Forget lessons in humility, Rams' class is dismissed

January 24, 2000|By John Eisenberg

ST. LOUIS -- The Rams did it backward. First, they spent the week celebrating. Then, they went out and b at the Bucs for the NFC title -- barely. And instead of being humbled by having to sweat out an 11-6 win as a two-touchdown favorite yesterday at the Trans World Dome, they taunted the Bucs after the final gun.

Cornerback Todd Lyght raced over to the Bucs' bench and danced and waved in their faces. Safety Billy Jenkins gave a bye-bye wave to Trent Dilfer, the Bucs' former starting quarterback, now injured and not even in uniform. Dilfer pushed back, and a brawl ensued.

"They're a bunch of punks," Bucs offensive guard Frank Middleton said in the locker room. "[Rams coach] Dick Vermeil is a great coach and I'd love to play for him, but, for some reason, he has a bunch of guys with no class on his team. I hate them all. They don't know how to win, waving stuff and taunting and all that. I hope they lose the Super Bowl."

They probably will if they come in as blatantly overconfident as they were yesterday.

Oh, sure, they denied looking past the offense-starved Bucs after their crushing defeat of the Vikings the prior week. But they gave themselves away during the week of practice leading up to yesterday. Quarterback Kurt Warner said the Rams' offense couldn't be stopped. Vermeil said the team had no weaknesses. Receiver Isaac Bruce said the Bucs' defensive backs couldn't cover.

This was a team already celebrating. A team that was stunned when the Bucs didn't just roll over and go quietly, as had the Vikings.

"You would think, if they'd watched any film, that they knew we could play some de fense," said Warren Sapp, the Bucs' All-Pro defensive tackle.

If they didn't know before, they do now. The Bucs' brilliant defense held Warner's "unstoppable" offense to one field goal for 55 minutes, then lapsed just long enough for Warner to hit receiver Ricky Proehl on a 30-yard pass for the game's only touchdown.

Warner deserves credit for hanging tough and making a game-winning play after throwing three interceptions, but there's no doubt the Rams were more relieved than happy after finding themselves behind for most of the second half.

They knew they were lucky to win on a day when their offense was slam-dunked for the first time all season, outplayed by a defense that flew to the ball, shut down Marshall Faulk and Bruce and almost pulled off the upset.

"Stopping the `best offense since sliced bread' is a small, small consolation," Sapp said with a smile. "That's why it really hurts. We did what we wanted to do and still lost. The game came down to one play, and to [the Rams'] credit, they made it."

Even then, the Rams still needed a huge break in the final minute to hang on, as an instant-replay fiasco blunted the Bucs' final drive.

Facing second-and-23 at the Rams' 35, Bucs quarterback Shaun King apparently completed a 12-yard pass to receiver Bert Emanuel. But even though instant replays from several angles seemed to indicate that the catch was valid, the replay official in the upstairs booth, Jerry Markbreit, called for a review, and the official on the field, Bill Carollo, overturned the call, ruling the pass incomplete.

Instead of having at least two downs to get a touchdown pass from 23 yards out -- a reasonable possibility -- the Bucs were backed up and out of hope.

"I didn't even know they were reviewing it until the official told me it was overturned," Emanuel said. "It just seemed so crazy to me. That was one catch that seemed like it was above being reviewed. Just look at the tape. I caught the ball. There's no doubt."

Carollo told a pool reporter "the tip of the ball hit the ground," and "by rule, you can't have assistance from the ground to make a catch."

Just watch: The league will admit a mistake on this one, as it occasionally does on dubious high-profile calls.

Not that the Bucs were whining after the game.

"Right or wrong, that call didn't cost us the game," Sapp said. "We had so many opportunities to put the Rams away before that, and we didn't."

True enough. The Bucs generated just a field goal out of four drives that started in Rams territory. They intercepted three passes, caused two fumbles, watched the sloppy Rams commit seven penalties and miss a field-goal attempt -- and still scored just six points.

"We have to get better to win games like this," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said.

That reality hit hard when King's last two passes fell incomplete and Rams began celebrating. That's when the trouble started.

"When you have to be a bad winner like that, that's a bunch of trash," Middleton said. "If you have to do that stuff, you're not much of a man."

In reality, a majority of the Rams were gracious, complimenting the Bucs and confessing relief.

"I have never played against a defense so tough," Bruce said.

Too bad a few bad actors ruined the scene.

It was the end of an out-of-character week for the Rams, who had previously reacted to their surprising success with humor and humility.

But having to sweat so hard when they expected to roll might help them in the end, bringing them back to reality just in time for the Super Bowl. They probably won't be so overconfident again, knowing how lucky they were even to have a chance to celebrate yesterday.

Maybe they'll celebrate the right way if they get another chance.

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