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Re-Living ‘99: Marshall Faulk sets record more than 20 years ahead of schedule

The Rams legend was well ahead of his time — and he’s still on top

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St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk (R) wea Photo credit should read STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images

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

How do you write about Marshall Faulk without feeling like you’ve left something out? Or that you haven’t given him enough respect, even after you do enough research to list out dozens of accolades? The bar for Faulk isn’t that you’ve simply noted that he’s a Hall of Fame back and argued for his case as a top five running of all-time. That’s less than the baseline for an article that aims to give Faulk all the credit he’s due because Faulk was more than a running back.

He’s also a time traveler.

Just within the last three seasons, we’ve seen seven running backs combine for nine seasons of totaling at least 700 receiving yards. Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara have each done it twice, with McCaffrey topping 1,005 yards last season, the most by any back since Faulk in ‘99.

During Faulk’s ‘99 campaign, he averaged 12 yards per catch and 10.17 yards per target.

Last season, McCaffrey averaged 8.6 yards per catch and 7.08 yards per target.

Austin Ekeler was close by, catching 92 passes for 993 yards in 2019 and averaging 10.8 yards per catch and 9.2 yards per target. McCaffrey and Ekeler comparisons may be more fair to the season that Faulk had in 1998 (86 catches, 908 yards) or 2000 (81 catches for 830 yards), but no matter how many Kamara, Le’Veon Bell, McCaffrey, Ekeler, or Todd Gurley’s come along, and no matter how much the league seems to adapt to dual threat options behind center, no back has matched or topped the receiving season that Faulk had 20 years ago.

From the 1970 merger to 1998, the best dual threat season by a back was either Faulk in ‘98 or Roger Craig (1,050 rushing, 1,016 receiving) in 1985. Craig and San Diego’s Lionel James (1,027 receiving yards in 1985) had been the only backs to top 1,000 yards, but Faulk also rushed for 1,319 yards when he catch 86 passes for 908 yards with the Colts in ‘98.

When Faulk was traded to the St. Louis Rams in 1999, he was setup for success like an elite back never had been before. Soon enough, he’d become only the third player to have four 2,000-yard seasons from scrimmage, joining Walter Payton of the Bears and Eric Dickerson, who strangely enough also did it with the Colts and Rams but in reverse order.

They’re still the only three players to do that.

Faulk, who chose to play for San Diego State when coming out of high school in 1991 because they were the first team to offer him as a running back whereas the major programs were interested in him as a corner, would end up catching 87 passes for 1,048 receiving yards — still the most by any back since 1970 — in 1999, and that’s not the only notable receiving record he still holds today.

Additionally, Faulk ran for 1,381 yards with a league-leading 5.46 yards per carry. Of the 19 seasons since 1970 in which a back had at least 5.4 yards per carry on a minimum of 200 rushing attempts, Faulk’s 1,048 receiving yards is more than double that of second place, which belongs to Chris Johnson’s 2009 total of 503.

Johnson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Gurley ... no matter what dual threat back comes along, they eventually seem no match to duel with Faulk.

In only his second college game, months after being a high schooler and playing for a program with nary a place in NCAA football history, Faulk carried the ball 37 times for 386 yards and seven touchdowns. Regardless of who the opponent was, there are dozens of terrible college defenses that each play dozens of games each year and over many decades of that, few players have rushed for 386 yards and seven touchdowns.

In a statement that makes little sense without the right context: a freshman running back at San Diego State finished ninth in Heisman voting in 1991.

The next year he finished second and in 1993 he finished fourth. Those Heismans went to Desmond Howard, Gino Toretta, and Charlie Ward instead. Faulk wrapped up his three-year career with 1,530 rushing yards, 644 receiving yards, and 24 total touchdowns in 1993. He entered the NFL draft and was the second overall pick behind Dan Wilkinson to the Bengals.

Whether it was Toretta, Wilkinson, or asking him to play corner instead of running back so he settled for San Diego State, Faulk always seemed comfortable with second. It never set him back. “Catch the ball” was always the second priority for running backs too, if not third after blocking, but Faulk was comfortable doing everything.

The Rams sent the Colts a second and fifth round pick for Faulk in ‘99, looking to replace the failed trial runs for Lawrence Phillips and Robert Holcombe, himself a second round pick in 1998. St. Louis even had Amp Lee on the roster from ‘97 to ‘99, a running back whose 825 receiving yards with the Rams in 1997 ranked ninth all-time leading up to the year Faulk was acquired.

Head coach Dick Vermeil had something in mind with regards to utilizing the back as a receiver, but lacked the personnel to execute. He replaced offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome with Mike Martz, an assistant under Norv Turner in Washington prior to his employment with the Rams. When the ‘99 season happened, Washington actually featured the NFL’s leader in rushing yards per game in Stephen Davis (100.4 per game), who also had the most touchdowns (17), while ranking first in rushing DYAR and DVOA.

But in St. Louis, Martz had the NFL’s most valuable running back. En total.

Up to this point of Re-Living ‘99, I’ve mentioned Faulk plenty of times in the recaps but not dedicated much time to what he’s actually accomplished thus far in the season. All told, Faulk has rushed for 1,248 yards and six touchdowns headed into Week 16, with seven 100-yard rushing efforts. With the Colts, Faulk had only produced six 100-yard rushing efforts in the last three seasons combined.

He had also been wildly productive as a receiver, catching 72 passes for 817 yards and scoring three times. He hadn’t topped 100 yards in any one game but why should he when the Rams were so thoroughly beating most of their opponents, paving the way for Lee and Holcombe and Justin Watson to play in the second half?

As great as Faulk’s ‘99 season was, he might have been able to do considerably more had the Rams not also had a great defense that season. Closer games might have meant more chances for Faulk. Instead, we got one of the all-time great seasons by a back and plenty more great games to come.

It’s now Week 16, the Rams are 12-2, and there’s not much left for them to do until they host a divisional round game as the NFC’s number one seed. Coming to town: the 6-8 Chicago Bears and running back Curtis Enis, who once finished fifth in Heisman voting behind Charles Woodson, Peyton Manning, Ryan Leaf, and Randy Moss. Only 23, it would be one of the final games of Enis’s career.

But at least he’d get to witness history happening at the running back position from someone else.

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 - Rams 30, Saints 14

Week 15 - Rams 31, Giants 10

Week 16 - Chicago Bears at St. Louis Rams, December 26, 1999

Starting at quarterback for Chicago would be Cade McNown, the 12th overall pick in ‘99 and a player who finished two spots behind Enis in Heisman voting that aforementioned year. The Bears top receiver was Bobby Engram, a teammate of Enis’s at Penn State.

McNown completed a four-yard pass to Engram, then ran for 11 yards on the second play. That may or may not end Chicago’s highlights today.

The first two Rams drives didn’t end well, but Faulk still ran for 49 yards and 16 more as a receiver. That’s how quickly he could rack up yards; before the end of the first quarter he was already on pace for over 200 yards from scrimmage even though St. Louis had zero points up to then.

Kurt Warner was picked off in the end zone on the first play of the second quarter, but the Rams got the ball back a few minutes later. Warner went 3-of-3 for 36 yards to start the drive, then hit Faulk for a 48-yard touchdown.

7-0

On the next drive, McCown sought Engram on 1st-and-10 at the Rams 20, but was intercepted by Billy Jenkins, a former UDFA safety out of Howard making his first appearance on Re-Living ‘99. Warner’s next throw was a 15-yard completion to Faulk, followed by a four-yard run by Faulk, then a 43-yard pass to Faulk, then a seven-yard pass to Faulk. Warner ended the drive with a two-yard touchdown to Roland Williams.

14-0.

On their next possession, Warner went 4-of-4 for 39 yards. Every completed pass went to Marshall Faulk.

17-0. At halftime, Faulk has rushed for 49 yards and caught 10 passes for 168 yards, 152 of which came in the second quarter. Faulk had the modern NFL record for receiving yards by a running back and there was still two quarters left to play.

This has been at least partly attributed to Chicago head coach Dick Jauron and defensive coordinator Greg Blache’s decision to cover Faulk with linebacker Barry Minter, a productive tackler but clearly a mismatch beyond reproach for the NFL’s best running back.

Said Warner after the game: “We got a lot of hot reads and I was just able to flip it to Marshall, and we all know how explosive he is once he gets the ball.”

On the first drive of the third quarter, Warner went 7-of-9 and ended it with a four-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce, with two of those passes going to Faulk for a total of 36 yards. When Chicago got the ball back, Shane Matthews had replaced McNown at quarterback and he soon found Engram for 27 yards. But Matthews — who finished fifth in Heisman voting in 1991, four spots ahead of Faulk — soon also found Grant Wistrom on a pass intended for Enis.

Wistrom intercepted the pass and went back 40 yards for another Rams defensive touchdown.

31-0.

Vermeil pulled his starters and inserted quarterback Paul Justin behind center for Warner. Justin, a seventh round pick of the Bears in ‘91 whose pre-Rams career was somewhat similar to Warner’s, played the rest of the way and completed three passes for 27 yards. Faulk was replaced by Justin Watson, a former undrafted free agent who played running back at San Diego State beginning two years after Faulk declared for the draft.

Watson actually had more carries against the Bears that December day, but Faulk still set an NFL record that stands today even though he barely played in half of it. Try as I might, I just can’t do this player justice.

FINAL SCORE: Rams 34, Bears 12

Record: 13-2

Kurt Warner: 24-of-35, 334 yards, three touchdowns, one interception

Marshall Faulk: 10 carries, 54 yards, 12 catches, 204 yards, one touchdown

Isaac Bruce: four catches for 45 yards, one touchdown

Sacks: D’Marco Farr, Kevin Carter, Jay Williams, Todd Lyght/Charlie Clemons

Interceptions: Billy Jenkins, Grant Wistrom

Game Recap (CBS News):

“Rams Stay Perfect At Home”

There was no letup by the St. Louis Rams.

Marshall Faulk became only the second player in NFL history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in one season, and Kurt Warner tied a record with his ninth 300-yard passing game as the NFC West champions beat the Chicago Bears 34-12 Sunday.

“We weren’t going to hold anything back,” Warner said. ”We wanted to play the kind of football we’ve played all year, and I think we did that.”

The Rams (13-2) ran out of season-oriented incentives last week when they clinched home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That didn’t stop them from eliminating the Bears (6-9) from playoff contention, with Faulk piling up 222 total yards on 20 touches in the first half alone.

“The game just came to me,” Faulk said. “They covered me tried.”

The Bears blitzed constantly, leaving Faulk in single coverage. He was much more than your typical safety valve, catching three passes for 65 yards on the Rams’ second scoring drive, then three more for 39 yards in a span of four plays to set up a field goal at the end of the half.

“We got a lot of hot reads and I was just able to flip it to Marshall,” Warner said. “And we all know how explosive he is once he gets the ball.”

The Bears couldn’t do much about it.

“We knew it was coming, we called it out, but he still kept getting the ball,” defensive tackle Mike Wells said. “He killed us.”

The Rams led 31-0 with 8:08 to go in the third quarter en route to setting franchise records for victories and scoring, and tied Jacksonville for the NFL’s best record. St. Louis has won nine in a row in the Trans World Dome, including eight this season by an average margin of 35-11.

That’s slightly beter than their overall winning margin of 33-14.

“Really, we’ve beaten everybody pretty soundly here at home, so it really makes a statement,” Warner said. “That’s what we wanted to do coming in so people know when they come to our house in the playoffs it’s a tough place to win.”

Faulk played only one series in the second half and finished with 204 yards on a personal-best 12 catches and 54 yards rushing on 10 carries, for a season-best 258-yard game that ties Quadry Ismail of Baltimore for the NFL’s best this year.

He has 2,323 total yards 1,302 rushing and 1,021 receiving and needs 36 yards in the season finale at Philadelphia to break Barry Sanders’ 1997 total yardage record of 2,358.

“That makes me have something to play for next week,” Faulk said.

Warner has 39 touchdown passes, tied with Brett Favre (1996) for third on the single-season list, and can become only the third quarterback to throw for 40. In his first season as a starter, his nine 300-yard passing games ties him for the NFL record with Dan Marino (1984) and Warren Moon (1990).

Warner raised his quarterback rating three tenths of a point to 111.4, just off the record of 112.8 by the 49ers’ Steve Young in 1994.

It also was the Rams’ 11th touchdown on a return this year, two shy of the NFL record set by Seattle in 1998. Wistrom also had a 41-yard fumble return in the first half, although Bobby Engram stole the ball from him on the way down.

Bears rookie quarterback Cade McNown sat out the second half with a strained right thigh. He was 9-for-16 for 125 yards and was sacked four times, including the final play of the first half.

McNown said he was hit from behind and strained his right thigh while uncoiling to throw pass.

“It hurt when I threw hard and it kept getting worse each time I threw,” McNown said. “I could have gutted it out, but I wouldn’t have helped the team.”

Wistrom intercepted a pass by McNown’s replacement, Shane Matthews, on the Bears’ first possession of the second half, making it 31-0.

The Bears also lost running back Curtis Enis, who strained his left shoulder in the third quarter. Enis had 21 yards on seven carries.

Notes

The Rams have 54 sacks, two shy of the team record set three times, and the last time in 1988. Kevin Carter got his league-leading 16th Sunday.

The game featured a rare brother vs. brother matchup. Rex Tucker started at right guard for the Bears and older brother Ryan is a backup offensive lineman for the Rams.

Bears cornerback Walt Harris left with a strained hamstring in the first quarter.

Rams backup tight end Jeff Robinson was ejected with 10:02 to go after a confrontation with Chicago’s Ty Hallock.

Final Takeaway:

The Rams had nothing to play for based on playoff positioning, so Marshall Faulk went ahead and set an NFL record that stands today: 204 receiving yards by a running back.

In 2013, Jamaal Charles had 195 yards and four touchdowns receiving in a game against the Raiders. No other running back since at least 1950 has topped 160 receiving yards in a game. Not even if you include playoffs.

Faulk nearly did that in the second quarter of this game against Chicago.

Faulk finished the season with 1,048 receiving yards, setting another modern NFL record for backs that still stands today. In 2019, McCaffrey became only the fourth back, and the first since Faulk, to top 1,000 receiving yards. He needed 29 more receptions — and 39 more targets — than Faulk to get there.

Three years later in a game against the Broncos, Faulk caught 14 passes, setting another NFL record for running backs, albeit this time being topped several times. However, Faulk’s 14 catches came in 2002, whereas six of the other nine backs to catch at least 14 passes have come since 2017.

Last season alone, three running backs (Alvin Kamara, James White, McCaffrey) caught 15 passes in a game. This is a product of playing in a post-2017 NFL offense. But Faulk wasn’t a product of his time, he was two decades ahead of it.

A time traveler.

Next time: A season finale vs the Philadelphia Eagles rookie head coach Andy Reid