the Rams,” Rams tackle D’Marco Farr said. “It lived up to its hype.”
We learn that the Rams are not perfect! And the Titans, though I would say not even really close to even being the second-best team in the league that year, are able to put together enough opportunities to end up with more points even though they were a 38-yard field goal (and a 54-yard field goal missed earlier) from going to OT or maybe losing. This was still a St. Louis team that hadn’t come close to losing in any of their first six games and they had played some good teams, like the Baltimore Ravens.
But also, in spite of seven drives ending in a punt, three drives ending in a fumble, and two drives ending in a missed field goal, the St. Louis Rams came within a single short field goal of potentially beating a team that would go on to win the AFC. After going up 21-0 in the first quarter, the Titans went punt-punt-punt-punt-punt-field goal-punt-punt-punt.
The best team here is the Rams. The best team that day was the Titans, who would go on to lose to the Miami Dolphins the next week, 17-0.