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Re-Living ‘99: Torry Holt should be in the Hall of Fame, but his rookie season was a learning process

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That was happening in the middle of a Super Bowl season for his historic offense

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Torry Holt #88...

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

The year 1999 brought quite the paradigm shift to Torry Holt’s view of football. It’s not as though Holt was unfamiliar, immune, or uninterested in success, but when you’re the sixth overall pick in a draft, you rarely expect the team that drafted you to be in an immediate position to win the Super Bowl.

After a four-year career at NC State in which Holt experienced plenty more losses than wins, it would have been fair to assume more of the same. At least in the early years of a career in which the St. Louis Rams would build around their high draft pick.

Instead, Holt found himself as more of an “option” — and perhaps not nearly as reliable of a one at that point as some of his Pro Bowl teammates — to a quarterback and offensive game plan destined to change the NFL.

“Help” the Rams win games in ‘99? Yes, Torry Holt was doing that. But in plenty of other ways, the rookie was just trying to stay out of the way and not screw up this unbelievable streak of success they were enjoying that season.

“June, 1976” isn’t just a Grateful Dead live album, it is also the month and year that Torry Holt was born in Gibsonville, North Carolina. June 5, to be exact. It was also on June 5 of that year that the Teton Dam in Idaho collapsed upon filling up for the first time, killing 11 people, 13,000 cattle, and costing an estimated $2 billion in damages.

23 years after a dam’s failure, could Holt be a Rams savior?

First Holt was learning fundamentals and tapping into his competitive instincts in the Gibsonville Parks and Recreation league for kids. Next, he played at Eastern Guilford High and became a name to watch, catching 56 passes for 983 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. Holt was getting All-State and in some cases All-America honors but he spent his first year out of high school playing for the Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia.

It was at Hargrave, which has also been home to former NFL players such as Branden Albert, Quinton Coples, Martavis Bryant, Ahmad Brooks, Muhammad Wilkerson, and others, is where Holt says he learned to trust himself as a football player.

“That experience, learning how to be disciplined and trusting my instincts, trusting what I’ve learned, putting what I’ve learned to use,” Holt said, recalling what he took away from his time at Hargrave. “Understanding that I could learn and be sharp at it.”

He put that trust to good use once he arrived at North Carolina State, where Wolfpack head coach Mike O’Cain and offensive coordinator Jimmy Kiser moved him around and had him learn every wide receiver position.

“I appreciate them for that,” Holt said.

Holt caught 21 passes for 524 yards with Hargrave — 25 yards per catch — and moved back to North Carolina to play with NC State, a program that had gone 9-3 in 1994 and was seemingly headed in the right direction under head coach Mike O’Cain.

But the Wolfpack went 3-8 in both ‘95 and ‘96 and featured few future NFL players other than Holt and those were mostly camp bodies.

It’s interesting to read Holt praise NC State coaches for asking him to learn every position he could possibly play on offense as a receiver as I’m in the middle of the book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein. The focus is rather obvious: learn more generally and stop believing that 10,000 hours of learning one skill or one technique is the only way to succeed. And a 25-yard-per-catch receiver, while valuable in his own right, is more of a “specialist” like Robert Meachem, for example.

Holt doesn’t have a shrine dedicated to him at his old high school and isn’t in the College Football Hall of Fame for being a specialist.

Holt caught 17 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown as a freshman, then 24 passes for 415 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore. His quarterbacks were Terry Harvey, Jamie Barnette, and Jose Laureano. Barnette would grab the starting gig in 1996 and hold onto it for the rest of Holt’s tenure.

It was as a junior that Holt broke out for his first 1,000-yard season, catching 62 passes for 1,099 yards and 16 touchdowns. No other player on NC State had more than 271 receiving yards and Holt had caught 80% of their passing touchdowns. He was the whole show but defenses couldn’t stop him.

In 1998, teammate Chris Coleman would chime in for 52 catches and 876 yards, but must have benefited from all the attention that had to be paid to Holt:

88 catches for 1,604 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also threw for a touchdown.

Playing on a team that finished 7-5, Holt finished eighth in Heisman voting that year. Fifth overall pick Ricky Williams won the award, first overall pick Tim Couch finished fourth, second overall pick Donovan McNabb finished fifth, 11th overall pick Daunte Culpepper finished sixth, and seventh overall pick Champ Bailey finished seventh.

Come draft time, the Rams held the sixth overall pick and could have easily gone with Bailey as they picked cornerback Dre’ Bly in round two. They may have also been tempted by David Boston, a receiver out of Ohio State who had caught 27 touchdowns in the last two years and was two years younger than Holt. And should they have fears of the quarterback position, Culpepper and Cade McNown were on the board and soon to be drafted.

Instead they went with Holt and the immediate results were not great. Not bad — and especially not bad for a rookie — but Holt quickly went from being “reason for optimism on a 4-12 team” to being a less reliable option than teammates Isaac Bruce, Marshall Faulk, and even Az-Zahir Hakim as they started 10-2. Through his first 12 career games, these were Holt’s stats:

33 of 64 targets (51.6%), 450 yards, 4 TD, 7 yards per target, 2 fumbles

Hakim through 12 games in 1999:

28 of 43 targets (65%), 517 yards, 6 TD, 12 yards per target, 5 fumbles

Hakim is also a year younger than Holt and while the fumbles are frustrating, they were also mostly a product of his punt return muffs. Hakim had a three-touchdown game in Week 4 and at this point in the season is coming off of his first 100-yard game as a receiver, something Holt has yet to do.

Up next were the New Orleans Saints — the team that traded its entire 1999 draft and then some to move ahead of St. Louis for Williams — and Holt did like them. Just two weeks earlier, he caught 5 of 6 targets for 87 yards and two touchdowns, all career-highs at that point. Coming off of a one-catch, four-yard game against the Panther, Holt was looking for reason for optimism.

Personal optimism, at least. While he was struggling, little could cause these Rams to collapse.

So far on Re-Living ‘99:

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 - Rams 35, Panthers 10

Week 11 - Rams 23, 49ers 7

Week 12 - Rams 43, Saints 12

Week 13 - Rams 34, Panthers 21

Week 14 - St. Louis Rams at New Orleans Saints, December 12, 1999

Barely a minute into their last meeting, Kurt Warner found Holt for a 25-yard touchdown and the Rams eventually won 43-12, which you can read about if you click the link above for that game. That loss sent the Saints to 2-9 and following a 35-12 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, they were now hosting St. Louis at 2-10.

The opposite of where the Rams were now at as they had secured a division title and were looking to soon wrap up the number one seed in the NFC.

Highlights from this game are not as easy to find, this link is blocked in some countries, including the U.S.:

The less desirable, two-minute recap can be watched here:

While it is meaningful that the ‘99 Rams had the NFL’s greatest quarterback, it is also worth mentioning that they often played against some of the league’s worst. So much so that in a span of 14 days they beat two different Saints quarterbacks named “Billy Joe.”

Yes, two different Saints QBs named “Billy Joe” in two weeks.

Two weeks after a 43-12 win over Billy Joe Hobert, St. Louis was facing off against Billy Joe Tolliver, a second round pick of the San Diego Chargers in 1989 out of Texas Tech. Tolliver’s only extensive playing time came in 1990 when he threw 16 touchdowns against 16 interceptions, but by ‘99 he had started 21 games in the previous eight years total. He then got seven starts under Mike Ditka in 1999, going 1-6 and again throwing 16 interceptions.

But on fewer opportunities and with only seven touchdowns.

And yet because sports are often interesting in spite of lopsided matchups, New Orleans scored on each of their first three possessions against the Rams in Week 14 and led 14-7 with 9:09 remaining in the second quarter. Warner was fine, and had a touchdown pass to Roland Williams, but he wasn’t great yet and fumbled once already.

Then following a Tolliver interception thrown to Todd Lyght — his sixth and final of that regular season — Warner responded with three completions and the drive ended with a four-yard touchdown run by Marshall Faulk, giving the Rams a 17-14 lead late in the first half.

On the next drive, Tolliver was picked off by Dexter McCleon and on the next play Warner hit Holt for the first time all day, gaining nine yards. The drive ended with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Faulk to make the score 24-14.

The rest of the story is as good as written by that point.

On the first drive of the second half, Warner finds Holt twice for a total of 25 yards but the Saints get the ball back on their own 23 when Warner throws an interception taken out of the end zone by Fred Weary. The ensuing New Orleans series goes nowhere though and Holt had two catches for 48 yards when the Rams get the ball back.

Holt adds one more catch, a 31-yard gain in the fourth quarter, and although he fumbles it on the play he’s able to recover and the drive ends in another Jeff Wilkins field goal. Though St. Louis only scored six second half points and the game was “close” in score, it was never really close when the opponent was the ‘99 Saints.

Tolliver threw three interceptions and was sacked six times. The Saints scored 14 points immediately and their last eight drives went interception, interception, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, interception.

Holt had a career-high six catches for a career-high 113 yards. Ricky Williams had sat out both games against the Rams with injury.

For the first time in 33 years of having an NFL franchise of any sort, the city of St. Louis would host a playoff game.

FINAL SCORE: Rams 30, Saints 14

Record: 11-2

Kurt Warner: 21-of-31, 346 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack

Marshall Faulk: 29 carries for 154 yards, 1 TD, 5 of 6 targets for 56 yards, 1 TD

Isaac Bruce: 4 of 8 targets, 113 yards

Torry Holt: 6 of 9 targets, 113 yards

Sacks: Jay Williams (2), Jeff Zgonina (2), Charlie Clemons, Grant Wistrom

Interceptions: Todd Lyght, Deter McCleon, Taje Allen

Game Recap (ESPN):

“Rams juggernaut rolls over Saints”

The Rams have clinched a division title and the first postseason game in St. Louis in the 33 years the city has had an NFL team.

What more can they do?

Turns out, quite a lot.

“It’s been a fun ride,” Rams running back Marshall Faulk said after St. Louis beat the New Orleans Saints 30-14 Sunday, becoming the first team in NFL history to go undefeated in their division a year after going winless in division play.

For the second straight week, St. Louis also had a 300-yard passer in Kurt Warner, a 100-yard rusher in Faulk and two 100-yard receivers. Faulk scored two touchdowns and rushed for 154 yards.

“We have some players playing good football, and there we go from 0-8 to 8-0 and still have a shot at home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs. That’s what we’re looking for,” St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil said.

The Rams (11-2), who already have won the NFC West, have a two-game lead for clinching the best record in the NFC. They have three games to play.

Warner completed 21 of 31 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns, Isaac Bruce reached 1,000 yards receiving with four receptions for 102 yards, and Torry Holt caught six passes for 113 yards.

“We were not trying to run up the score,” Warner said. “We were just trying to run the ball up the gut and they happened not to be able to stop us. We’re not going to take a knee with five minutes left.”

For the Saints (2-11), it was another bitter Sunday, playing before a scanty crowd in the cavernous Superdome. By the end of the game, only a scattering of jeering fans remained, drowned out by a contingent wearing Rams colors and chanting for Faulk, a New Orleans native.

“I didn’t know we had so many fans down here,” Bruce said. “It had come to a point where we couldn’t beat anyone in this division. Now that’s changed a bit.”

The Saints have lost four straight games, 11 of their last 12 and are now 14-31 under coach Mike Ditka.

Ditka stormed out of his postgame news conference when the first question was if he still believed he could turn things around for the Saints.

Final Takeaway:

At the end of the season, the Saints fired Ditka after going 15-33 in three seasons and wasting the ‘99 draft on a running back. Had New Orleans stayed at pick 12, most of the sexy options may have been gone, but tackle John Tait, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, pass rusher Jevon Kearse, and center Damien Woody would all be available in that range. Ditka could have also opted to trade up instead for Holt or Bailey or Chris McCalister, but instead banked on Ricky.

Ditka won a Super Bowl in 1985, his second full season in the league. In the subsequent 10 seasons of his career, Ditka went 2-5 in the postseason and didn’t come close to the Super Bowl again.

Williams spent three seasons with the Saints, then made his first and only Pro Bowl when leading the NFL in rushing in 2002 with the Miami Dolphins.

NC State football has continued to bounce around mediocrity, enjoying their greatest success when going 11-3 in 2002 with quarterback Philip Rivers. Holt remains the school’s all-time leader in career receiving yards (3,379) and touchdowns (31) with single-season (1,604 yards, 16 TD) and single-game (15 catches, 255 yards, 5 TD) records on his resume as well. He was surpassed in career receptions by Jerricho Cotchery, who had the benefit of playing with Rivers.

When Holt got a great quarterback and found his rhythm in the NFL, he too took off.

Holt had no 100-yard efforts through 12 games, but added three by the time that year’s Super Bowl was completed. But nearly half of his rookie total came in the final quarter of the ‘99 season. By 2000, Holt had put himself in the conversation as best receiver in the NFL at that moment, leading the NFL in receiving yards and yards per catch at 19.9.

He also led the NFL in receiving with a career-high 1,696 in 2003, also catching an NFL-best 117 catches that season. Holt posted six straight 1,300-yard seasons in that span, tied for the longest such streak in NFL history. The player he is tied with: Julio Jones.

And that streak is active.

No other player in NFL history has more than four such seasons in a row.

As he celebrates Isaac Bruce’s induction into the Hall of Fame during the next go-around, Holt too will get his enshrinement into Canton. It may not come immediately, but few things do. Some things take time.

It’s not always a good thing to see everything at once. Some may even call that a “collapse.”