Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.
This may be the longest article I’ve ever written and the focus if general NFL and college football over specifically the Rams in this case. I felt a warning was necessary, then the reader can choose how best to navigate it — if you choose to accept that challenge at all.
One of the concepts we’re sold in life is that rules create order and serve as a baseline that keeps things “fair” and “balanced” regardless of who is abiding by those rules. Specifically applied to sports and you’d think that this would mean that whether you’re playing in America or Croatia, whether it’s 1955 or 2255, the game is essentially the same.
That would make logical sense and yet when given the context of our knowledge base on sports, we know that this is not true.
Is playing a game of chess today the same as it was 1000 years ago? 500 years ago? 100 years ago? 10 years ago? I know nothing of chess but at the chess.com forum, comments laugh off the notion that the grand masters of a century ago could compete at the same level today. The rules are the same but what changes is how humans react to the game as we continuously learn more.
It’s the element that Watson or Deep Blue or any other artificial intelligence is missing. Even if you lose a game of chess to Deep Blue, you should at least know why you lost and then you can adjust in the future.
We also know that football is not the same today as it was in 1955 or 1975 or 2005. Did the rules change? Yes. But often the reason that rules change is because leagues have to adjust in reaction to the human element.
Bask and Ye Shall Receive
There was no rule against lining up a halfback or a tight end (then simply known as an “end”) way off tackle and when Don Hutson of the Green Bay Packers started playing wide he dominated the NFL.
Hutson led the league in receiving yards in 1936, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1944. In the beginning he led the league with 536 yards but by 1942 he had to put up 1,211 to stay ahead of the competition. Well, he didn’t have to: second-place Ray McLean was over 600 yards behind him and Hutson had more than twice as many touchdown catches as any other player.
But the rest of the league knew that with the same exact rules in place, the game was changing. With Hutson leading the team in receiving yards every year from 1935 to 1945, the Packers won three NFL championships. In his final season, Hutson led the league in receptions at 47, but his 834 yards was more than 200 behind the new NFL leader, Jim Benton of the Cleveland Rams, who had 45 catches for 1,067 yards and eight touchdowns.
Don’t let people perpetuate the myth that long passing plays are some recent development, Benton averaged 23.7 yards per catch with the Rams that year and they won their first and only championship in Cleveland.
The team moved to Los Angeles in 1946, the first professional sports team in the western half of the United States, and Benton led the NFL in catches and yards.
By 1948, Tom Fears had become the Rams premier end, leading the league in catches in ‘48, ‘49, and ‘50, when he also led the league in yards with 1,116. Los Angeles went to the championship game in all three seasons, winning in ‘50 when Fears was a first team all-pro.
Up until 1939, there had never been a player with an 800-yard season. Then Hutson came along and in ‘42, he posted the first 1,000-yard season. By the end of the decade, Benton, Fears, Bob Mann, and Mac Speedie, a Hall of Famer who four times led the league in receptions and a winner of five straight championships, had joined him on that list.
There were only ten 1,000-yard seasons in the fifties, then suddenly bam: five 1,000-yard seasons in 1960 alone.
The NFL’s leading receiver that year was Bill Groman of the Houston Oilers with 1,473 yards and they too won the championship, their first as an organization. They won it again in 1961 with Groman catching 17 touchdowns. The NFL record holder for yards in a season at that point was Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, another Rams great and another player who won the championship — in this case 1951 over the Browns — when he was the league’s best receiver.
Imagine if we talked about receivers today the way we could talk about them as it relates to pre-Super Bowl football. Yes, the quarterbacks had to get them the ball but we now see countless receivers put up ridiculous yardage on terrible teams that are simply chucking the ball as much as they can while facing huge deficits.
DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald. There are plenty of modern day elites who either played for the worst teams or who have experienced little postseason success.
The rules of the NFL have changed considerably when compared to 1950 but these are all reactions to genius coaches and gifted players who took advantage of the previous rules in order to gain a competitive advantage. And even with those rule changes, how much different is the game really?
Is it not a 100-yard field?
Is it not six points for a touchdown?
Is it not three points for a field goal?
It is not 11 players on offense and 11 players on defense?
You wouldn’t imagine that something like a two-point conversion (finally adopted by the NFL in 1994 after decades of existence in other leagues) or overtime (1974 for the regular season) or replay (1999) would have a significant impact on the basics of the game and I’d argue that they and most rules do not. The game is the same. There’s nothing preventing a team from running a style that is 50 years old and some say that the Seattle Seahawks are doing just that.
But man is the game different from decades ago to now. In fact the game is also remarkably different from the college level to the NFL. And you can’t tell me that the only reason for that is because they do a different overtime and only need one foot in bounds for a catch.
I am open to changing that opinion if I see other examples of how rules dramatically alter how college coaches prepare for games as compared to NFL counterparts, but the more likely reason is simply the talent pool. When you condense 3-percent of the college talent pool into another league, you get a different game.
And it’s not even really the “top 3-percent” of that talent pool either.
These aren’t the top-3 percent of NCAA players. These are the 3-percent who make the most sense for professional football. Most of the top 3-percent of college players as it relates to their college production won’t even get drafted and many won’t see an NFL roster in their lives after college.
How many players in this highlight reel of the 2014 college football season would you recognize as pro players? Not many.
If the sport was truly the same at the college and pro level, surely this would not be the case.
Heismen of a Certain Age
Imagine if every year all the medical schools got together and gave a “Hippocratic Trophy” (the Heisman equivalent) to the top med school student in the country. I mean, who among us doesn’t know the name Rick Van Besien at this point, right? We’re all standing around our virtual watercoolers talking about, “Hey, did you see that slice by Van Besien on a patient yesterday” and “Damn, I hope I get Van Besien at the top of my Fantasy Physicians draft!”
You know, Rick Van Besien.
What? You don’t know about the winner of the Balder Scholarship Award for Outstanding Academic Achievement in 2019? Wow. Uhhh, okay, I guess I’ll continue writing anyway.
Well, imagine if Van Besien wasn’t just not the first pick in the 2020 MBA Draft but also didn’t even get a residency. Imagine if they told Van Besien that he was so good as a medical student but maybe he’d be better suited for eastern medicine or medical commentary with ESPN, MD or maybe he’s a two-field student and has a higher ceiling in law.
What if these are not the world’s future doctors, but the world’s future filmmakers, baristas, Enterprise agents, and NFL players:
That’s basically what happens to the Heisman and many Heisman candidates every single year. The best players in college football often get barely more than a summer or two of trying out for an NFL team.
Three of the first four Heisman winners in this century were Chris Weinke, Eric Crouch, and Jason White, and there were few chances for any of them to throw a pass in the pros. Then you had Matt Leinart, no match for NFL defenses, in 2004, Reggie Bush in 2005, Troy Smith in 2006, and Tim Tebow in 2007. While Bush had his moments, the only standout among the winners from 2000-2007 was Carson Palmer.
Then Sam Bradford won and Rams fans are well enough aware of that situation, followed by Mark Ingram and Cam Newton. Good NFL players and yes, an MVP winner, but a realistic view of the Cam situation is that for a very short period of time the style that led him to success for one year at Auburn also worked with the Panthers.
The winners from 2011-2014 (Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston) are either out of the league or backups. After them came Derrick Henry, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and now Joe Burrow.
Each of those most recent four quarterbacks will in their own way test out the theories of the spread offense, air raid, and how they’ll translate to the NFL. Were it not for the college game and how it is designed, how diluted the talent pool is, some of these quarterbacks would not have the type of abilities that translate to the pros.
We’ve seen the good and the bad of Mayfield. We’ve seen a glimpse of Murray. We’ve seen more than a glimpse of what “Louisville Lamar” could potentially look like as “Balti-Lamar” with much of the same potency as he had in college.
But will it last?
And these are just the winners. Since 2010, players to finish in the top-10 of Heisman voting include LaMichael James, Kellen Moore, Denard Robinson, Ryan Mallett, Owen Marecic, Case Keenum, Manti Te’o, Collin Klein, Marqise Lee, Braxton Miller, Tavon Austin, Jarvis Jones, A.J. McCarron and you know what I’ll just stop there in 2013. You get it.
The games at the college and NFL are so different but what if they weren’t? What would the league have looked like in 1999 if the college game and the pro game were as cohesive as Oreo cookies and Oreo creme laid out like a chessboard?
Mid-90s Running Backs
Let’s jump back again but this time only to 1994 and one of the most interesting Heisman and national championship races of the decade.
It’s Week 1 and the third-ranked team in the country is Florida State, the reigning national champions who had to replace Heisman-winning quarterback and future New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward, the “Van Besien as a lawyer” of the sport.
Ranked first is Florida, quarterbacked by future Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel, but they’re knocked off the perch with a three-point loss to sixth-ranked Auburn that drops them to 5-1.
The Gators went 5-1-1 the rest of the way with their only non-wins coming against the Seminoles, a team that never recovered in the polls from a Week 5 loss to 13th-ranked Miami. Florida State had a decent season from junior Danny Kanell, but he’d play even better in ‘95 and then was a fourth round pick of the New York Giants.
But the dominant teams of that season were somewhat lurking in the shadows: Nebraska, ranked fourth to open the year, Colorado, ranked eighth, and Penn State, ranked ninth.
10/29/94 - A day in college football we mostly forgot
Headed into the games of October 29, 1994, Penn State was 6-0 and ranked first. Colorado was 7-0 and ranked second. Nebraska was 8-0, ranked third. The premier game of October 29 and maybe of that season:
Colorado at Nebraska.
In the first seven games of the year, the Buffs had beaten five ranked teams, including number four Michigan and number 10 Wisconsin. They had blown out the Badgers and had convincing wins over Oklahoma and K-State too. The Cornhuskers had a weaker resume but the defense had allowed only 16 points in the previous three games combined.
Ranked first and notching a 63-14 win over 21st-ranked Ohio State, you’d think that the Nittany Lions would’ve had nothing to worry about in regards to Colorado-Nebraska. One of them would win, but then also one of them would lose. Hell, maybe they’d tie and send ‘em each out of the national championship picture.
Instead, Penn State took a beating in the polls even after laying a beating on one of the country’s top programs. Why?
I guess because Nebraska had a great defense and a great opportunity, at home, to stop one of the most dynamic and exciting and valuable players in college football that year: Kordell Stewart.
Of course, “Slash” found a bit of success with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but nothing like the appetite to cause disaster that he had with the Buffs.
Against the Huskers, Stewart was 12-of-28 for 150 yards and rushed for only 24. He was neutralized that day but not everyone on his team was, especially not the most valuable player on Colorado. And maybe in all of college football.
Running back Rashaan Salaam still managed 22 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown, Colorado’s only score of the day as they fell behind 24-0 and lost 24-7. Nebraska snuffed out pre-game hype and easily won even though their star tailback — Lawrence Phillips — was held to 86 yards on 25 carries, ending a streak of eight-straight 100-yard games.
When the polls came out the following week, Nebraska was ranked first, Penn State was ranked second, and Colorado was seventh, but by the end of the year they’d be third.
In the last four weeks, the Cornhuskers went undefeated and beat Miami 24-17 in the Orange Bowl. Colorado went undefeated and won each game by at least 14 points, including a 41-24 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. And Penn State went 5-0, including a 38-20 win over 12th-ranked Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Final rankings: Nebraska is the national champion.
Penn State is the runner up. Both are undefeated. No split. And it certainly wasn’t for lack of talent as the Nittany Lions featured two players in the top-four of Heisman voting that year and two of the top five draft picks in the 1994 NFL Draft.
Those were the same two players of course and they are probably still wondering where the love was for that undefeated 1994 season.
The winner of the Heisman was Salaam, who carried it 298 times for 2,055 yards, 6.9 yards per carry and 24 touchdowns. He got 400 first place votes, well more than second place and easily securing for him a non-controversial Heisman race. However, there were more than a few people — maybe even the majority — who knew that Salaam was not on the same level as Ki-Jana Carter.
Maybe fewer than 10 running backs in college history were on the level of Penn State’s Carter.
It may be that without injuries, Carter’s dominance in college would’ve carried over to the NFL, but the end result is that it didn’t. Not even his lack of extensive playing time managed to save his body from an early-career injury that stopped him in his stripes. Carter had 42 carries for 264 yards as a freshman, then 155 for 1,026 (6.6 YPC) as a sophomore with the 10-2 Nittany Lions under Joe Paterno.
Salaam had 100 more opportunities on the ground during their respective junior seasons and that’s the only reason he rushed for 2,000 yards and Carter didn’t. Had Paterno been selfish with his star back and not pulled him from the second half of games, he likely could have surpassed Salaam and won the Heisman.
And maybe that would’ve even done something to change the opinions of national championship voters when that season had ended.
Instead, Carter finished with 198 carries for 1,539 yards, 7.8 yards per carry, and 23 touchdowns. Carter averaged nearly one more yard per carry than Salaam and could’ve probably scored 30+ times if Paterno had given him the ball more.
Yes, he had Barry Sanders level potential.
But Paterno didn’t only have a star running back as quarterback Kerry Collins finished fourth in the Heisman race — stealing votes from his running back teammate — and would soon be a top-five draft pick.
The pair had come up together under Paterno and when the 1995 NFL Draft came, they’d essentially be traded for each other too.
Phillips rushed for 1,722 yards, 16 touchdowns, and finished eighth in Heisman voting for Nebraska while teammate Zach Wiegert, an offensive lineman responsible for blocking for Phillips, finished 10th.
Now imagine if football at the college and NFL level was actually similar enough to foretell who would become successful for the ten years after they had won or nearly won the Heisman. The stars of the ‘94 draft would’ve been the top-three players in the Heisman race in ‘93: Charlie Ward, Heath Shuler, and David Palmer. All had more first place votes than Marshall Faulk, who finished fourth. He barely finished ahead of running back LeShon Johnson, who had more yards and more yards per carry that year.
Of course, then the future of the NFL from 1994 would be Ki-Jana Carter, Rashaan Salaam, Kerry Collins, and Lawrence Phillips. Running backs would be as much of a part of a team’s rebuilding plan as quarterbacks, if not more so. And we do know that the game was once like this.
Without needing rules changes, we know that the league is no longer like this. And try as the Bengals might to keep things the same, evolution waits for no cat.
Welcome to the Bungle
While many are wondering what the 2021 draft might look like if the NFL and/or college seasons are cancelled or postponed, ‘95 also presented the league with a bunch of unique challenges to address because a lot was happening.
The Raiders were moving from LA to Oakland, the Rams were moving from LA to St. Louis, and the league was welcoming two Southeastern teams to the fold with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
After the Jaguars received the first pick in the expansion draft and selected quarterback Steve Beuerlein — yes, the future starter of the other expansion team — the Panthers were awarded the first pick in the ‘95 draft, while Jacksonville would be second.
I am absolutely here for Steve Beuerlein still being bitter about getting benched by the Jaguars in 1995.— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) October 22, 2017
The expansion draft had few future impact starters in it but each team was given two picks per round in the real draft in an effort to boost their ability to get on track with the rest of the league. Twenty years later, former Carolina GM Bill Polian gave himself a “B+” for the 1995 NFL Draft, but I’d call that quite generous.
“I’d give it a B-plus. Anytime you get six starters out of the draft, you are doing pretty well.”
Those six started for varying amounts of time for Carolina ... They were Collins, cornerback Tyrone Poole, offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer, (Shawn) King, center/guard Frank Garcia and safety Chad Cota.
First of all, the Panthers lost two of their extra late round picks because of tampering charges for the hiring of head coach Dom Capers, who at the time was still working for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Second of all, no team had more buying power in the ‘95 draft than the Panthers and yet his evaluation that he came away with “five or six starters” is not quite the impressive number that it would be for some other organizations at other times. Again, Carolina was given two picks per round and ultimately had three first round draft picks, and yet out of 11 players they found only one Pro Bowl player, five guys who played in four or fewer NFL games, and all but one would be gone from Carolina in less than four years.
There’s also the simple fact that the Panthers didn’t exactly have a ton of notable veterans standing in the way of this draft class. Somebody had to start.
Polian, a Hall of Famer now who helped build the Buffalo Bills into a team that went to four straight Super Bowls, isn’t grading himself on a curve.
With the first overall pick there were only two players on Polian’s mind if he had stayed put: Penn State quarterback Kerry Collins or Alcorn State quarterback Steve McNair, who had finished third in Heisman voting in 1994. Poilan’s Bills centered the offense around Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, but he wasn’t that interested in Ki-Jana Carter, who many were comparing to the all-time greats going into the draft:
One play could sum up Ki-Jana Carter’s 1994 season at Penn State University. No, one step. On the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage in the 1995 Rose Bowl against Oregon, a stumbling Carter ran over an unblocked Herman O’Berry, was turned perpendicular to the line, and in a shuffle and one step – one – Oregon was left reaching at contrails.
“He could make a great cut and then sidestep in the hole and accelerate quickly,” said former Oregon head coach Rich Brooks. “He was so thick. And it showed it on that very first play.
“Then it was Katy-bar-the-door and we’re done.”
Carter’s 156-yard, three-touchdown MVP performance in Penn State’s 38-20 Rose Bowl victory was the cap on a 1994 season in which he ran 198 times for 1,539 yards, good for 7.8 yards per carry.
“He was powerful,” said Marlon Kerner, a Columbus native and Ohio State alumnus who played against Carter in high school, college and then in the NFL as a Buffalo Bills defensive back. “Kind of like – I don’t like to compare people – but everybody talk about Bo Jackson, like when you hit him and how he was so hard to bring down.”
The name Barry Sanders wasn’t just tossed around by bloggers who weren’t on the internet that didn’t quite exist yet, it was also used by people who knew Sanders, like former Lions vice president Michael Huyghue, who by ‘95 had joined the Jaguars organization and had the number two pick.
“He had that Barry Sanders sort of lateral movement,” said Michael Huyghue, the vice president of football operations for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995. “I just spent two years watching that every day in practice (in Detroit) and that’s what he reminded me of in some measure.”
But nobody saw more in Carter than the Cincinnati Bengals, coming off of 3-13 season under head coach David Shula, who previously to joining the Bengals had overseen a rookie running back in Dallas named Emmitt Smith. Others in the Cincy organization saw an even higher ceiling than Smith:
Added Bengals president Mike Brown: “He was the Barry Sanders of his year in college. He had quickness, acceleration, balance. He was an exciting player.”
Former Bengals director of football operations Jim Lippincott told The Enquirer about a scouting report on Carter he received from Sid Hall of the New York Jets.
“I’ve watched (Walter) Payton, O.J. (Simpson), (Barry) Sanders,” Hall told Lippincott. “All those guys were great, but Ki-Jana was better than great. He was special.”
Polian didn’t care that much for Carter though and clearly saw his opportunity to take advantage of what he seemed to see as an overrated prospect. Which is smart and few would argue that Polian didn’t do better with his first pick than he would’ve done with Carter.
He was ready to deal but did he get enough?
“Ki-Jana Carter was kind of the poster boy of that draft, but we were not all that high on him. We were able to move back with Cincinnati, which wanted to go up to take Ki-Jana. We kind of had a hunch McNair wouldn’t last until No. 5, but we were happy with Kerry, obviously.”
Four years before the New Orleans Saints traded a 1, 1, 3, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 for a running back at fifth overall, the Bengals moved picks five and 36 to leap up to one for Carter. Carolina, having never even played a game in the NFL, now had picks five, 32, 34, and 36. Four of the top 36 picks.
One year after taking defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson over Faulk with the top pick, Cincinnati traded up to first overall and the 1995 NFL Draft was underway:
1. Bengals - Ki-Jana Carter, RB
2. Jaguars - Tony Boselli, OT
3. Oilers - Steve McNair, QB
4. Washington - Michael Westbrook, WR
Taking themselves out of the equation for one, Carolina lost out of Carter, tackle Tony Boselli, McNair, and receiver Michael Westbrook, who had starred as Stewart’s top threat at Colorado. Back on the board, Polian selected his QBOTF with Collins, one spot ahead of the St. Louis Rams selection of pass rusher Kevin Carter, who I wrote about when the Rams last played the Panthers.
Polian’s B+ grade didn’t get too much of a self-downgrade from the fact that he ended up with Collins instead of Boselli or McNair, or that when he did trade down, he passed on Carter, Joey Galloway, Kyle Brady (another offensive player from Penn State), Warren Sapp, Ruben Brown, and Hugh Douglas.
I’ll get to Collins momentarily, but I can already sense the arguments for why it was a good pick and some of them surely have merit. I also think all of those players had better careers.
Now maybe feeling anxious, Polian made another trade, this time in the other direction. He sent picks 32, 65, and 173 to Green Bay so he could move up for cornerback Tyrone Poole at 22, also getting pick 188 in return.
Poole, selected one spot ahead of Hall of Fame corner Ty Law, played three seasons with the Panthers before moving to the Colts in 1998 — the same year that Polian went there once Carolina started heading in the wrong direction.
Anxious again, Polian made another deal, this time sending picks 34, 98, and 100 to the Chargers in exchange for pick 29. After the Buccaneers selected Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks with pick 28, Polian selected tackle Blake Brockermeyer, who spent four seasons with the Panthers before joining the Bears in 1999.
And at pick 36, the selection acquired in the Ki-Jana deal, Polian picked defensive end Shawn King, who posted seven sacks in three years with Carolina.
B+, he says.
And despite the fact that the 1995 draft will be remembered for the star college running back at pick one who never succeeded at the next level, there were two Hall of Fame running backs that year. One was Curtis Martin, who missed almost all of his final season at Pitt, as a third round pick. The other was Terrell Davis, a sixth rounder who started his college career at Long Beach State and who rushed for 445 yards as a senior at Georgia.
Predictions, they say.
Two of the top five and three of the top nine picks in the 1995 NFL Draft not only played on the same college team, but on the same offense, and yet the best of those three was Brady. Though Collins made two Pro Bowls, including during his second season in the league, it’d be hard for Polian or anyone else in the Panthers organization to brag that they “won” the draft based on the idea that they avoided Ki-Jana Carter and added a second round pick in the process.
Opening the season with veteran and former Bills hero Frank Reich, another pal of Polian’s, the Panthers started 0-3 and he was terrible, completing 44% of his attempts. In Weeks 2-3, Reich went 14-of-40 for 112 yards and two interceptions, good for a passer rating of 22.9.
In Week 3 against the Rams, Reich was replaced by longtime Colts backup Jack Trudeau, who went 11-of-17 with three interceptions. They had to go to Collins, who had gone 0-of-2 in his NFL debut a week earlier. This time, 7-of-11, 45 yards, one interception, one rushing touchdown.
Collins would start the rest of the way, going a surprising 7-6 and completing 49.4% of his passes with 19 interceptions and a rating of 61.9.
The next year, the Panthers signed Beuerlein to backup Collins and after balking at Carter, drafted Michigan running back Tim Biakabutuka with the eighth overall pick. Better than that, Polian found receiver Muhsin Muhammad in the second round and Collins now had a weapon. Collins wasn’t necessarily outstanding, but the 24-year-old was named to the Pro Bowl after throwing 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 12-4 Carolina team that boasted one of the best pass defenses in the league.
They lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship game but the Panthers seemed on a path to stunningly immediate success.
Until they didn’t.
Muhammad struggled in his two seasons with Collins and in 1997, the team went 7-9 with Beuerlein eventually winning the job over a player seven years his junior. Collins returned to the starting role in 1998 but after an 0-4 start asked to be traded because “I don’t feel like I can play right now.” The team couldn’t find a trade so they waived him and went back to Beuerlein, who led the NFL in passing yards in 1999.
Collins was picked up by Mike Ditka’s Saints — months before “the trade” — and went 2-5 as the starter, splitting time with Billy Joe Tolliver, Billy Joe Hobert, and Danny Wuerffel.
Then in ‘99, Collins went to the New York Giants, a team that had gone 10-5-1 under head coach Jim Fassel and quarterback Danny Kanell. The Giants went 8-8 in 1998 but 5-1 with quarterback Kent Graham, a person that nobody in the world — not even Kent Graham — has heard of until I wrote this sentence. Graham, an eighth rounder in 1992, split time in college between Notre Dame and Ohio State and rarely played.
Now he was getting his shot with the Giants from the jump in ‘99, starting seven of the first eight games and helping New York go 5-2 in those contests. But his final effort that season came in a 23-13 loss to Washington in which he went 3-of-10 for 36 yards and two interceptions. In came Collins, who went 13-of-21 for 221 yards against Football Team and kept the game close until the final minutes.
After throwing three picks in a loss to Arizona the following Week, Collins threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Jets, then helped New York get another win, this time over the Bills.
It’s now Week 15 and at 7-6, the Giants aren’t out of the playoff race. The good news is that they’re feeling fine.
The bad news is that their next game is at the red hot Rams, who at the time were also indirectly benefiting from a bad draft move by the Bengals: They passed on Marshall Faulk in ‘94 and he went to the Colts, who subsequently traded him to St. Louis one year after it was apparent that Lawrence Phillips — drafted 6th overall in 1996, two picks ahead of Biakabutuku — wasn’t going to work out.
How did the Rams acquire the pick for Phillips? They dealt defensive tackle Sean Gilbert to Washington for a first rounder, who eventually spent 1998-2002 with the Panthers.
Long story short, that’s how Penn State teammates Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins wound up on the Bengals and Panthers, rather than on the Panthers and Bengals.
Or should I say, err, the Giants.
So far on Re-Living ‘99:
Week 2 - BYE
Week 15 - New York Giants at St. Louis Rams, December 19, 1999
Coming off of a 19-17 win over a Buffalo Bills team that had arguably the best defense in the NFL, I’m sure Collins and Fassel were hopeful about getting to 8-6, even against the NFL’s most exciting team of that and most other seasons. At the end of this ESPN highlight of the game, Tom Jackson says that the Rams are one of the “fastest” teams the league has ever seen.
Although this game got off to a relatively slow start for Kurt Warner and Dick Vermeil. Relatively slow. For the ‘99 Rams.
St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins makes it 3-0 on a 47-yard attempt after his 50-yard attempt on the first drive was no good. The Rams couldn’t get past the 25 on either series but a bad punt by New York’s Brad Maynard sets up Warner at his own 41. Seven plays later, he hits Az-Zahir Hakim for a touchdown in the back of the end zone that would’ve been “no good” in today’s NFL because it came prior to being allowed to push a player out of bounds as he’s coming down with the ball.
But in 1999 it was 10-0.
Collins can get the offense nowhere and now Maynard punts it 30 yards, again giving the Rams decent field position. However, midway through, Orlando Pace is ejected for a late hit:
Pace, the first overall pick of the 1997 draft, drew a personal foul call when he shoved down defensive tackle George Williams at the end of a play.
“Next time, I’ll use better judgment,” said Pace, who said he was retaliating for a punch. “I got a little fired-up. It was an emotional game.”
Williams said Pace pushed him first.
“Then he charged at me, and I just dumped him, and the referee saw him,” Williams said. “I didn’t do anything to him that he wasn’t doing to me.”
Pace was replaced by Ryan Tucker, a third-year player and the backup center, with no career starts. Pace said it was the first ejection of his career, aside from “maybe once in high school basketball.”
Without the Hall of Fame tackle, St. Louis did find their struggles on offense; Warner went 1-of-5 for 30 yards on the final drive of the half and the Rams failed to score. After the Giants got on the board with field goal to open the second half to make it 10-3, Warner went 3-of-3 for 59 yards, but Torry Holt fumbled on the final of those plays, giving the ball back to Collins.
That would help St. Louis get back into the end zone.
Three plays in, Collins looked for Ike Hilliard and found Devin Bush, Sr. instead, who returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. St. Louis had seven pick-six plays in 1999, two more than second place Kansas City. The Chiefs did have four fumble recovery touchdowns that season, three more than the Rams.
Collins performed admirably on the next drive but Cary Blanchard missed a 42-yard field goal try. When the Rams got the ball back, they need only two plays to score after Warner finds Hakim again, this time for 65 yards. 24-3.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Collins looked for Hilliard again, this time locking his pass up with Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who went 22 yards for another pick-six. Collins eventually found Hilliard for a too little, too late touchdown and Robert Holcombe helped St. Louis run down the clock.
FINAL SCORE: Rams 31, Giants 10
Kurt Warner: 18-of-32, 319 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Marshall Faulk: 16 carries for 68 yards, six catches for 97 yards
Isaac Bruce: 2 of 3 for 39 yards
Torry Holt: 5 of 8 for 70 yards, one fumble
Az-Zahir Hakim: 3 of 6 for 79 yards, two touchdowns
Sacks: Grant Wistrom, Kevin Carter
Interceptions: Mike Jones, Devin Bush
Game Recap (ESPN):
“Rams end Giants’ December streak”
The glamour boys played supporting roles as the St. Louis Rams clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Interception runbacks by Devin Bush and Mike Jones gave the Rams defense its sixth and seventh touchdowns of the season, helping end the New York Giants’ December winning streak with a 31-10 victory Sunday.
“Hopefully, we can score every game,” Bush said. “We shouldn’t expect less.”
The Giants (7-7), who came into the game 9-0 in December in three seasons under coach Jim Fassel, got most of their 328 yards after the game was decided. Kerry Collins, who threw for 581 yards and four touchdown passes the previous two weeks in victories over Buffalo and the New York Jets, handed the Rams (12-2) two scores.
“We’re still in it,” Fassel said. “Whether we won or lost, it’s still going to come down to the next couple of games. I’m trying to get their focus as narrow and narrow and narrow as it can be.”
Bush, the stand-in starter at free safety for the injured Keith Lyle, intercepted an overthrown ball and returned it 45 yards to give the NFC West champions a 17-3 third-quarter lead. Jones, a linebacker, tied a team record when he scored his third touchdown of the season on a 22-yard return in the fourth quarter to make it 31-3.
All of Jones’ touchdowns have come in the last three games. He also converted on a 37-yard fumble return against Carolina on Nov. 14 and a 44-yard interception return against San Francisco on Nov. 21.
“Our defense has been coming up big all season,” Bush said. “When you can score without your offense being on the field, that hurts.”
Entering the game, the Rams were tied for the league lead with 23 interceptions.
“On the first one, the timing was off between me and Ike (Hilliard), and he made a move I wasn’t expecting,” Collins said. “On the other one, I talked myself into it. I had another play, but came back and looked for Ike and obviously made a bad decision.”
The Rams tied a franchise record for victories in a season set three times previously and won their eighth in a row at home, where they’ve rolled by an average score of 35-10, despite being held back by five dropped passes. Hakim compensated for two of the drops by scoring on catches of three and 65 yards, the first a somewhat controversial ruling after he was pushed out of the end zone by Conrad Hamilton and the latter a little swing pass that turned into a sprint.-
Marshall Faulk surpassed the 2,000-yard mark in total yardage — he has 2,065 — with six catches for 97 yards and 68 yards rushing on 16 carries for the Rams. Last year, he led the NFL with 2,227 yards.
The Rams, who were 4-12 last year, came through in this rare opportunity to beat a winning team. Their first 11 victories came against teams with a combined 42-103 record, and the losses came to teams a combined 18-8.
“This team was playing well, and we beat them soundly. We beat them good,” Warner said. “If this doesn’t quiet the critics, who knows? They can continue to doubt us all the way to the Super Bowl if they want.”
The Rams have scored 259 points in the first half this season, and the Giants have scored 264 points all season.
The Rams are five points shy of the franchise scoring record of 466 points set in a 12-game season in 1950.
I know that intro was overbearing so allow me to try and bring this home succinctly.
It’s hard to believe that the team that the Rams just beat would be largely the same one that replaced them as representing the NFC in the Super Bowl a year later. The Giants missed the playoffs in ‘99, but in 2000 they went 12-4, grabbing the top seed in the conference.
Fassel, who in 2005 was working on the same staff in Baltimore as his son John, the future special teams coordinator for the Rams, enjoyed the best year of his somewhat underrated career as a head coach. Collins started all 16 games and threw 22 touchdowns with 13 interceptions, getting sacked 28 times. Tiki Barber rushed for 1,008 yards while Ron Dayne put in 770 of his own; Barber also had 719 receiving yards.
Amani Toomer had 1,094 yards, Hilliard had 787 in 14 games.
Defensively, Keith Hamilton had 10 sacks, Michael Strahan had 9.5, and the only Pro Bowl player for the Giants that season, Jessie Armstead, had 102 tackles and five sacks. Emmanuel McDaniel found six interceptions. Jason Sehorn had two and was often in the spotlight when New York was on TV.
But maybe nobody took the Giants seriously that year until the NFC Championship game. In spite of their 12-4 record, New York was only 11th in DVOA, worse in the NFC than the Buccaneers, Eagles, and Rams. (The AFC took the top five spots.) Coming off of a 20-10 win over Philadelphia, few seemed to expect the Giants to topple the Minnesota Vikings.
That team featured six Pro Bowl players on offense in 2000: Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, Matt Birk, and Korey Stringer.
I’m sure confidence was high going into the game but then they lost. 41-0.
Culpepper threw three interceptions and lost a fumble, Carter and Moss were held to a combined 42 yards, and Kerry Collins threw five touchdowns. Even backup Jason Garrett came in to complete a four-yard pass. This changed the perceptions of how the Giants would fare in the Super Bowl against the Ravens, but this proved foolish.
Though it was only 10-0 at halftime, it was never close. New York only managed seven points all game and it came on a 97-yard kickoff return by Ron Dixon. On the ensuing kickoff, Baltimore’s Jermaine Lewis took it back 84 yards for a touchdown of his own.
But there was a new outlook on Collins: He had started 16 games for the first time and went to the Super Bowl. The Giants kept him as the starter for three more seasons, even going 10-6 in 2002, but the ceiling was too low.
In 2004, New York fired Fassel and hired Tom Coughlin, the original head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the person somewhat responsible for things that happened in the 1995 NFL Draft. Coughlin went 4-12 in his first season with the Jags, but then 9-7, 11-5, 11-5, and 14-2 in the four seasons following. He had been a free agent for a year after Jacksonville fired him in 2003, but four years into his tenure with the Giants he’d win the first of two Super Bowls.
Collins spent two seasons as the starter for the Oakland Raiders, replacing Rich Gannon. He led the NFL in interceptions in 2004 and went 7-21 during his stint with that franchise. He’d spent six more years in the league but his only season as a regular came in 2008 with the Tennessee Titans, replacing a struggling Vince Young under head coach Jeff Fisher.
The Titans went 13-3 and Collins made the Pro Bowl but in the playoffs they lost 13-10.
Again the foil was Baltimore.
Tim Biakabutuka finished eighth in Heisman voting in 1995, losing to Ohio State’s Eddie George, among others. Peyton Manning finished sixth that year.
The eighth overall pick in ‘96, he missed 12 games as a rookie, eight games in year two, and six games in year three. When he played in 1999, he got into 11 games and rushed for 5.2 yards per carry and six touchdowns. In the final game of his career in which he touched the ball, Biakabutuka rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries.
His nephew Jérémie Biakabutaka is an NHL prospect.
Lawrence Phillips finished eighth in the Heisman a year before Biakabutuka and he won two national championships in college. After struggling as a rookie and creating more problems off of the field, Vermeil released him midway through his second season. He set NFL Europe records in 1999 and he was given an opportunity by the 49ers from Bill Walsh. His final career touchdown came in a loss to the Rams that season.
Rams fans won’t have to search far for answers as to what happened to Phillips.
Plagued by concerning personal issues for years that led to hurting numerous people, Phillips was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2008, but that was later extended to 31 years following another conviction while he was locked up. He was found dead in 2016 as he awaited a first-degree murder charge for allegedly killing a cellmate. The suspected cause of death is suicide.
Rashaan Salaam won that ‘94 Heisman and went 21st in the ‘95 Draft. He rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie, but fumbled nine times.
He missed four games in 1996, but his problems ran much deeper than that, and when Salaam broke his leg in 1997 that essentially ended an already disappointing career. Salaam also ended his own life in 2016. I wrote him, the NFL, and depression for Rolling Stone in 2017.
Danny Wuerffel finished third in Heisman in 1995, then won it in 1996. The Saints drafted him in the fourth round and he mad six starts for Mike Ditka in three years, throwing 16 interceptions on 258 attempts.
His last chance came with Washington in 2002, whose head coach Steve Spurrier was Wuerffel’s head coach in college. His final career win came in a 20-17 victory over the Rams that season, with Wuerffel averaging 10.22 yards per attempt.
He has reportedly battled Guillain-Barre syndrome, the same autoimmune disorder that ended Travis Frederick’s career early, and is currently the executive director at Desire Street Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
Steve McNair’s final season of college at Alcorn State is considered by some the best of all-time. While he could have been an early draft pick in ‘94, he instead returned to school to throw for 4,863 yards and rush for 936, which still stands as an FCS record for total offense, and he did so in only 11 games.
He finished third in the Heisman voting. A year later, George won the award with Orlando Pace (fourth in Heisman in 1996) paving the way. The Oilers paired McNair and George together in the ‘95 and ‘96 drafts and three years later they’d help the Titans make the Super Bowl.
The last I’d heard of George is when his wife Tamara was a contestant on Survivor, my favorite TV show. George is also attempting to get on TV, but as an actor. Charlie Ward, the ‘93 Heisman winner, also recently started an acting career.
McNair stayed on the Titans until 2005, but the two sides parted after they went 4-12 that season. McNair spent two seasons playing for Brian Billick on the Ravens, helping them go 13-3 in his first year in Baltimore. That coaching staff also had Jim Fassel as offensive coordinator, John Fassel as a special teams assistant, as well as Rex Ryan, Vic Fangio, Mike Pettine, and Greg Roman. Also on that staff was Rick Neuheisel, who got his first head coaching gig with Colorado in 1995, one year after Salaam, Stewart, and Westbrook went to the NFL.
In 2009, McNair was killed in an apparent murder-suicide by a woman he was having an affair with at the time.
Kordell Stewart could be a fun NFL player to watch at times, but may have come 20 years too soon. Perhaps if he had just been drafted by the Carolina Panthers — who had a young Greg Roman at the time — instead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Stewart’s career ended in Baltimore one year before McNair arrived, with almost the exact same staff. He currently has a private twitter account and says he is working on his golf game.
Don Hutson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963, one of eleven men to make up the first ever class to enter Canton. On a list with Sammy Baugh, Bronko Nagurski, Dutch Clark, Ernie Nevers, and Jim Thorpe, Hutson had the most all-pro nods at eight. Only four players (Jerry Rice, Jim Otto, Anthony Munoz, Ron Mix) have more.
Hutson died in June of 1997, six months after the Green Bay Packers had won their first Super Bowl in 30 years. Brett Favre may have never thrown for 39 touchdowns and won MVP that year had it not been for Hutson paving the way 60 years earlier. He was 84.
Bill Polian went to the Colts in 1998 and drafted Peyton Manning instead of Ryan Leaf, which is the main reason why he lasted there until 2011, at which point new GM Ryan Grigson simply drafted Andrew Luck instead of Robert Griffin III. Grigson didn’t last as long. Polian, 77, helped start the failed Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Nebraska was dominant in the mid-90s under Tom Osborne, going undefeated in 1994, 1995, and 1997. However, since Osborne’s retirement in ‘98, the Cornhuskers have struggled and they last finished a season ranked in the top-10 in 2001.
Colorado would still love half of the success that Nebraska has had in this century. The Buffs finished third in ‘94, fifth in ‘95, and eighth in ‘96, but have only ended a season ranked three times in the last 23 years. They last ended a season ranked in the top-10 in 2001.
Penn State was nearly on the same path but has turned themselves around. After potentially being robbed of a national title in ‘94, Joe Paterno only came close to that honor a couple more times in a career that lasted 17 more years after that. The Nittany Lions gave two years to Bill O’Brien and then turned it over to James Franklin in 2014, who has had them ranked in the top-10 by season’s end in three of the last four years.
Did you know that the Cincinnati Bengals who went 12-4 and came within seconds of beating Joe Montana and Jerry Rice in the Super Bowl in 1988 had a point differential of +119 and the Bengals that went 8-8 in 1989 also had a point differential of +119? I’m not saying that they were as good — they fell in DVOA from first to ninth — but sometimes you can think you’re doing everything right and not get the expected outcome.
What’s the timeline like where Cincinnati doesn’t fall apart after that Super Bowl loss? Or where they win the Super Bowl?
All-Everything tackle Anthony Munoz played in all 16 games in 1990 but missed some time in ‘91 as the team flopped to 3-13 and fired head coach Sam Wyche. In a weak ‘92 draft class, the Bengals traded down from four to six and picked up an extra first, but quarterback Dave Klingler — like Stewart, maybe also ahead of his time as a 54-TD passer during the 1990 season with Houston — proved incapable of replacing Boomer Esiason and changing the fortunes of the franchise.
They selected John Copeland with the fifth pick in ‘93 and while he was solid, they missed on a Munoz replacement in Willie Roaf three picks later, immediately followed by Lincoln Kennedy and Jerome Bettis. Then ‘94 was Wilkinson over Faulk and ‘95 was dealing up for Carter.
I can’t blame Cincinnati for trading up when the cost to get to one was only pick 36. If you’re going to be involved in the draft and that’s the cost to secure any player in the class, go for it. I also can’t fault them for taking a running back because prior to Ki-Jana Carter, there was nothing unusual about selecting a running back that high.
A running back was the top pick in 1980 (Billy Sims), 1981 (George Rogers), and 1986 (Bo Jackson), and between Bo and Carter, five running backs were drafted in the top-three over those eight years, including Barry Sanders and Faulk. Then the Bengals took Carter and there wouldn’t be another running back in the top three until 2005 with Ronnie Brown. It didn’t help that you had names like Curtis Enis in 1998 going fifth overall, and then had Ditka trading everything for a back who couldn’t live up to those expectations.
In the running back climate of 2020, I imagine many could look back to Carter and think, “Wow, how stupid! This is why you don’t draft a running back first overall!” But what happened to Carter? He wasn’t a bust in the classic sense.
We simply never got to see what a healthy Ki-Jana Carter could have done in the NFL, even though Joe Paterno had protected him in so many games as a collegiate athlete. Carter tore his ACL almost immediately and missed his entire rookie campaign. He spent parts of seven seasons in the NFL but we never saw the real Ki-Jana again.
In 1997, he had a 79-yard touchdown run against the Denver Broncos. On the other side of the ball, Broncos running back Terrell Davis finished with 215 rushing yards and Denver was on their way to 4-0 and their first Super Bowl championship. What if Carter had managed to find himself playing for Mike Shanahan instead of Dave Shula?
By 2001, Carter was playing for Marty Schottenheimer in Washington and they faced the Giants that October. Three of the top five picks of ‘95 were in the game: Carter had a 30-yard run while backing up Stephen Davis. Michael Westbrook caught a 76-yard touchdown. And Kerry Collins threw for three touchdowns on 52 attempts as the Giants lost 35-21.
He retired in 2005 following two years with the Saints. It took a decade for the NFL to move on from this draft “bust.”
It seems hard to believe for a player who was considered the Barry Sanders of college running backs in the 90s and a former number one overall pick, but as of today Ki-Jana Carter is just another dad on Twitter with barely 4,000 followers. I know plenty of my colleagues who have more of a social media following than that and they were never one of the few players to have a team trade up to 1 to take them in the NFL draft. They’re also verified.
But not everything is always fair and balanced. Not even rules.
Hopkins trades to the Cardinals?!?!?! WTF is B.O.B. is doing— Ki-Jana Carter (@mastakey32) March 16, 2020
Since 2008, Carter has been the CEO of ByoGlobe, a “minority owned Branding & Marketing Company” per LinkedIn, and if you see him with his kid, the last thing you think is, “This guy must be disappointed with how things turned out.”
Because while football can have massive, incredible turns from one decade to the next, from one level to the next, and from one running back to the next, the sport doesn’t have a copyright claim to change and evolution. Life does that too and success on the field doesn’t have to determine your happiness off of it.
I don’t know what Rick Van Besien is up to today, but I assume he’ll find success somewhere.