It’s a Spectacle: Remembering the Greatest Show on Turf

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“We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars” – Cecil B. Demille, director of the Greatest Show on Earth

The TV didn’t work so well. It was one of those great big, heavy, square box TVs that sat on the floor, very 1990s; the kind that sits dust-encased in your basement now. If you walked or stood near it, the screen would immediately begin to turn to static. This was a problem while the St. Louis Rams were playing in Super Bowl XXXIV.

When Isaac Bruce broke free toward the endzone with just two minutes remaining, I began screaming and leaping in front of that enormous box on the floor. Sit down! came the chorus of thrilled yet annoyed family members behind me. The picture had gone all black-and-white with static, so much so that you could hardly see if Bruce scored. I don’t even remember noticing, this circus-esque football team had me too ecstatic.

Ecstasy came easily if you watched anything the 1999 Rams did that season, but the feeling that more often came across was probably pure wonder. What this team did was unlike anything that had been done in the history of the NFL. Their offensive philosophy and practice transcended the game and effectively changed how offenses were run. It was the unbelievably fortunate alchemy of the perfect coach and system meshing with the perfect cast of ultra-talented players at the perfect time. It became the Greatest Show on Turf.

“It’s like basketball on grass.” – Super Bowl announcer

Since this season is the 15th anniversary, there is plenty of flowery praise getting lofted toward that intrepid 99 Rams team. There’s a reason we didn’t do this last year for the 98 Rams. That season St. Louis finished a putrid 4-12, with no signs of improvement to be found. The Rams hadn’t made the playoffs since 1989, moving from LA to St. Louis in 1995 after several consecutive seasons of mediocrity following their last playoff exit. Coach Dick Vermeil’s seat was starting to get a little hot because of back-to-back seasons without even sniffing a winning record. That was, until he brought Mike Martz in.

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Martz spent about two decades (most of the 70s and 80s) meandering through various universities as an assistant. In 92, he became the LA Rams quarterbacks coach. After leaving for Washington to become quarterbacks coach for two seasons in 97-98, Martz would come back to the Rams after a disappointing season, bringing St. Louis native Trent Green with him, who was coming off a good, not great, season as Washington’s QB. Martz also ushered in his Air Coryell offensive system, which essentially altered the Rams future for good.

Don Coryell had created this offense – one that relied heavily on the defense-stretching, downfield pass – in his time as San Diego State and San Diego Chargers head coach. Instead of setting up the pass by running the ball, as many teams did and continue to do, Coryell decided he didn’t agree with that. He wanted to throw, a lot. And not just dinky, short, horizontal passes like Bill Walsh’s successful West Coast offense, but vertical bombs that force the defense to defend the entire field.

Martz basically took this and cranked up the dial. He knew he was armed with blinding speed at wide receiver and running back and could use this to put his dream system to work. At receiver, he had an in-his-prime Isaac Bruce, who had already asserted himself as one of the league’s better wideouts. Rookie Torry Holt had just been taken by the Rams with the 6th overall pick and was eager to prove himself in Martz’s high-powered scheme. In the fourth round of the previous draft, the Rams had selected another receiver, Az-Zahir Hakim, who had Flash-type speed and returned punts. At running back, the Rams had just dealt a couple draft picks for one of the best backs in the game. Marshall Faulk came into St. Louis, fresh off a season with just over 1,300 yards rushing and 900 yards receiving. Great numbers, but they were about to get even more ridiculous. Everything was in place.

“We will rally around Kurt Warner…”

Until it wasn’t. You see, every great story needs a conflict, something for the main characters to overcome. During the Rams’ preseason game vs. the Chargers, we get just that. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison undercut Trent Green from behind, sending the St. Louis starting QB down in a heap with a season-ending knee injury.

The Rams 1999 campaign seemed to be over before it even got started. Famously, a tear-streaked Vermeil (never afraid to get emotional) proclaimed “We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.” It seemed like rote, boilerplate coachspeak, like something you say to get past the depressing questions, to attempt to rouse up some motivation out of thin air. As it turned out, Vermeil wasn’t messing around. The offense remained the same, no changes to accommodate a backup quarterback who hadn’t ever started in NFL game. To properly illustrate how nervous the Rams organization and all of St. Louis was feeling at the time, there are a few things you need to know about Kurt Warner: 1) After getting cut by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, he worked as a stock boy at a local Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa. 2) He played in the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers for two years after that (actually becoming one of the greatest Arena League players ever in his short time there). 3) The Rams signed him in 98, but he sat third-string behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. Who? Exactly.

So the 28-year-old, who had been stocking shelves and tossing TDs in tiny arenas for the past few years, assumed the starting role for one of the most offensively gifted rosters in the NFL. Improbably, Warner was up to the challenge. The first game he threw for over 300 yards and 3 TDs in a comfortable victory. The second game he tossed 3 more, while Faulk was running roughshod over the Atlanta Falcons defense. Both of those games were in St. Louis’ friendly TWA Dome. When they traveled to Cincinnati and beat the Bengals by four touchdowns (Rams WR Hakim scored four by himself), it was clear this team not only had frightening offensive firepower, but they could attack you in a number of different ways. Warner chucked TDs to his talented crop of receivers, Faulk went HAM on helpless defenses, Hakim and kick returner Tony Horne inflicted damage on you on special teams, and even the defense was capable of making plays.

In fact, that defense was the most underrated aspect of the Greatest Show on Turf. I’m going to perpetuate that by only giving them one paragraph, but it’s true. Defensive ends Kevin Carter (17 sacks) and Grant Wistrom (6.5 sacks) terrorized opposing QBs, while Pro Bowl defensive tackle D’Marco Farr held up the middle. The linebacker core featured a young London Fletcher (who would go on to a very prosperous career) and soon-to-be Super Bowl hero Mike Jones. In the secondary, Todd Lyght (6 INTs), Dexter McCleon, and rookie Dre Bly waited to disrupt whatever passing attack you hoped to build. That defense actually ended up ranked 4th overall in DOVA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, the football analytic’s favorite way to rank teams) by the time the season ended. Sure, the offense was throwing up crazy points, but the defense wasn’t giving up much either.

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While this team continued to torch opponents with their overwhelming talent, they spiced it up with some flair as well. The Bob ‘N Weave became an indelible part of what attracted people to this team. Before players got excessively flagged for even hinting at some kind of organized celebration, the 99 Rams would orchestrate a small circle post-TD, drop the ball in the middle, and bob and weave around it. You can really only know what the heck I’m talking about unless you watch it. This became the go-to celebration when it was apparently debuted (in mini-form) by Holt in Week 3. I can tell you as a young Rams fan back then that the Bob ‘N Weave was all any kid wanted to do when throwing the football around in the backyard. A silly dance around the ball became the coolest thing in the world.

The celebration halted briefly in Week 8, when a 6-0 Rams squad went into Tennessee and lost to the Titans. Quarterback Steve McNair’s team got out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, the first real test of adversity for the Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams clawed back in it with Warner TD passes to Faulk and Bruce. Yet another St. Louis touchdown made it a 3 point game, and a couple minutes later, the Rams offense positioned kicker Jeff Wilkins for a 38-yarder to tie it. He missed; the Rams had dropped their first game of the season. Both McNair and Warner ended up with 3 TDs a piece. But this game just set the stage. These teams would see each other again.

The very next week the Rams dropped a road tilt against Detroit in another tight contest. At 6-2, the Rams had to feel like they could easily be 8-0. No matter. They won the next seven games by at least 13 points every time. The consecutive losses had steeled this team for the stretch run and now they were in full destroyer mode. Still, even as they were beating teams into submission by double digits, it was a joy to watch. The way they aired it out with ease, with no inhibition, was something the league hadn’t really seen. They put up 34 points like it was a walk to the mailbox.

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With a regular season record of 13-3, it was, by most accounts, the best Rams season in franchise history. Warner assaulted the NFL passing record books. He completed 65% of his passes (the third-best ever, at the time), he threw 41 TDs (also third-best at the time), with only 13 interceptions, and his passer rating of 109.1 (good for second all-time) outpaced every other QB by a hefty margin. Warner may have won the MVP award, but Marshall Faulk shouldn’t have been far behind. While striking existential dread into every defender who saw him with the ball, he put up over 2,400 rushing/receiving yards and 12 TDs. Forming a dynamic 1-2 punch, Bruce and Holt had two of the best years at the receiver position because of their role in the Greatest Show on Turf. The third option at receiver was only Hakim, who added 677 yards and 8 receiving TDs. Individually, these guys put up unreal numbers.

Collectively, they changed NFL offenses. They threw the ball a league-leading 59% of the time, but somehow did it with insane efficiency, scoring on over 7% of their passes, way higher than the league average. Over the next few years, things would start to change rapidly around the league. Pass-happy offenses were installed almost everywhere and teams based their philosophy around the chucking the ball. Peyton Manning was just getting started. Tom Brady’s best seasons would come along in about eight years. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees after him. Warner’s magical season started to drop in the single-season statistical ranks. The Age of the Gunslingers started to arrive after the Greatest Show on Turf entertained the world.

“Everybody scores in this offense. Everybody…agghh! It’s a spectacle! It’s a spectacle!” – Roland Williams

The 99 Rams’ regular season numbers had a profound effect on the league. But it was their Super Bowl win that cemented their legacy.

The Minnesota Vikings provided the first test. With a receiving core of all-time greats Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and a capable QB in Jeff George, everyone knew the Vikings offense would test the Rams passing D. It ultimately didn’t matter, because the Vikings had no answer for the Warner Brothers. The Rams’ first play from scrimmage went for a 77-yard TD to Isaac Bruce, with the TWA Dome louder than ever. Although at halftime, the Vikings led by 3.

The kick to begin the 3rd quarter went to Tony Horne at the Rams own five-yard line. Ten seconds later Horne, always chock full of swagger and confidence, was dancing in the opposite endzone. From there it was a rout. Four unanswered Rams touchdowns gave them a 32-point lead. The Vikings saved some face with three garbage time touchdowns, but the game was over by then. The 49-37 final was the second-highest combined NFL playoff score ever.

It was a postseason offensive firework exhibition as exciting as they come. Warner put up gaudy numbers (391 yards, 5 TDs) while spreading the ball to ten different receivers. It was clear the Vikings defense had worked to take away the Rams biggest threats (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and it still didn’t work. The Greatest Show on Turf marched on to the NFC Championship Game to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Billed on paper as a showdown between the league’s top offense and top defense (the Bucs ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA that year), the reality was… a strange, strange game. Whether it was nerves or bad luck, the Rams came out of the gate bumbling. An uncharacteristic Warner interception and a dropped Bruce would-be TD made for a weird 1st half that ended in a 5-3 baseball score. With Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch leading the way, the Bucs defense was all it was cracked up to be.

A Tampa Bay field goal made it 6-5 early in the fourth quarter. With about eight minutes left Bucs QB Shaun King threw a terrible interception to young Dre Bly who took off horizontally across the field. I can remember sitting on my grandparent’s bed watching the game, celebrating that play, freaking out as Bly almost had the ball stripped. I may not have understood the intricacies of an NFL game quite yet, but I knew we had a chance now.

I was right. With just under five minutes to go, the Bucs brought the house on a blitz. Warner let loose a back heel throw toward the far left side of the endzone. Ricky Proehl (who hadn’t caught a TD pass all season) leapt and the ball landed on his left arm, balancing on that tightwire between drop and Biggest Catch of Your Life. Proehl collected it safely just as he hit the ground, giving the Rams a clutch five-point lead. I still remember my jubilant disbelief. Ricky Proehl?!? Of all people.

After Tampa Bay turned it over on downs, the Rams celebration began. It was an ugly game, the kind St. Louis didn’t want to play. Warner threw three picks, and Faulk and Bruce were stymied. Still, the defense showed up and then some, collecting five sacks and two interceptions. Super Bowl XXXIV awaited.

“Let’s go have some fun, kick their ass.” – Vermeil, at halftime of the Super Bowl

The Tennessee Titans were also coming off a 13-3 season with heady, mobile QB Steve McNair and magnificent running back Eddie George leading the way. Although they needed the Music City Miracle to get here, they were a worthy Super Bowl foe.

Despite moving the ball into the Titans’ red zone with ease, the Rams just couldn’t get in the endzone to start the game. While they could’ve had about 28 points, four Jeff Wilkins field goal attempts in the first half converted to just 9. Meanwhile, the Rams defense, overlooked all season long, had come to play. The first half ended 9-0. A tame half of football compared to the craziness that would ensue.

An early Rams touchdown drive began the third quarter. They finally broke through when Torry Holt caught a 9-yard needle-threaded pass from Warner. Holt barely held onto the ball between his hands and his facemask. The rookie sensation had arrived with the most important catch of his career. With a 16-0 lead, we were feeling, as politicians like to say, “cautiously optimistic”.

Next came the comeback. The Titans started consistently moving the ball on offense via runs from McNair and George. Back-to-back George touchdowns made it 16-13. A Tennessee FG a few minutes later tied the game at 16 apiece. I’ll never forget the feeling as the Titans were crawling back in it. As far as prolonged sports dread and anxiety go, there’s not much worse than losing a lead in a big game. And this was the Super Bowl. Eddie George became Public Enemy No. 1. We were regretfully recalling how Holt dropped a TD pass back in the first quarter. We were mostly just confused how our spectacular high-wire act of an offense had been held to just 16 points.

“And they won’t catch him today” – Super Bowl announcer

With two minutes to go, our Mediocre Show on Turf walked back onto the field looking to create some late-game magic. So much for mediocre. On 1st and 10, Warner launched a deep pass down the right side. On TV, it was surreal. Bruce appeared from behind his defender (who had his head fatally turned the wrong way) to snatch the pass, make a cut around the safety, and shoot toward the endzone. Then the screen went to pure static.

As I found my seat, the picture returned and Bruce and co. were celebrating. Disbelief and euphoria reigned as the 99 Rams were just two minutes from winning it all.

Starting from their own 12-yard line, the Titans were not going down easy. McNair engineered a remarkable drive, including a Houdini-act sack escape to sling a pass to receiver Kevin Dyson at the Rams 10-yard line. Six seconds remained on the clock. It was unbearable drama as the teams lined up for the final play. As the final seconds ticked off, McNair flung a pass to Dyson at about the four-yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones threw himself at the waist of Dyson, two athletes colliding on possibly the biggest play in Super Bowl history, fighting over a few yards of real estate. You know what happens next. Dyson comes up a single yard short. The 99 Rams win the Super Bowl.

If the Bruce TD caused disbelief and euphoria, Mike Jones’ play spurred relief and euphoria. Now referred to as The Tackle, it remains the most indelible play in possibly the greatest game in Super Bowl history. Competitive action and high drama, all the way to end of the line.

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The 99 St. Louis Rams were never actually referred to as the Greatest Show on Turf during that season. It wasn’t until next year, when ESPN’s Chris Berman, while running through Week 5 highlights, exclaimed, “Forget Ringling Brothers; the Rams are the Greatest Show on Earth”. The last word was altered to “Turf” and the name stuck.

After getting bounced in the first round of next year’s playoffs, St. Louis’ high-flying show returned to the Super Bowl the season after, only to lose on a game-ending field goal to Bill Belichick’s (cheating) Patriots. After that, the team started to dissipate. Warner was replaced in 2003 by Marc Bulger. Faulk, Bruce, and Holt all departed at some point in the next few years. Martz left in 2005.

As for Dick Vermeil, he “retired” (he would come back a couple years later to coach the Chiefs) after the 99 Super Bowl victory. It was a fairytale ending for the man at the helm of one of the most exciting teams in NFL history. Every good show needs a compelling cast of characters, people you can root for. Vermeil, who wore his emotions heavily on his sleeves at all times, was one of the most likable coaches around. It was a team full of both gifted stars (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and unexpected heroes (Warner, Proehl). It was part of what drew us to them.

Ringling Bros Circus Train, ca. 1963

Thinking about that team made me seek out old circus photographs lately. Like early 20th-century images, right after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was founded in 1907. What stands out most is that the audience had clearly never seen even anything remotely like this before. They were filled with profound awe and wonder. They came from miles around to see the circus. Today, we have the Internet. We’ve seen it all. It takes quite a bit to really impress us, to move us. Circuses aren’t nearly as popular now, because no amount of flipping acrobats and giant elephants and fiery rings can shock us.

This is another part of what drew us to the 99 Rams. They did things many NFL fans didn’t even know was possible. They put up mind-blowing numbers and they did it in style, with mad spectacle. As a St. Louisan, you feel a twinge of melancholy, because it’s unlikely that something that special will be replicated in your hometown again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. But then you remember the joy, the child-like euphoria you got from watching the Greatest Show on Turf. And you remember how awesome it was when the circus came to town.

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